Abramoff Plea Reverberates Throughout Capitol Hill

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In the aftermath of the guilty plea of Jack Abramoff, Michele Norris talks to NPR's David Welna about those in Congress associated with the once-powerful Republican lobbyist — and whose political careers may now be in jeopardy.


And joining me now to talk about who in Congress may be looking for a good lawyer in light of today's developments is NPR's David Welna.

David, who in Congress is most likely to get snared by the Abramoff scandal?

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Well, Michele, I think this has the potential to snag some very big fish. For example, Ohio Republican Bob Ney, the so-called Representative Number One in the plea, is chairman of the House Administration Committee, sort of the mayor of the House side of Capitol Hill. Now Ney's the one who stuck that statement into the Congressional Record that we just heard about. He also went golfing in Scotland on Abramoff's tab. Ney put out a pretty defensive statement today saying that in his dealings with Abramoff, he, quote, "had no way of knowing the self-serving and fraudulent nature of Abramoff's activities."

But the member of Congress who by far took the most money from Abramoff is Texas Republican Tom DeLay, who was House majority leader until he was forced to step aside last fall after getting indicted in a campaign finance lawsuit. DeLay had been hoping to overturn that court case this month and get back to being majority leader, but I think the chances of that happening may have decreased considerably today with Abramoff's deal to tell all. And Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, who's been a DeLay protege, may also be regretting the $2,500 he took directly from Abramoff.

I think the key to understanding what's happened today is that Abramoff is likely to tell prosecutors just what he got in return for his political contributions--in other words, how much those contributions actually amounted to bribes.

NORRIS: And prosecutors will, no doubt, be looking at the money trail and looking closely at those contributions. Who else took significant amounts of money from Abramoff for his clients?

WELNA: Well, 25 members of Congress took at least $21,500 from Abramoff or from his clients, most of them Indian tribes; of them, only Republicans actually took money from Abramoff, congressmen such as California's John Doolittle and Oklahoma's Ernest Istook, and such senators at Montana's Conrad Burns, who recently said he wished Abramoff had never been born. There are also some prominent Democrats who took campaign contributions from Indian tribes Abramoff represented. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid got more than $30,000 from those tribes, though he got nothing directly from Abramoff himself.

NORRIS: Any indication that the scandal could reach into the White House?

WELNA: Well, President Bush did get more than a hundred thousand dollars from Abramoff for his re-election campaign, and this was after the president met with tribal leaders who were Abramoff's clients and after the White House blocked the construction of a casino by a rival tribe of one of Abramoff's clients. White House spokesman Scott McClellan was asked today about Abramoff, and he could not say whether the president had ever met him.

NORRIS: On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, many of the lawmakers are seeking re-election this November. What, if anything, are they doing to protect their reputations?

WELNA: Well, some are returning everything they got from Abramoff or the tribes that were his clients. Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan and Max Baucus last month returned all the money they've taken from such tribes. Their Republican colleague, Conrad Burns, who's facing a tough bid for re-election, either returned or gave away the $150,000 he took from Abramoff and those tribes. And some House Republicans are even returning money that they got from Tom DeLay's political action committees, even though Republican re-election campaign officials have so far not recommended returning any of that money.

NORRIS: Thank you, David.

WELNA: You're welcome, Michele.

NORRIS: NPR's David Welna.

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