Speculation Surrounds Congressional
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Alice Fisher's pronouncement on
Jan. 3, 2005 -- following the indictment of Republican lobbyist
Jack Abramoff -- that "government officials and government
action are not for sale" brought to the public's eye a large-scale
Justice Department investigation focused on the alleged corruption
of Washington lawmakers.
Though few outside the department know the details of the case,
what is known is that along with his guilty plea on charges of
fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy, Abramoff became the key witness
in a widening probe into allegations that members of Congress
accepted money and other gifts from Abramoff and his associates
in exchange for votes.
The investigation threatens to ensnare several U.S. lawmakers
and their aides, rattle the Republican and, possibly, Democratic
parties and change the way lobbyists and lawmakers do business
lobbying does not include paying a public official a personal
benefit with the understanding -- explicit or implicit -- that
a certain official act will occur," Fisher said at the Abramoff
news conference. "That's not lobbying; that's a crime."
Fisher and her colleagues in the Public Integrity Division of
the Justice Department's criminal division are running the investigation.
Though she has only been in her position since August, colleagues
say if anyone is tough enough to bring down corrupt Washington
officials, it is the former criminal attorney, who previously
worked on the government's Whitewater Development investigation
during the Clinton administration.
"She's not some pushover; she's a tough lawyer," Eric
Bernthal, a former colleague of Fisher's, told the Wall Street
Before President Bush appointed her to head the criminal division
last year, Fisher, a native of Kentucky, served as the division's
second in command under then chief and current Homeland Security
Secretary Michael Chertoff. In that role, she helped set the Bush
administration's post-9/11 terrorism policy and earned her stripes
as an anti-corporate fraud proponent, overseeing the department's
Since then, Fisher has said the priority of the criminal division,
whose primary role is public corruption, election fraud and campaign
finance fraud, will be "ensuring the integrity of the government."
"The Justice Department will aggressively investigate and
prosecute these types of cases which have a devastating impact
on the public's trust of government. We will not shy away from
that responsibility no matter where the trail leads," Fisher
The origin of the corruption investigation dates back some 20
months according to most media reports, though Justice Department
officials will not confirm exactly when or why it began.
Many believe a probe into Abramoff's dealings with Indian tribes
with gambling operations shined a spotlight on the former Hollywood
producer turned K Street whiz.
In September 2004, Abramoff, a lobbyist for tribes with operations
in Mississippi, Louisiana, Michigan and Texas, refused to answer
Senate Indian Affairs Committee questions on allegations that
he and his partner Michael Scanlon, formerly a top aide to Rep.
Tom DeLay, R-Texas, fleeced the tribes out of millions, the Associated
The next year, a Miami federal grand jury indicted Abramoff and
his associate Adam Kidan on fraud charges. Though Abramoff pleaded
innocent to the charges, he later pleaded guilty to mail fraud,
conspiracy and tax evasion in a Washington federal court case
and to fraud and conspiracy charges in Florida.
Kidan and Scanlon separately pleaded guilty in the Washington
and Florida fraud cases, Scanlon to charges he tried to bribe
A third associate, David Safavian, formerly head of the White
House Office of Management and Budget, also was indicted on FBI
charges that he lied about his involvement with Abramoff.
reports surfaced about the indictments, members of Congress rushed
to distance themselves from the man who had helped fund so many
of their re-election efforts. Several congressmen immediately
returned or gave away campaign donations. House Speaker Dennis
Hastert, R-Ill., and DeLay said they would donate Abramoff contributions
to charity. And President Bush, for whom Abramoff had raised more
than $100,000, said he too would donate some $6,000 of the money.
While media reports speculate dozens of lawmakers and their aides
may face indictment -- a "gross exaggeration," according
to a spokesman for the Justice Department's criminal division
-- some news organizations quote anonymous sources within the
department who claim five key lawmakers and their staffers are
The five lawmakers -- Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mt., Byron Dorgan,
D-N.D., Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., And Reps. J.D.
Hayworth, R-Ariz., And Bob Ney, R-Ohio -- deny wrongdoing.
Reid denies ever meeting Abramoff. Burns has said he returned
all Abramoff contributions. Dorgan also said he has returned some
$67,000 in money donated from Indian tribes tied to Abramoff,
the Washington Times recently reported. And Ney, believed to be
the official named as Representative No. 1 in the Justice Department's
plea deal with Abramoff, has said he too donated some $6,500 in
The Justice Department has refused to confirm the names of any
officials under scrutiny.
"[I]n 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 issued target letters, the official notification
that you're under the scrutiny of the FBI, to members of Congress
who might also be involved," BusinessWeek's Eamon Javers
told the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on Jan. 3, 2006. "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."
The agency did say the case involves several federal agencies,
evidence of the scale and severity of the probe. How long the
investigation may continue, however, and when the public can expect
more indictments is "impossible to predict," a department
spokesman said. In the meantime, ripples in the Washington political
pool already are being felt.
DeLay has said he would not seek reelection as House majority
leader. In January 2006, Ney quit as chairman of the House Administration
Committee after government sources leaked his identity as Representative
No. 1. Both men say they expect to be cleared of suspicion as
the investigation moves forward.
Both Democrats and Republicans have announced competing bills
aimed at reforming lobbying practices. Each side has blamed the
other for what has been termed Washington's "culture of corruption"
as the Justice Department probe unfolds.