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Scandal May Upset Rules of Enrichment in Congress

Lawmakers fear that the Abramoff case could widen the definition of an illegal contribution.

January 06, 2006|Richard B. Schmitt and Janet Hook | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — "Lawful lobbying does not include paying a public official a personal benefit with the understanding -- explicit or implicit -- that a certain official act will occur. That's not lobbying; that's a crime."

Alice Fisher, Justice Department official

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To many, the scandal surrounding fallen super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff has the ring of business as usual.

After all, it's no secret that lobbyists hoping to gain favorable treatment for their clients offer not only campaign contributions but favors. And some members of Congress accept both.

But Abramoff's agreement Tuesday to plead guilty to federal crimes and cooperate with prosecutors -- in what could be the farthest-reaching corruption scandal to hit Congress in a generation -- is focusing new attention on the rules of the influence-peddling game, and the line that separates the illegal from the merely unsavory.

That line, as it turns out, may be moving.

Traditionally, bribery cases involving public officials are among the most challenging for the government to crack. Prosecutors must prove that a lawmaker would not have taken a certain action if he or she did not receive the benefit that was given -- a so-called "quid pro quo."

That has left a hole for defense lawyers to argue that the largesse that was showered upon their clients did not influence their official actions. And some say the pressure on legislators to raise money to campaign for reelection has compromised their ties with lobbyists.

"You could argue that our entire system is one of organized bribery," said Randall D. Eliason, former chief of the public corruption section at the U.S. attorney's office in Washington. "People say, 'I got this huge contribution but it had nothing to do with the way I voted.' On some level, it is an elaborate charade."

At the same time, as some lobbyists have become more sophisticated in extending and concealing favors, the Justice Department is using aggressive new legal theories in corruption cases.

The strategy is directly reflected in the department's deal with Abramoff; among the three felonies he pleaded guilty to was a charge that the perks he lavished on lawmakers and their aides deprived the public of the honest services of a member of Congress. The crime is considered a sort of legal catchall that is easier to prove than outright bribery, and does not require proof of a quid pro quo.

The fear that prosecutors may be pursuing a broader definition of bribery is pervasive among lawmakers and lobbyists, and is part of the reason that concern about the fallout of the Abramoff investigation extends beyond those who may be directly implicated.

More than 200 current members of Congress took campaign contributions from Abramoff or his clients. He has privately boasted of having information on dozens of lawmakers, although only one, U.S. Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), is alluded to in the plea agreement.

For many other members of Congress whose names have surfaced in the scandal, the magnitude of favors given and received varies -- from cases with suspiciously close connections to those with easy, routine business explanations.

In many cases, lawmakers say that their actions on behalf of Abramoff's Indian tribe clients is in keeping with their responsibilities to constituents. Several recipients of tribal donations come from states with large populations of Native Americans -- like Arizona, Montana and North Dakota.

But some lawmakers have raised eyebrows by acting to specifically benefit Abramoff clients with no apparent link to their regions or responsibilities. Many are now scrambling to return the Abramoff money they got, or to give it to charity.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) has had multiple ties to Abramoff and his clients. He received $150,000 in campaign contributions from them. Burns' chief of staff flew to the 2001 Super Bowl on a jet owned by Abramoff's SunCruz floating casino firm, and Abramoff later hired him.

Burns used his position as chairman of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee to secure $3 million for one of Abramoff's tribal clients for a school in Michigan. Democratic critics said the action was payback, but Burns said he put the money in because Michigan's two Democratic senators had asked him too. He has documented that claim.

But a spokesman for Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said that was just one of several home-state projects they were seeking.

To prove bribery, prosecutors would have to show that Burns acted because of Abramoff, not the Michigan senators.

Similarly, the challenge for prosecutors, if Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is in their sights, is to show that he pushed causes favored by Abramoff in explicit exchange for the lavish trips and contributions the lobbyist gave him. DeLay has argued that he pushed Abramoff's pet causes -- such as blocking a minimum wage increase for the Northern Mariana Islands -- because it was in keeping with his conservative, pro-business ideology.

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