Abramoff Plea Could Have Far-Reaching Implications

ByABC News
January 3, 2006, 4:01 PM

WASHINGTON, D.C., Jan. 3, 2006 — -- Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty plea today to charges of conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud has set in motion what many predict could become the biggest scandal involving money and politics in decades.

Abramoff's testimony, e-mails and other pieces of evidence could potentially become damaging evidence against a number of political heavyweights, including members of Congress, top aides and administration officials.

But beyond just exposing the corrupt behavior of a rogue lobbyist and possibly some lawmakers, some political analysts say the scandal could have broader implications and shed light on a system in which Republicans, in control of Congress over the last decade, pressured lobbying firms to give top positions to GOP loyalists, and then took contributions from those lobbyists and their clients to help solidify their own power even further.

"I believe it's much more widespread than people had thought, and thoroughly corrupt," says Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "It's part of a broader scheme that says, we're in power now, and to the victor go the spoils." Although the extent of Abramoff's dealings with lawmakers remains to be seen, today's guilty plea is likely to be especially bad news for Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who is believed to be "Representative No.1" in court documents charged with accepting "things of value," including a golf trip to Scotland, tickets to sporting events and regular meals at one of Abramoff's restaurants, in exchange for "official acts," such as agreeing to support legislation and put statements into the Congressional Record.

In a statement today, Ney maintained his innocence. "At the time I dealt with Jack Abramoff I obviously did not know, and had no way of knowing, the self-serving and fraudulent nature of Abramoff's activities," the statement said.

Abramoff also had close ties with former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and contributed to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. So far, at least 25 lawmakers have returned or donated campaign contributions they received from Abramoff.

Still, simply taking money from a lobbyist -- even a corrupt one -- is not illegal. "At the end of the day, they [prosecutors] have to prove a connection between the contribution and the activity," said Larry Noble, director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

In other words, prosecutors need to show a quid pro quo -- that a lawmaker took money in exchange for a specific act. That proof could potentially come from Abramoff's e-mails, from testimony from Abramoff or other staff present at meetings, or simply from the timeline surrounding a contribution and an action on the part of a lawmaker. Abramoff's own credibility will likely come under assault, however, as someone who has now pleaded guilty to a range of crimes, which could affect the value of his testimony.

In court today, Abramoff apologized for his actions.

"All of my remaining days, I will feel tremendous sadness and regret for my conduct and for what I have done," he said. "I only hope that I can merit forgiveness from the almighty and from those I have wronged or caused to suffer."

Whether or not any lawmakers wind up going to jail, the political effects of the scandal could be widespread. Although some Democrats may also wind up implicated, the majority of Abramoff's contributions and dealings were with Republicans. And Democrats have already made it clear they hope to run in 2006 on a national campaign of restoring checks and balances to government -- attacking what they call a "culture of corruption."

In the most recent ABC News poll, Democrats had increased their advantage over Republicans on the question of whom the public trusts to "handle ethics in government" -- leading 47 percent to 38 percent. Democrats also held a 42 to 34 percent advantage on "standing up to lobbyists and special interest groups."

Depending on its resonance, the scandal could affect presidential politics heading into 2008, with campaign finance reformers like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. -- both of them eyeing a run -- benefiting.