by Rick Anderson & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & U & lt;/span & ntil now, all the Democrats had going for them entering the 2006 election cycle was a boggling array of colossal George Bush mistakes, including disaster-relief failures, domestic spying accusations, sputtering economic policies, a mishmash of corruption and an unjustified war. But being Democrats, they needed more help.
It has arrived, thanks to the prison-bound alumni from the Seattle-based Preston Gates Ellis law and lobbying firm, where the law breaking began. The little Gang That Couldn't Loot Straight, led by fallen super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, wasn't satisfied with mere riches from the ordinary and often allowable D.C. corruption through quid pro quo. Abramoff and fellow Preston Gates Ellis grad Michael Scanlon have now both plea-bargained felony charges, conceding that they turned Republican backroom deal-making into a political shakedown too grandiose even for Washington.
A third Preston Gates Ellis grad, Bush appointee David Safavian, ex-chief of staff of the General Services Administration, is accused of lying and obstructing a criminal investigation into Abramoff's attempts to buy government land, and he was involved in one of Abramoff's corrupt overseas junkets. Safavian is likely now being squeezed to cooperate in the Justice Department's Lobbygate probe, rumored to be targeting more than a dozen congressional members and staffers.
As a result, last week the liberal interest group Campaign for America's Future launched national ads focused on Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney, with whom, according to the plea agreement, Abramoff engaged in corrupt conduct dating back to his days at Preston Gates Ellis. "Looks like we're going to do [Rep. Tom] DeLay ads, too," says the group's spokesman, Toby Chaudhuri. "The Ney ads will link him to the bribery investigation ... the worst corruption scandal to hit Washington since Watergate." By agreeing to flip on what are thought to be mostly Republican co-conspirators, Abramoff, who raised $100,000 for the 2004 Bush campaign, has virtually absconded to the enemy's camp. Welcome to campaign 2006.
Preston Gates Ellis, which also has offices in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, is saying little about Scanlon or Abramoff, its former cash-cow lobbying star: "This is an ongoing official investigation," says Jonathan Blank, managing partner of Preston Gates Ellis' D.C. office, in a statement, "and we continue to assist all investigations, as we have previously." A Preston Gates Ellis spokesperson told The Seattle Times that none of Abramoff's crimes were committed while he worked for the firm. But in his 29-page Jan. 3 plea agreement confessing to conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion, Abramoff admitted that beginning at least in 1997 (his fourth of seven years at Preston Gates Ellis), he and Scanlon and others "engaged in a course of conduct through which [they] offered a stream of things of value to public officials in exchange for a series of official acts and influence ... [including] agreements to support and pass legislation." It was those and other acts that led to the criminal charges.
No Scam Too Small & r & First at Preston Gates Ellis, where he worked until the end of 2000, and then, starting in 2001, at Greenberg Traurig, a Miami-based lobbying firm, as well as independently with Scanlon, Abramoff dangled an array of global jaunts, entertainment perks, campaign cash and even potential rigged elections to an ever-wider array of politicians while constantly upping the hidden charges on his lobbying and consulting clients. He also washed money through assorted charities. Though he and Scanlon ultimately pocketed tens of millions in ill-got "moolah," as Abramoff called it, no opportunity was too small or arcane: One of Abramoff's admitted crimes during the period he worked at Preston Gates Ellis was bribing Tony Rudy, a staffer of DeLay, who was then the House majority whip, to help head off a postal rate increase and Internet gambling legislation. The clients are not named in the indictment. However, federal lobbying records filed by Preston Gates Ellis show the firm was paid $520,000 in 2000 by Magazine Publishers of America to seek a postal rate reduction in Congress. Abramoff is listed as the client's lobbyist. He is also listed as the lobbyist for eLottery, which paid Preston Gates $440,000 in 2000 to lobby against the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act.
As reported last year, Abramoff was washing some related money through the coffers of Toward Tradition, the Mercer Island charity founded in part by Abramoff. Court papers indicate eLottery and the publishers each gave $25,000 to the charity that was then used to pay a salary to Rudy's wife, Lisa. In 2000, she organized a D.C. conference for Toward Tradition. The charity's head, conservative rabbi and Seattle talk-show host Daniel Lapin, last week confirmed to The Seattle Times that the money passed through the charity. In a memo to charity board members, Lapin said he had "innocently" hired her and didn't know the money was part of Abramoff's corrupt schemes.
Attempting to winnow potentially lengthy prison terms down to a few seasons at Club Fed, Abramoff and Scanlon are expected to sing their way through the halls of Congress, calling out the names of those who aided them. The egregious reach of the scandal has penetrated so deeply into the Hill that even former GOP congressional leader and possible White House candidate Newt-Gingrich -- the man who paid $300,000 to settle his own disputable House ethics case -- is calling for reform.
Though the most talked-about charge, bribery, is also the most difficult to make, many politicos are quickly unloading any Abramoff-linked campaign donations. Bush is giving his $6,000 to charity (but keeping the $100,000 Abramoff raised for him from others). Some are even giving back money contributed by Abramoff's lobbying clients, particularly Native American casinos, although Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., for one, is hanging onto her nearly $45,000. She argues that there's no indication Abramoff steered the tribal donations to her. However, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is giving about $18,000 in out-of-state tribal donations to a charity.
Federal elections records show Abramoff did give money directly to two Washington federal politicians: $1,000 to then-Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane, and $1,000 in 1996-97 to Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco. Nethercutt has since left office and tried to unseat Murray. Now a D.C. lobbyist himself, Nethercutt recently gave his Abramoff money to a nonprofit. Hastings, currently chair of the cobwebbed offices of the House Ethics Committee, has not announced any refunds. Abramoff also gave $5,000 in 1997 to Preston Gates Ellis' political action committee, which supports a wide slate of Democrats and Republicans. Among two who received Preston Gates Ellis money that year was then-Rep. Rick White, a Republican, ($500) and Democrat Murray ($1,000). Murray has also received $9,500 from a Democratic lobbyist, Michael Smith, who worked with Abramoff after he left Preston Gates Ellis.
Gambling With Tribal Money & r & Among Lobbygate's usual suspects -- overwhelmingly House and Senate Republicans -- foremost on the apparent Justice Department hit list is Ney, who prosecutors say took favors from Abramoff and legislatively aided his clients and even Abramoff himself, who co-purchased a casino cruise ship company. Ney is not named but is clearly alluded to in one of two plea agreements signed by Abramoff on Jan. 3. (Abramoff also confessed to fraud and wiretapping in connection with the Miami cruise line purchase.)
Not named but, again, alluded to as "Firm A" in the D.C. plea agreement is Preston Gates Ellis & amp; Rouvelas Meeds, which is Preston Gates Ellis' D.C. lobbying arm. That's where ex-College Republicans leader and one-time action-film producer Abramoff, 47, got his lobbying start in 1994 and made some of the initial deals that led to the litany of criminal acts compiled in court papers. He hired Scanlon, a former assistant to recently indicted DeLay, who has stepped down as House majority leader. They teamed up to offer lobbying and consulting services that seemed to consist mostly of bilking Indian tribal casinos of their gambling profits.
At his D.C. plea-bargaining, Abramoff, an orthodox Jew who practiced conservative faith-based politics, showed up wearing a black hat, looking something like a character from an old gangster film. He told the court, "I hope I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty..." He apparently didn't get a pass, however, from Toward Tradition, the Mercer Island religious charity. His name has now been removed from the governing board.
Rick Anderson is a staff writer for Seattle Weekly, where this story first appeared.
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