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Saturday, December 17, 2005

"Casino Jack" Abramoff

Fraud Trial Will Hit Heart of American Right

The days are gone when "Casino Jack" Abramoff could summon America's most powerful congressmen to his own restaurant near the White House, find jobs for their wives in public relations firms and arrange for their aides to fly business class to glamorous destinations.

Mr Abramoff, 46, used to be one of the most influential people in Washington, the so-called "superlobbyist" whose contacts on Capitol Hill inspired awe.

But now he is at the centre of political storm that is capable of sweeping the Republican majority from Congress next year. The implications for the Right's ambitious plans to remake America in its own image are profound.

Old friends are preparing to testify against Mr Abramoff. The congressmen he once funded are blackening his name and FBI agents and prosecutors are accumulating evidence against him.

His first trial on six charges of fraud and conspiracy begins next month. Norman Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, an influential conservative think-tank, said: "I don't think we have had something of this scope, arrogance and sheer venality in our lifetimes. It is building to an explosion, one that could create immense collateral damage within Congress and in coming elections."

Liberals agree. Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution, said: "It's a very big deal. Just the dimensions of the money involved are staggering, even to grizzled Washington veterans. We haven't seen anything like this before."

Asked to name something of comparable seriousness, Mr Mann muses: "Maybe you have to go back to the 19th century, when outside interests basically purchased members of Congress."

Up to 10 congressmen are said to be under investigation for accepting bribes, along with a dozen congressional aides and two members of the Bush administration. All those named so far say they did nothing illegal. A number have returned campaign contributions from Mr Abramoff.

Those under threat are said to include some of the most powerful Republicans in Congress. Among them are Tom DeLay, the former House of Representatives majority leader facing money laundering charges in another case, Senator Conrad Burns who chairs a key budget committee, and Robert Ney, "the mayor of Capitol Hill", who controls the committee running Congress' own affairs.

The three deny any wrongdoing, as do another 17 senior congressmen who each received more than ?17,000 in campaign contributions.

Known to admiring rivals as "Casino Jack" for his ability to tease money from American Indian gaming operations, Mr Abramoff boasted of access to Republican party leaders. Promising rapid results, he raised ?47 million from American Indian tribes.

Many were awash with cash from casino operations on their reservations, an ?11 billion industry. Many tribes wanted influence in Washington, not least to prevent the opening of rival gaming operations close to their businesses. Mr Abramoff offered to do just that and had considerable success.

However, Carlos Hisa, an American Indian client has said of Abramoff and his associates: "A rattlesnake will warn you before it strikes. We got no warning. They did everything behind our back."

Donating campaign money to legislators is normal in America.But prosecutors say Mr Abramoff and his associate Michael Scanlon demanded favours in return. Court documents against Mr Scanlon state that he and Mr Abramoff provided an unnamed congressman with trips, sports tickets, expensive meals and other perks "in exchange for a series of official acts and influence".

Mr Abramoff is alleged to have flown at least 85 congressmen and aides to the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean as he sought to stave off American regulation of its $3-an-hour textile workers, and flew others to a golfing holiday in Scotland.

Mr Scanlon has done a deal with prosecutors and yesterday another associate, Adam Kidan, agreed to give evidence against Mr Abramoff. The pressure on him to cut his own deal is now huge.

The Republican party will face an angry public in November's mid-term elections and, with almost 90 per cent of Americans saying that political corruption is a serious problem, the scandal is reverberating nationwide.

Republicans are already urging voters not to take it out on them.

This week President George W Bush acknowledged the seriousness of the affair, but added: "It seems to me that [Abramoff] was an equal money dispenser, that he was giving money to people in both political parties."

True, but of the ?3 million that Mr Abramoff handed to individual legislators, Democrats received only a third. The rest went to the Republicans.

According to Mr Mann: "When something like this happens, it tends to create a large cloud which invariably rains on the party in power."

Francis Harris in Washington



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