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Abramoff Pleads Guilty and Agrees to Cooperate in Probe

January 3, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: Former super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s fall from grace was fully realized today. Shortly after noon he left federal court in Washington wearing a black hat, having pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion.

In return for his guilty plea, Abramoff agreed to cooperate in an ongoing investigation of possible corruption by members of Congress and their aides. Abramoff admitted he provided numerous gifts to a congressman identified in press accounts as Ohio Republican Bob Ney, including campaign contributions, free meals at Abramoff’s downtown restaurant, tickets to sporting events and a golfing trip to Scotland.

In return, the indictment alleges, that congressman performed official acts benefiting Abramoff and his clients. Explaining today’s plea agreement, Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher gave some examples of those acts.

ALICE FISHER: Abramoff had a congressman insert statements in the Congressional Record, had a congressman endorse a wireless telephone contract for the House of Representatives, had a congressman agree to seek passage of legislation to help Abramoff’s clients. Government officials and government action are not for sale.

KWAME HOLMAN: Rep. Ney maintained his innocence in a statement released today, saying: “I obviously did not know and had no way of knowing the self-serving and fraudulent nature of Abramoff’s activities.”

It’s reported that the activities of multiple members of Congress and their aides may be part of the 18-month-long investigation. One is former House Majority Leader Tom Delay, who also took an Abramoff-funded golfing trip to Scotland in 2000. Delay is one of more than 200 members of Congress to receive political contributions from Abramoff, his lobbying associates or his clients between 2001 and 2004.

According to today’s agreement, Abramoff also admitted to conspiring with his colleague Michael Scanlon, a former aide to Tom Delay, to defraud their clients, several American Indian tribes, of millions of dollars. Scanlon is one of three Abramoff associates also to have been indicted. He pleaded guilty in November.

Abramoff himself also has been charged with wire fraud in a separate case involving a fleet of floating casinos in Florida.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: And joining us for more on today’s plea agreement, what’s behind it, and where it may lead, are two reporters who have been covering the mushrooming Abramoff scandal: James Grimaldi of The Washington Post and Eamon Javers of BusinessWeek.

Welcome to you both.

MARGARET WARNER: Eamon, you were in the courtroom today when Abramoff pled guilty. Give us a flavor of it.

EAMON JAVERS: Well, these things, Margaret, are kind of scripted affairs. I mean, everybody sort of knew what they were there to do today and they did the job. Many of them were actually reading off sheets of paper including the judge, Abramoff’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, and representatives of the government.

So everybody knew what was going to happen but the whole thing took about 35 minutes. Jack Abramoff walked in and seemed pretty soft spoken, I mean, given the allegations that we’ve heard and some of the mockery that’s already come out today of the outfit that he wore to the courtroom today.

MARGARET WARNER: The black hat, the black trench coat.

EAMON JAVERS: Some people saying he looked like a Mafiosi, you know, his favorite movie is “The Godfather.”

But that wasn’t the character that was on display tonight. This was a guy who was very soft spoken, made a fairly lengthy apology at the end of the proceedings and really kept his remarks to sort of, yes, Your Honor, no, Your Honor, and only deviated from that script one or two times.

MARGARET WARNER: And there were lots of reporters waiting outside the courtroom for what is usually the inevitable press conference by the lawyer. Nothing happened.

EAMON JAVERS: We didn’t get it. A lot of the speculation of what’s going on today, I mean this is a pretty lengthy document, this criminal information that they put out today, but there’s not a lot here in terms of the government tipping its hand on what else it might have other than some of the stuff we already knew, as you said in the setup piece about Congressman Bob Ney, et cetera.

So it just alludes tantalizingly here for those of us who cover this to other public officials and their families. That’s public officials, plural, but we don’t know how many; we don’t know who and we don’t know what’s coming next.

MARGARET WARNER: So, James Grimaldi, let’s go to the most explosive charge, which is of course that Abramoff admits that he corrupted public officials.

And as Kwame’s piece said and Eamon just mentioned, the only one really mentioned by reference is Congressman Bob Ney. Bob Ney’s denied he did anything wrong.

How hard is the evidence that the government has in terms of that there really was a quid for the quo or a quo for the quid?

JAMES GRIMALDI: Well, you have got a third person actually with Jack Abramoff who has agreed to cooperate with the prosecutors in the case against Representative One who we know to be Bob Ney.

There were already two other plea agreements with two other business partners of Abramoff. And both of those gentlemen have said that they would testify against Congressman Ney if there was a trial.

We know that there were three separate occasions in which Congressman Ney allegedly performed particular activities for Jack Abramoff and his clients.

But, Margaret, I should point out the charging documents today also talk about two congressional aides who we have written about but have not been widely written about who are named as Staffer A and Staffer B. And there are pending allegations now, according to these documents, against these staffers.

One of those staffers was a deputy to Congressman Tom Delay And you should expect that there should be some movement there. The question would be: Are the prosecutors building a step stone — a stepladder case that would go from Jack Abramoff to this staffer and then on to perhaps Congressman Delay or some other congressman in an ongoing and, as they said, rapidly moving corruption investigation?

MARGARET WARNER: In fact, Eamon, congressional aides are mentioned. This is one new thing –

EAMON JAVERS: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: — from the Scanlon criminal information. They seem to have been an integral part, an integral cog of the scheme that Abramoff is now confessing to.

EAMON JAVERS: Well, this is sort of all part of the culture of day-to-day lobbying in Washington. These guys are people who are young staffers frequently when they first come to Capitol Hill. They all hang out — in the case of the Republicans — they all hang together at the Capital Grill on Pennsylvania Avenue drinking beer, lobbyists pick up the tab.

You get to be friends with some of these lobbyists if you’re a Hill staffer. And, lo and behold over time they start asking for favors. In the case of Staffer A and Staffer B, who are listed in this document today, I’ve talked to a number of former Abramoff associates today who say that’s probably Tony Rudy who was the deputy chief of staff to Tom Delay and also Neal Vols who worked for Mr. Ney. These guys are going to face a possible situation themselves in terms of government action because they were in this culture where Jack and other lobbyists would ask for favors.

MARGARET WARNER: But is it fair to say, James, that in — the bribery is hard to prove. And that there have to be enough witnesses either to the bribery or some kind of paper trail that really establishes — because these members say, of course, I took a — I went to the basketball game. That doesn’t mean that that’s why I voted this way on that bill.

JAMES GRIMALDI: Well I think you’re going to see a pretty extensive paper trail. We know that there are thousands of e-mails and Jack Abramoff was a voracious writer of e-mails. And we know that now we’re going to have his testimony to explain what the e-mails mean as well as two other witnesses who have agreed to cooperate.

I think I would differ a little bit with Eamon in the fact that this is maybe a part of a culture but in the case of Staffer A, who we have written about and we believe to be Tony Rudy –

MARGARET WARNER: That’s the Tom Delay staffer.

JAMES GRIMALDI: The Tom Delay staffer. His wife was hired and paid $50,000 through a nonprofit all as part of a story that we wrote last fall describing a vote that Tom Delay cast and a bill that Jack Abramoff wanted to kill on behalf of his gambling company clients. What you saw there, I think the allegation will be, that was a form of a conspiracy to bribe an official.

Now, I will point out that that particular person, Tony Rudy and Lisa Rudy, say that services were performed to that nonprofit that received the money from the Abramoff client and that it was in preparation and planning for a seminar that was put on in Washington.

So you’re right that you’ve got to prove and have some witness testimony like a Jack Abramoff and others in order to bolster any e-mail or any payments that might come up, any check receipts, because there will be a defense for the people going forward.

But, as you saw in this case, well, one of the amazing things we learned today was that Jack Abramoff has been cooperating for 18 months, which is just a few months after the first story about his lobbying operation appeared in The Washington Post, back in 2004.

MARGARET WARNER: So Eamon, that raises the question: Why though this criminal information refers to public officials in the plural, why there is no other lawmaker mentioned by inference, not Tom Delay, not anyone else.

EAMON JAVERS: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: What does that tell you about the prosecution’s strategy here?

EAMON JAVERS: Well, I’ve talked with some people today who are familiar with how these things are put together. And I’m told that in a case like this the government doesn’t really have to show all of its cards and in fact might not want to simply because they haven’t issue target letters, the official notification that you’re under the scrutiny of the FBI, to members of Congress who might also be involved, other staffers.

And they don’t want to tip off those members that they’re looking at their activities over the past who knows how many years, so part of this might be that they’re just keeping their cards close to their vest here and they don’t want to alert anybody that they’re under the microscope.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that, James?

JAMES GRIMALDI: Well, I think that’s right. You need to also gain cooperation from some of these other staffers and some of the other people out there. And it is, as we’ve been told, an ongoing investigation but we’ve reported in the past that Mr. Delay is under investigation for his overseas trips, that John Doolittle, a congressman from California is under investigation, and Sen. Conrad Burns, a senator from Montana, is also under scrutiny by this task force, so I think you’re going to see that many of these issues will be resolved probably rapidly in coming months.

But that’s correct; you don’t want to necessarily tip your hand before you’re ready to make your play.

MARGARET WARNER: And so I’ll ask both of you. James, quickly, how many lawmakers from the people you’re talking to in this investigation really are being looked at seriously? Everyone keeps using this figure 20. Eamon mentioned 60 last time you all had that conversation.

JAMES GRIMALDI: Well, I think it’s closer to half a dozen, Margaret, in terms of lawmakers and probably at least another six congressional aides. But don’t forget we have the former number 2 official in the Department of Interior who is under scrutiny as well as some agency officials.

MARGARET WARNER: And what would you add to that?

EAMON JAVERS: Well, I would add that we just don’t know. I mean, Number 60 I said comes from just one source who’s familiar with this. But it is only one source, and you have to take that for what it is. You know, we’re hearing numbers like 20 and 12 and things like that. But we just don’t know. We didn’t find out in this document today.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think there are people also in the executive branch being looked at?

EAMON JAVERS: Oh, well clearly there already have been people in the executive branch being looked at. There are clearly some other people out there who have had Abramoff associations who are working elsewhere in government. But you know, what we don’t know is who exactly is being looked at here.

MARGARET WARNER: And, James, just to explain, the executive branch was particularly important because the way Abramoff got all this money to lavishly spend around was by — the indictment says or the information says — defrauding all these Indian tribes who were his clients. And they needed licenses from the Interior Department.

JAMES GRIMALDI: That’s right. The Interior Department would recognize tribes, and that would allow the tribes to open casinos. That was very important. And there was some lobbying work that was done, but what you’re seeing in this indictment is — or this plea agreement as well — is that Jack Abramoff also had a secret kickback scheme with Michael Scanlon, tax evasion as well. So it is a pretty complicated issue.

Don’t forget, the top procurement official at the White House has also been indicted in this case.

MARGARET WARNER: And how good a deal, Eamon, is Abramoff getting in return for promising to cooperate?

EAMON JAVERS: Well, that’s what some of the reporters in the room we were talking about on the way out after that — you know, this is a case where Jack Abramoff hypothetically possibly is facing as much as 30 years in prison, $25 million in restitution of the money involved here. After the thing broke up, people were saying, well, if that’s the good deal, what were they threatening him with? I mean that’s a lot of years.

Now, clearly the prosecutors have the discretion to ratchet down the time based on how well they feel he cooperates. So right now, from this day forward, his fate is really in the hands of government prosecutors here who are going to decide how good of a witness was he really, and that’s going to be where the final number comes from.

MARGARET WARNER: Because didn’t the assistant attorney general, Ms. Fisher, mention something about nine and a half to eleven years? That was the –

EAMON JAVERS: Right. But, again, in talking to people today who are familiar with how these things are done there really is no ultimate guarantee. And the judge in the case was very clear not to put a guarantee on it today.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, James, briefly if you will, the squeeze continues on Abramoff.

JAMES GRIMALDI: That’s right. He really does need to cooperate in order to get that deal. He has five children. He’s out of money. He needs to have a sentence that would be closer to ten years, which would be a pretty good deal.

Remember, the 30 years is only for the charges leveled against him. He’s also going to have to give restitution of $25 million plus another $1.7 million for the taxes that he evaded.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. James Grimaldi, Eamon Javers, thank you so much.

EAMON JAVERS: Thank you.

JAMES GRIMALDI: Thank you.