Slate's Politics: Who's Worried In Washington?

Slate chief political correspondent John Dickerson talks with Alex Chadwick about who in the nation's capital may be nervous following lobbyist Jack Abramoff's agreement to cooperate with federal prosecutors and testify about his illegal dealings with lawmakers and their staffs. Abramoff lavished luxury perks on scores of lawmakers and built a political alliance with high-ranking Republicans.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Also in Washington, the career of one of the city's most powerful lobbyists has come to an ignominious end in the last 24 hours. Jack Abramoff yesterday pleaded guilty to three federal counts of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. Yesterday on this program, we noted that some members of Congress are probably worried. Our friends at Slate magazine said, `No, they're in a panic.' John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate, wrote the piece that's up at slate.com.

John, are members of Congress and other politicians we're talking about in danger of actual criminal prosecution, and, if so, what for?

JOHN DICKERSON (Chief Political Correspondent, slate.com): Well, there's some that are in danger of criminal prosecution and those would be the ones who took the money, took the trips and then acted on behalf of the clients that Abramoff was representing. The bigger group, though, are the Republicans in control of Congress who are worried for the political fallout.

CHADWICK: What's so interesting about your column in Slate is that you run through a whole list of names, and these people are worried and this is why. Tom DeLay you start with, the former House majority leader.

DICKERSON: Tom DeLay is at the center of this scandal because he and Abramoff were quite close. And if you pick a name out of those who've been mentioned in this scandal, there's a pretty good chance it's going to be a former DeLay aide. And he went on several of these trips with Abramoff. And now DeLay, who's under indictment in Austin on a separate campaign finance charge--the prosecutor in that case has said yesterday he subpoenaed the documents from all of the Abramoff activities.

CHADWICK: Other members of Congress in your list, John, Representative Robert Ney, a Republican; Representative John Doolittle of California, also Republican; Conrad Burns, senator from Montana, a Republican; Byron Dorgan, senator from North Dakota. He's a Democrat, the only Democrat on the list. All these people got money from Jack Abramoff.

DICKERSON: That's right. They all got money and they then took actions that look suspicious when they got that money. Other lawmakers who haven't really been under scrutiny nevertheless got money from Abramoff, and some of them are giving it back. Speaker Denny Hastert, the House speaker, has given the money to charity. President Bush's re-election campaign has returned $6,000. In Washington right now, if you've got any Abramoff money, you're finding a way to get rid of it.

CHADWICK: I was fascinated to see in your list the names of not officeholders but political activists: Grover Norquist, who's been a guest on this program; Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, who's now running for lieutenant governor of Georgia. What have they got to do with this and what's their role here?

DICKERSON: Well, they each have different roles. Norquist received a lot of money from the same clients that Abramoff had. It starts to get complicated very quickly. Norquist then gave money to a group that was working in grassroots activities to stop gambling. Well, Abramoff represented gambling interests and he was using those grassroots groups to stop gambling of one group so that his gambling group could come in. Norquist has been looked at by both the Senate investigators and apparently by the Justice Department investigators. He hasn't been called. So he may be in the clear.

Ralph Reed is in a different and more difficult fix than Grover Norquist because he's running for office. And what happened with Ralph Reed is he ran some of these anti-gambling grassroots programs. He was the former executive director of the Christian Coalition, he has ties in that social conservative movement and he pushed for these anti-gambling grassroots activities on Abramoff's behalf, but it turns out Reed was doing it to create a clear path for those other gambling interests. Reed says he didn't know he was working on behalf of gambling interests, but there's some e-mails out there that he sent that suggests maybe he did know.

CHADWICK: John, did this come as a surprise to you?

DICKERSON: Yes, and no. We know this kind of backroom dealing goes on, and we write about it, and sometimes the public just yawns. But you just have to kind of shake your head at the absolutely brazen, cynical nature of what they were up to.

CHADWICK: Analysis and opinion from John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate.

John, thank you.

DICKERSON: Thank you.

CHADWICK: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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