Jack Abramoff: The Man Who Bought Washington

From deep inside the Republican elite, Jack Abramoff brought new excesses to the lobbying game. Who is he, and how did he get away with it for so long?

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DAVID BURNETT / CONTACT

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That's probably because much of the $32 million that the Coushattas paid Abramoff and Scanlon over two years went not toward increasing the tribe's influence but toward lining the two partners pockets. Nearly $11.5 million in secret kickbacks was funneled by Scanlon back to Abramoff, according to court papers filed last week, as the man who was once one of Washington's highest-paid lobbyists pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and a conspiracy to bribe public officials. Abramoff's plea agreement admits to expansive schemes to defraud not just the Coushattas but also three other tribes and the lobbying firm Abramoff worked for, and it acknowledges buying off public officials, in part by laundering his clients' funds through legitimate-sounding think tanks and public-policy groups, some of which Abramoff and Scanlon themselves set up. The stocky figure in the black fedora who left the federal courthouse after telling Judge Ellen Huvelle of his "tremendous sadness and regret for my conduct" was barely recognizable as the flamboyant power broker who used to send lawmakers and their staffs on junkets around the world and entertain them back in Washington with golf outings, free meals at his expensive restaurant, and concerts and games enjoyed from the luxury skyboxes he maintained at nearly every arena and stadium in town.

The Abramoff scandal has already taken down the political player who invented the system that has helped keep Republicans in power for more than a decade. The once feared DeLay—whose office had been Abramoff's biggest claim to access and influence on Capitol Hill—announced he would resign as House majority leader. "I have always acted in an ethical manner within the rules of our body and the laws of our land," DeLay wrote in a letter to his G.O.P. colleagues, but added, "I cannot allow our adversaries to divide and distract our attention." Because of his tightfisted regime that rewarded loyalists and punished detractors, his departure is sure to set off not just a fight for his old job but also some ugly score settling. No wonder House Speaker Dennis Hastert canceled a trip to Asia he had planned for this week so that he could return to Washington, begin sifting through the fallout and start planning for leadership elections the week of Jan. 31.

The Coushattas' tale is only a small piece of an investigation that, with the 46-year-old Abramoff's agreement last week to cooperate with federal prosecutors, could become one of the biggest corruption probes in U.S. history, possibly putting dozens of lawmakers in legal or political jeopardy. It has already netted Scanlon, 35, who pleaded guilty to similar charges in November and is also cooperating. In an internal e-mail obtained by TIME, the director of the FBI's Washington field office, Michael Mason, congratulated some 15 agents and 15 support staff members under him on the case for "a huge accomplishment" in squeezing Abramoff to make a deal after 18 months of investigation and negotiation, one that made "a huge contribution to ensuring the very integrity of our government." But he added that "the case is far from over."

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