Washington Once-powerful lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty today to federal charges of conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud, agreeing to cooperate in an influence-peddling investigation that threatens powerful members of Congress.
In a heavily scripted court appearance, Abramoff agreed with U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle when she said he had engaged in a conspiracy involving "corruption of public officials." The lobbyist also agreed when she said he and others had engaged in a scheme to provide campaign contributions, trips and other items "in exchange for certain official acts."
"Words will not ever be able to express my sorrow and my profound regret for all my actions and mistakes," Abramoff said, addressing the judge. "I hope I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and those I've wronged or caused to suffer."
To each of the three charges, Abramoff said, "I plead guilty, your honor." Huvelle and lawyers in the case referred to restitution possibly reaching $25 million in the case. As is typically the case in such pleadings, what happened in the courtroom today was arranged in advance between lawyers for the defendant and the prosecutors.
Abramoff faces 30 years in prison, and he will cooperate with federal prosecutors in a wide-ranging corruption investigation that is believed to be focusing on as many as 20 members of Congress and aides.
Abramoff's travels with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay are already under criminal investigation. The lobbyist's interactions with the Texas Republican's congressional office frequently came around the time of campaign donations, golf outings or other trips provided or arranged by Abramoff for DeLay and other lawmakers. In all, DeLay received at least $57,000 in political contributions from Abramoff, his lobbying associates or his tribal clients between 2001 and 2004.
Court papers released today also detailed lavish gifts and contributions that Abramoff gave an unnamed House member, identified elsewhere as Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Administration Committee, in return for Ney's agreement to use his office to aid Abramoff clients.
Ney's lawyer, Mark Tuohey, said today that the charges against Abramoff were "nothing new." He said they repeated information in the November plea agreement from Abramoff's lobbying partner, Michael Scanlon.
Abramoff also was expected to plead guilty in Florida to two of the six charges in a federal indictment, according to his lawyer there, Neal Sonnett. A change of plea hearing has been scheduled in Miami for Wednesday afternoon, Justice officials said.
Prosecutors say Abramoff and Scanlon conspired to defraud Indian tribes in Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi and Texas of millions of dollars. Abramoff reaped roughly $20 million in hidden profits from the scheme, according to the information. Scanlon pleaded guilty in November.
Abramoff and Scanlon also lavished a golf trip to Scotland and other things of value on Ney, the court document said. Ney has denied doing anything wrong.
The Bush administration's former chief procurement official, David H. Safavian, was charged this fall with making false statements and obstructing investigations into the 2002 golf outing. Safavian, former chief of staff of the General Services Administration, the government's procurement arm, has pleaded innocent to those charges.
Court documents also said Abramoff solicited $50,000 from a wireless telephone company and got Ney's agreement to push the company's application to install a wireless telephone infrastructure in the House of Representatives, a job Ney's committee would have overseen.
Pressure had been intensifying on Abramoff to strike a deal with prosecutors since another former partner, Adam Kidan, pleaded guilty earlier this month to fraud and conspiracy in connection with the 2000 SunCruz boat deal in Florida.
The continuing saga of Abramoff's legal problems has caused anxiety at high levels in Washington, in both the Republican and Democratic parties.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan could not say today whether Abramoff ever met President Bush. But when asked at the White House about this, the spokesman said that "what he is reportedly acknowledged doing is unacceptable and outrageous."
"If laws were broken, he must be held to account for what he did," McClellan said.
For months, prosecutors in Washington have focused on whether Abramoff defrauded his Indian tribal clients of millions of dollars and used improper influence on members of Congress.
In a five-year span ending in early 2004, tribes represented by the lobbyist contributed millions of dollars in casino income to congressional campaigns, often routing the money through political action committees for conservative lawmakers who opposed gambling.
Abramoff also provided trips, sports skybox fundraisers, golf fees, frequent meals, entertainment and jobs for lawmakers' relatives and aides.
In Florida, Abramoff and Kidan were indicted in August on charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and mail fraud in connection with their purchase of the SunCruz fleet for $147.5 million from Miami businessman Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis.
Prosecutors said the pair faked a $23 million wire transfer to make it appear that they were making a significant contribution of their own money into the deal. Based on that transfer, lenders Foothill Capital Corp. and Citadel Equity Fund Ltd. agreed to provide $60 million in financing for the purchase.
Kidan pleaded guilty Dec. 15 to one count of conspiracy and one count of wire fraud. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and up to $500,000 in fines at sentencing scheduled for March 1.
Scanlon agreed to cooperate in the SunCruz case as part of a plea agreement in a separate case with federal prosecutors in Washington. In that agreement, Scanlon admitted helping Kidan and Abramoff buy SunCruz, partly by persuading Ney to insert comments in the Congressional Record designed to pressure Boulis to sell.
Eds: Associated Press reporters Michael J. Sniffen and Pete Yost in Washington and Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this story.