WASHINGTON — A former aide to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) pleaded guilty Friday in the influence-peddling scandal involving onetime lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- a sign that prosecutors are continuing to build a case that could ensnare lawmakers, including the former House majority leader.
Tony Rudy, DeLay's former deputy chief of staff, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Washington to one charge of conspiracy in connection with the scandal.
He admitted accepting cash and other gifts and favors while working in the leadership office as well as after leaving government to become a lobbyist.
Rudy, 39, is the second former DeLay aide to plead guilty to federal charges in connection with the corruption probe.
Rudy's agreement to cooperate with prosecutors follows a similar deal that Michael P.S. Scanlon, DeLay's former press secretary, struck in November. It indicates that the Justice Department is making headway in tunneling deeper into the congressional bribery scandal that the Abramoff case ignited.
Rudy's plea may signal further trouble for Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who was accused of accepting gifts from Abramoff and who appears to be mentioned -- albeit anonymously -- in Rudy's agreement with prosecutors.
Richard Cullen, a lawyer for DeLay, said Friday that he had supplied investigators with more than 100 e-mails from DeLay's congressional office as well as other information.
Cullen said that his client was innocent, and that he had been told several months ago that DeLay was not a target of the investigation. Some of the information Cullen supplied may have been used by prosecutors to force the former aides to the plea bargaining table.
"Tom DeLay has said for several months now that he has never taken an official position, never cast a vote, based on anything other than his strong, principled beliefs in Republican philosophy and conservative government," Cullen said. "A clear reading of the legal documents today indicates that there's nothing in there that is inconsistent with that."
Rudy's plea agreement offers another window into how Abramoff became deeply invested in congressional staffers, although it largely repeats information on questionable dealings that has previously surfaced, including documents laying out Abramoff's agreement to plead guilty to fraud and conspiracy charges in January.
In effect, Rudy admitted to being on Abramoff's payroll even before he left government to work for the lobbyist at his Washington law and lobbying firm, Greenberg Traurig.
Much of the money was funneled through a consulting firm that Rudy set up for his wife to provide consulting services. As part of the deal her husband struck with prosecutors, the government agreed not to prosecute Lisa Rudy in exchange for her cooperation in the continuing probe.
Rudy admitted to receiving a bounty of perks from Abramoff, including $86,000 in cash, tickets to sporting events, and golf trips. In return, Rudy acknowledged, he helped secure legislative action for Abramoff clients, including stalling Internet gambling legislation and tying up a postal rate increase.
The conspiracy continued after Rudy left his job on Capitol Hill in December 2000 to join forces with Abramoff, where he lavished gifts and trips on a member of Congress described in his plea agreement as "Representative 1." The activities match those of Ney.
Rudy admitted to being instrumental in arranging an August 2002 golf outing to Scotland for Ney and others. The trip, which has come to symbolize the scandal, included rounds on the storied Old Course at St. Andrew's as well as opportunities for "drinking and smoking Cubans," his plea agreement said.
The junket was unwittingly bankrolled by two clients of the Greenberg Traurig firm who were told by Rudy that the money was going to a youth-sports group that Abramoff had set up. Rudy also acknowledged that he falsely represented to the clients that DeLay had requested that they make the payments.
Court papers said Rudy admitted sending an e-mail inviting Ney and his then-chief of staff, Neil Volz, to go on the Scotland trip. Ney has contended that he thought the trip was a legitimate event paid for by a GOP policy group. Ney's lawyer, Mark Tuohey, said Friday that the congressman continued to maintain his innocence.
Rudy concealed the perks by failing to report many of the gifts and trips. House rules require disclosure of all gifts or travel and travel-related expenses totaling more than $285 from any source, according to the plea agreement. He also admitted violating conflict-of-interest rules by lobbying his former office within a year of leaving for the private sector.
The former staffer now faces as many as five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but his sentence is likely to be reduced because of an agreement he has made to cooperate with the Justice Department in the ongoing investigation. He entered his plea at a hearing before U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle.
"The American public loses when officials and lobbyists conspire to buy and sell influence in such a corrupt and brazen manner," Alice Fisher, assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's criminal division, said in a prepared statement. "By his admission in open court today, Mr. Rudy paints a picture of Washington which the American public and law enforcement will simply not tolerate."
Abramoff, who was sentenced Wednesday to 70 months in prison by a federal judge in Miami in connection with a separate fraud case, has also pleaded guilty to conspiracy and fraud charges in connection with his lobbying work in Washington but has yet to be sentenced on those charges.
Scanlon, DeLay's former spokesman, is also awaiting sentencing.