US: Lobbyist Pleads Guilty in Florida; Second Plea in 2 Days

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

A day after he pleaded guilty to three felony counts in Washington, Jack Abramoff, a once prominent Republican lobbyist, pleaded guilty today to two felony charges of conspiracy and fraud in a case stemming from his purchase of a casino boat line in 2000.

Wearing a light-colored baseball cap and a dark suit, Mr. Abramoff entered a courtroom here trailed by about 100 news media cameras, and told United States District Court Judge Paul Huck that he was guilty of conspiring to commit wire fraud and mail fraud, and of a separate charge of wire fraud.

The judge set sentencing for March 16.

Mr. Abramoff's appearance in court here came a day after he instantly became the star witness in a sweeping federal investigation into public corruption in Washington when he pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials as part of a settlement with federal prosecutors. The inquiry could involve as many as a dozen lawmakers, people involved in the case said.

In the chilly weather of Washington on Tuesday, Mr. Abramoff, 46, wore a black fedora and a trenchcoat, but he appeared contrite and subdued both there and in the balmy setting today in Miami, where his lawyers said he was suffering from a knee injury.

He was in the Miami courtroom for about 25 minutes, and was then scheduled to go across the street for a meeting on his bond; but one of his lawyers, Neal Sonnett, asked the judge to postpone that meeting so that he could avoid the throng of reporters outside. "I don't know if you know what the outside of the courthouse looks like," Mr. Sonnett told the judge, "but Mr. Abramoff almost got knocked over this morning as we were coming in."

The judge cleared the courtroom of reporters and met with the defendant and lawyers involved in the case after they left.

Prosecutors in the Miami case are accusing Mr. Abramoff of faking documents to get a $60 million loan to buy a fleet of gambling ships in 2000. Four other charges were dropped under a plea agreement that calls for a six- or seven-year prison sentence.

Mr. Abramoff had been scheduled to stand trial in the Florida case next Monday, and the all-encompassing plea agreement with Justice Department prosecutors means that the Miami sentence can be served concurrently with the Washington sentence.

In the Washington case, Mr. Abramoff accepted a recommended reduced prison sentence of about 10 years in exchange for testifying against former associates in the influence-peddling case. The agreement also requires Mr. Abramoff to pay more than $26 million in tax penalties and restitution to former clients, although he has told associates he is broke.

How much time Mr. Abramoff will spend in prison will be determined later, after he has fulfilled most of his obligation to help investigators.

The corruption inquiry involving Mr. Abramoff, potentially one of the most explosive in Congressional history, has expanded in recent months to encompass dozens of political operatives, including former Congressional aides and lobbyists suspected of arranging bribes in exchange for legislative work, participants in the case said.

His testimony, coupled with that of Michael Scanlon, a former Abramoff business associate who pleaded guilty in November, reaches into the executive and legislative branches and appears to be drawing an ever-tighter ring of evidence around the former House Republican majority leader, Tom DeLay, and other senior Congressional Republicans.

On Tuesday, he stood hunched in front of a Federal District Court judge, his eyes downcast as the plea deal was announced. He bore little resemblance to the brash operative who in hundreds of e-mails messages obtained by prosecutors once boasted about his financial kickbacks, referring to them as a "gimme five" scheme.

Instead, in front of Judge Ellen Huvelle, Mr. Abramoff confessed to making "a multitude of mistakes" during a decade or so of lobbying work. In a soft, grainy voice, he pleaded guilty to defrauding at least four Indian tribes of tens of millions of dollars, enticing government officials with bribes and evading taxes.

"All of my remaining days, I will feel tremendous sadness and regret for my conduct and for what I have done," Mr. Abramoff said. Emerging from the courthouse into a light drizzle wearing a black fedora, he slipped into a waiting car and was driven away. Mr. DeLay, who has taken in thousands in campaign donations from Mr. Abramoff and accompanied the lobbyist on a lavish golf trip to Scotland in 2000, has denied any wrongdoing. Richard Cullen, a former United States attorney representing Mr. DeLay, said his client "is confident that when the Department of Justice completes its investigation and gets to the bottom of this that they will conclude that he did nothing wrong." No lawmaker has been charged in the case.

Court documents filed Tuesday gave a snapshot of what Mr. Abramoff has been telling investigators during their plea negotiations over the last year and a half.

In one instance cited in court documents, Mr. Abramoff directed favors to a senior DeLay staff member - referred to in documents as "Staffer A," but identified by lawyers as Tony C. Rudy, now a Republican lobbyist. Those favors came in the form of payments to Mr. Rudy's wife, Lisa. Mr. Abramoff paid $50,000 to Lisa Rudy through a charity organization in exchange for her husband's "agreement to perform a series of official acts," the plea agreement said.

"Abramoff, Scanlon and others engaged in a course of conduct through which one or both of them offered and provided a stream of things of value to public officials in exchange for a series of official acts and influence," the agreement states.

Also mentioned in the plea agreement was a "Representative No. 1" who, along with members of his staff, accepted gifts, travel and free meals at Mr. Abramoff's restaurant, Signatures, in exchange for legislative help, including inserting a comment into the Congressional Record designed to help Mr. Abramoff with a business deal.

Representative Bob Ney, Republican of Ohio, was identified as this figure after court documents were filed in connection with Mr. Scanlon's plea deal. Although Mr. Ney did not deny his association with Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Scanlon on Tuesday, he insisted, as he has in the past, that he was tricked by the two men into doing work on behalf of their lobbying clients.

According to people involved in the case, Mr. Ney's former chief of staff, Neil Volz, is referred to in the documents as "Staffer B," and is accused in the paperwork of violating the one-year lobbying ban after leaving Mr. Ney's office before beginning to lobby his former boss again. Lawyers for Mr. Rudy and Mr. Volz did not return calls seeking comment.

Mr. Abramoff helped funnel more than $1.5 million in campaign donations to hundreds of elected officials, more than half of them Republican, since 2000, according to analyses of his work. As prosecutors threatened to indict him - and ultimately, late Monday night, worked out a negotiated settlement after weeks of intense wrangling - the government's lawyers argued that Mr. Abramoff had gone past the routine business of campaign fund-raising and political glad-handing into the realm of bribery. Or, as Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher put it on Tuesday, Mr. Abramoff "went far beyond lawful lobbying."

Mr. Abramoff has been in talks with prosecutors for some 18 months, his lawyer in Washington, Abbe D. Lowell, said. According to people involved in the case, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because the broader investigation is continuing, Mr. Abramoff at times offered guidance to investigators as they pursued other targets.

According to participants in the case, he has shared information about David H. Safavian, a former Bush administration official indicted last year, and Tim Flanigan, the Tyco executive who withdrew his nomination as the second-in-command at the Justice Department after his ties to Mr. Abramoff came into question.

Tyco is also mentioned, although not by name, in the plea agreement. According to the court document, Mr. Abramoff sent a business proposal to "Company A," a manufacturing and services company identified by participants as Tyco. Mr. Abramoff "falsely advised" the company about the grass-roots company that he suggested they hire, and which in turn kicked back huge sums to Mr. Abramoff.

Mr. Abramoff told Tyco "that he was negotiating on their behalf" to try to save them money "when in fact he was simply setting a high price on services that he controlled and from which he would profit."

The publicly released court documents, followed by the Justice Department's news conference about the case, were designed as a "shot across the bow" to other potential suspects in the inquiry, a person involved said.

"With most cases, the plea is the end, but with Abramoff, the plea is just the beginning," said an F.B.I. official who spoke on condition of anonymity, adding, "This one has legs."

Maria Newman contributed reporting from New York for this article, and Eric Lichtblau and Carl Hulse contributed reporting from Washington.

AMP Section Name:Corruption
  • 106 Money & Politics