Fairly or not, lobbyist Jack Abramoff has come to symbolize Washington at its worst. Now his case is moving from news stories and congressional hearings into federal court. Abramoff was arraigned on federal fraud charges Aug. 26. The case is being prosecuted in Florida, yet its ripple effects reach all the way into the Beltway -- where its aftermath could resemble that of a small hurricane.
The indictment alleges that in 2000, when Abramoff and a business partner bought a flotilla of gambling ships, they secretly conspired with the seller to lower the sales price without telling the lending companies. That allowed them to finance the entire deal with borrowed money.
Abramoff and his partner, Adam Kidan, both pleaded not guilty. The trial is tentatively set for Dec. 12. The seller, Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis, wasn't charged. He got off, the indictment suggests, mainly because he's dead.
Boulis was cut down in a car-to-car shooting in 2001, just as the cruise line transaction was going sour.
Nobody has suggested Abramoff is linked to the homicide. Abramoff's lawyer says Fort Lauderdale police asked to interview his client when it occurred, but never pressed for such a conversation at the time. Now, the police are back, asking again.
Off-shore gambling and an unsolved killing may seem far removed from high-powered Washington lobbying. But federal investigators in D.C. are looking at Abramoff, too. They're interested in his use of tax-exempt organizations and in his lobbying practices, especially the millions of dollars he billed Indian tribes with an interest in gambling casinos.
Now the Florida indictment introduces the topic of the Boulis killing, and that raises the stakes, for the politicians if not for the prosecutors.
Abramoff and friends should count themselves lucky that Boulis hasn't turned into a cable-news obsession, as did murder victim Chaundra Levy. When Levy disappeared in 2001, her relationship with then-Rep. Gary Condit (D-CA) came to light. The relentless cable coverage ended Condit's political career.
The Abramoff case resembles another kind of affair: the Democratic fundraising scandal from the 1996 campaign, where public officials were compromised by their private-sector connections. Vice President Al Gore never lived down his hapless fundraising visit to a Buddhist temple. This time, we may be constantly reminded that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay once praised Abramoff as "one of my closest and dearest friends."
The outcome of the Democratic money scandal was underwhelming. Despite all of the Lincoln bedroom sleepovers, fundraising phone calls and White House coffees, no Democratic officeholders or top party officials were charged with a crime. The same could prove true in the Abramoff case: embarrassment for all, but jail sentences for nobody who has any clout in Washington.
It's also worth noting that Abramoff didn't work just one side of the street. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), a major fundraiser for House Democrats, was a big recipient of funds from Abramoff's tribal clients, and other Democrats also worked with him on Indian issues.
But at base, Abramoff was a Republican lobbyist in a Republican town. And it's Republicans who now hope the Abramoff affair will end with no more than a whimper.
The biggest names among the hopeful are:
- Tom DeLay, the most powerful Republican on Capitol Hill. He's asked the House Ethics Committee to examine his ties to Abramoff, including a golf trip to Scotland. But the committee hasn't begun its probe, and it could be pre-empted by the criminal cases.
- Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH), chair of the House Administration Committee. Abramoff also took Ney golfing in Scotland. Ney backed a legislative rider to re-open a casino belonging to one of Abramoff's tribal clients; he also put statements in the Congressional Record promoting the Abramoff-Kidan deal. Ney too has asked for an ethics committee probe, which, like DeLay's, hasn't yet begun.
- Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT), who is up for re-election next year. He provided a legislative fix for another tribe represented by Abramoff.
- Grover Norquist, one of the most powerful non-elected figures in conservative politics. His group, Americans for Tax Reform, funneled money from Abramoff's tribes to various causes.
- Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition and now the Republican state chairman of Georgia. Abramoff hired him to do behind-the-scenes grassroots lobbying among Christian activists to influence the outcome of gambling referenda.
- Karl Rove, President Bush's political advisor. His former assistant, Susan Ralston, previously worked for Abramoff.
- Steven Griles, the No. 2 official at the Interior Department during President Bush's first term, now a lobbyist. The Washington Post cites e-mails written by Abramoff claiming that Griles helped two of his tribes on casino issues.
- Timothy Flanigan, whose nomination to be second-in-command at the Justice Department is pending before the Senate. Flanigan is general counsel for the Bermuda-based Tyco International Ltd., and supervised Abramoff when Tyco was lobbying to block legislation penalizing off-shore corporations.
These are but a few of the people Abramoff has worked with -- or worked on -- over the years.
By nature, prosecutors squeeze defendants for information in hopes of bagging the biggest target possible. Those working this case haven't said whether that's the treatment they have in mind for Jack Abramoff. But it's hard to imagine they don't.