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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today the lobbyist at the center of a scandal that has been growing for more than a year admitted to the corruption of public officials. Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion. His plea puts him on the prosecutor's side, and he's expected to cooperate in an investigation targeting as many as 20 members of Congress. In this part of the program we'll hear about who some of those members may be and about some of the ways Abramoff may be linked to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. First, we hear about today's charges and the guilty plea from NPR's Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher today described the manipulations of money and power that Abramoff mastered over the last 10 years.

Ms. ALICE FISHER (Assistant Attorney General): Abramoff was so bold as to take fees to assist one client when he was actually working for another client to defeat the first client's interests.

SHAPIRO: That crime had to do with Indian tribes, who were clients of Abramoff's lobbying firm. Today he also pleaded guilty to charges related to bribing government officials. Fisher said he gave politicians foreign trips, campaign contributions and free meals.

Ms. FISHER: Abramoff had a congressman insert statements in the Congressional Record; had a congressman endorse a wireless telephone contract for the House of Representatives; had a congressman agree to seek passage of legislation to help Abramoff's clients.

SHAPIRO: A judge could sentence Abramoff to 30 years in prison, but prosecutors plan to recommend no more than 11 years. A money trail extends outward from Abramoff to business interests, lobbying firms, Hill staffers and perhaps most importantly high-ranking members of the federal government. As of today, it's official: Abramoff is cooperating with the prosecution. Former federal prosecutor Josh Berman says that changes the game entirely.

Mr. JOSH BERMAN (Former Federal Prosecutor): You're going to have folks on the Hill who should be scrambling for attorneys and figuring out what they said and what they didn't. By the same token, now the government has the ultimate witness, someone who they could put on the stand for literally days, who's prepared to point fingers if necessary.

SHAPIRO: Public reports have said prosecutors have as many as a dozen names of people who may become targets of this investigation. Berman, who worked in the Justice Department's Public Integrity section, which is heading this prosecution, says a dozen seems like a low number to him.

Mr. BERMAN: You have to think about Abramoff's career and look just what's charged in the information to which he pleaded earlier today, and they're talking about '94 essentially through 2004, 10 years of contact. I mean, there's certainly a lot more than a dozen staffers and Congress folks that he talked to in those 10 years.

SHAPIRO: Only one public official is individually cited in this plea agreement. He's referred to as Representative Number One. That person's been identified in other documents as Ohio Republican Congressman Bob Ney. The Justice Department wouldn't discuss politicians by name today, but they said they'd pursue the investigation wherever it leads and name names at the appropriate time.

When Abramoff entered his guilty plea in court, he told the judge, `Words will not be able to ever express how sorry I am for this, and I have profound regret and sorrow for the multitude of mistakes and harm I have caused.' Abramoff's lawyers said his first discussions with prosecutors took place 18 months ago. Tomorrow he's scheduled to appear in court in Miami to plead guilty to another set of charges there related to his purchase of a casino boat company.

Now the focus is on the public officials who may be next in line for prosecutors. Stan Brandt is a criminal defense lawyer who's represented clients in ethics cases. He has a hard time imagining what a successful defense in these cases might look like.

Mr. STAN BRANDT (Criminal Defense Lawyer): We have a saying. You know, we talk about tryable cases, and by that, a defense lawyer means one that he can put in front of a jury and hope, on some basis, to win. I think these cases are going to be very, very hard. For anybody who's intimately involved and intimately caught up with the acceptance of Jack Abramoff's largesse, I think they're facing a very difficult road.

SHAPIRO: It's a road that some politicians may have started down today. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

SIEGEL: And you can read the charges against Jack Abramoff at our Web site, npr.org.

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