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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Bribery has always been a difficult thing to prove, absent a videotape of a crook stuffing the pockets of a politician with cash. But so large are the amounts involved—and so voluminous the evidence from a man who committed nearly every thought to e-mail—that prosecutors in the Abramoff case may even test the proposition that legally reported campaign contributions constitute bribery, if it can be proved they were given expressly in return for official actions. A high-level source tells TIME that prosecutors will also focus much of their energies on the lesser and easier-to-prove charge of "honest services mail fraud," for which they have to show only that a lawmaker has acted in his personal interest or that of another individual but not of his constituents in return for improper gain. That lowering of the bar for criminal-corruption cases is sending shudders from the Capitol to the lobbying corridor of K Street. And none of that even begins to address the question of whether those who dined, traveled and socialized with Abramoff might have violated Congress's own loophole-ridden rules that prohibit, for instance, lobbyists from paying for travel or taking gifts worth more than $50. All of which explains why lobbying and ethics reform suddenly seem so popular on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers vying to outdo one another, as they always do in moments like these, with proposals they insist would clean up the system once and for all. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has even suggested that Congress ban fund-raising in Washington and force disclosure of all contact with lobbyists.

Only one lawmaker—House Administration Committee chairman Bob Ney of Ohio, identified as "Representative #1"—is mentioned in the Abramoff indictments as having provided "official acts and influence" in exchange for gifts, travel, meals and campaign contributions. Ney has not been formally charged and denies he did anything wrong. But the investigation is also encircling the political operation of DeLay. And the probe may yet reach deeper into the Executive Branch. It has already yielded the indictment of former Bush Administration official David Safavian on five counts of lying about his dealings with Abramoff while he was a senior official at the General Services Administration, the procurement agency for the Federal Government. Sources at the Interior Department tell TIME that its inspector general, Earl E. Devaney, has been conducting a wide-ranging investigation into Abramoff's dealings with the Cabinet agency—which oversees many of the Indian-related issues Abramoff built most of his career around. In particular, the agency is looking into ties between Abramoff and former Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles, who has been accused of intervening in agency deliberations on behalf of the Coushattas. Griles has denied it, and his attorney says Abramoff was wildly exaggerating their relationship when he referred to Griles in an e-mail to lobying colleagues as his man at Interior.

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