A shared posting from my "Capital Games" column at www.thenation.com.
Is Jack Abramoff the gift that will keep on giving? And will he destroy the Republican Party?
It's not a coincidence that Tom DeLay resigned his leadership post -- which he was forced to temporarily abdicate once he was indicted in Texas on charges of laundering campaign funds -- days after Abramoff, the corrupt-Republican-lobbyist-turned-snitch, cut a deal with the feds that will require him to tell all. That certainly will entail sharing whatever he knows about his intimate relationship with DeLay and DeLay's closest political associates, as well as what he knows about other GOP lawmakers, staffers and high-powered Republican operatives (such as Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist). News reports have already said that up to twenty lawmakers and aides are already in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors thanks to Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, his former partner in sleaze, who also has been cooperating with the feds.
With nervous Republicans angling to toss DeLay overboard, the indicted ex-House majority leader had not much choice but to jump before being unceremoniously shoved aside. But GOPers still have reason for fear for at least two reasons:
1. The Abramoff inquiry is big.
2. As big as the Abramoff probe is, it could extend far beyond the corrupt dealings of Jack Abramoff and his pals on Capitol HIll and K Street.
My friend Karen Tumulty reports in this week's Time that Justice Department prosecutors are running a decent-sized investigation:
Another official involved with the probe told Time that investigators are viewing Abramoff as "the middle guy" -- suggesting there are bigger targets in their sights. The FBI has 13 field offices across the country working on the case, with two dozen agents assigned to it full time and roughly the same number working part time. "We are going to chase down every lead," Chris Swecker, head of the FBI's criminal division, told Time.
Nearly 50 agents chasing down Abramoff leads across the country? Republicans far and wide better watch out. (Recall the recent GOP scandal in Ohio, in which the allegedly illegal doings of a top Republican fundraiser stretched to the office of the Republican governor.) On Sunday, The New York Times reported that some of these agents are looking at Alexander Strategy, a leading Republican lobbying firm closely linked to DeLay. Unless the Bush White House dares to muscle the prosecutors, the odds are high that they will nab a bunch of legislators, aides and lobbyists who did shady business with Abramoff, "the middle guy."
Abramoff probably possesses the keys to many different floodgates, several involving DeLay. (How about that deal in which Russian energy interests donated $1 million -- via a British law firm -- to a political outfit set up by DeLay and did so at a time when there was legislation in Congress to back IMF loan guarantees that would benefit these interests?) But here's why the Abramoff scandal might grow larger than Abramoff's wide-ranging dealings: Once prosecutors start to look for crimes, they often find them. Moreover, once they penetrate a corrupt organization (say, the mob) and begin nailing people, they frequently find sources who squeal on others and disclose crimes unrelated to what brought the investigators knocking.
Look at Sunday's Los Angles Times. As DeLay is sinking, sources are coming forward to tell of misdeeds heretofore unknown to the citizenry. The paper reports:
In a case that echoes the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal, two Northern California Republican congressmen used their official positions to try to stop a federal investigation of a wealthy Texas businessman who provided them with political contributions.
Reps. John T. Doolittle and Richard W. Pombo joined forces with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas to oppose an investigation by federal banking regulators into the affairs of Houston millionaire Charles Hurwitz, documents recently obtained by The Times show. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. was seeking $300 million from Hurwitz for his role in the collapse of a Texas savings and loan that cost taxpayers $1.6 billion.
The investigation was ultimately dropped.
The effort to help Hurwitz began in 1999 when DeLay wrote a letter to the chairman of the FDIC denouncing the investigation of Hurwitz as a "form of harassment and deceit on the part of government employees." When the FDIC persisted, Doolittle and Pombo -- both considered proteges of DeLay -- used their power as members of the House Resources Committee to subpoena the agency's confidential records on the case, including details of the evidence FDIC investigators had compiled on Hurwitz.
Then, in 2001, the two congressmen inserted many of the sensitive documents into the Congressional Record, making them public and accessible to Hurwitz's lawyers, a move that FDIC officials said damaged the government's ability to pursue the banker.
The FDIC's chief spokesman characterized what Doolittle and Pombo did as "a seamy abuse of the legislative process." But soon afterward, in 2002, the FDIC dropped its case against Hurwitz, who had owned a controlling interest in the United Savings Assn. of Texas. United Savings' failure was one of the worst of the S&L debacles in the 1980s.
Doolittle and Pombo did not respond to requests for interviews last week.
This may have nothing to do with the Abramoff mess or DeLay's troubles in Texas, but this story is no doubt emerging at this moment -- and may be on interest to prosecutors now -- because of these other difficulties.
As FBI agents zero in on suspects -- whether they be lawmakers, aides, lobbyists, consultants or fundraisers -- the only way out for many of these well-connected and influential people will be tell the investigators something they do not know already. So if you're a chief of staff to a House member and you're faced with the prospect of doing several years at a different sort of federal institution than the one you're used to, what are you going to do? Say whatever it takes to cut a deal. And if you know about untoward and possibly criminal activity that is not connected to already-wide Abramoff scandal, that may well be your stay-out-of-jail card. Imagine if a dozen or more Washington insiders -- and we are talking predominantly about Republicans -- find themselves in this sort of situation. It could be Christmas every day for the anti-corruption squad at the Justice Department. That is, if the lawyers there are prepared to mount an investigation that pursues serious leads that take them beyond Abramoff terrain. (And don't forget the recent news that Representative Duke Cunningham, the Republican who recently resigned from the House after being caught accepting bribes from a military contractor, wore a wire for the feds before leaving the House. Whom did prosecutors ask him to talk to?)
I'm not predicting all this will occur. But any member of Congress, congressional aide or executive branch official who has engaged in criminal activity ought to be really enjoying their freedom and position at this time. Who knows who will be selling out whom? Yuppies in blazers and khakis usually don't practice omerta very well. If prosecutors play this right, they could end up with an ever-lengthening to-do -- and to-get -- list.
Please check out my blog at www.davidcorn.com.