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Lobbyist admits to kickbacks, fraud

Abramoff agrees to cooperate in Washington corruption probe



Crime, Law and Justice

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former high-powered lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion charges, agreeing to cooperate in a federal corruption probe in Washington.

Abramoff, 46, faces up to 11 years in federal prison and must pay $26.7 million in restitution, said U.S. Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher.

She said Abramoff admitted to corrupting government officials and defrauding his own clients out of $25 million.

Abramoff admitted that he did not disclose receiving kickbacks on payments from Native American tribes to a partner's public relations firm.

Abramoff and his politically connected partner, public relations expert Michael Scanlon, jokingly referred to their scheme as the "Gimme Five Program," Fisher said. (Watch the rise and fall of Abramoff - 1:50)

Abramoff also acknowledged that some of his money did not go to charities, as he had reported, but paid for a golf trip to Scotland.

Abramoff's plea agreement spares him the possibility of a maximum 30-year sentence if he provides useful assistance in the corruption probe. Prosecutors also might seek a further sentence reduction at the end of the investigation, Fisher said. (Read the plea agreement -- PDFexternal link)

A courtroom apology

"Words can never express my sorrow and profound regret," Abramoff told U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle.

"Nor can they express my sadness and regret for my conduct," he added. " I ask for forgiveness and redemption from (the) Almighty."

As part of the deal, Abramoff agreed to cooperate with the IRS on his tax evasion charge and pay the agency $1.72 million. He also agreed not to dispose of assets and to repay the $25 million, according to the plea agreement.

Washington lawyer Abbe Lowell said in a statement that Abramoff will cooperate with prosecutors, repay "anyone he has harmed," and "seek absolution from all."

Court documents filed Tuesday describe how Abramoff and Scanlon cheated clients of Abramoff's lobbying firm by urging them to use Scanlon's PR firm -- which in turn paid Abramoff millions of dollars in kickbacks. (Read a summary of the charges -- PDF)

Abramoff is a longtime associate of several top GOP leaders, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Americans for Tax Reform director Grover Norquist, and former Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed.

Washington on edge

Scanlon, a 35-year-old former aide to DeLay, also is cooperating. His and Abramoff's cooperation deals could have a wide-reaching effect in Washington. (View a report on what Abramoff said and its potential impact -- 2:37)

A source close to the inquiry said investigators are looking at about half a dozen members of Congress. Another source, a senior government official, told CNN the probe involves about two dozen lawmakers and staffers.

Fisher vowed the investigators, including agents from the FBI and IRS, will go wherever the evidence leads.

"Government officials and government actions are not for sale," she vowed. Such corruption, she added, has "a devastating impact on the public's trust in government."

Sources told CNN's Ed Henry that Abramoff may have thousands of e-mails in which he describes influence-peddling and explains what lawmakers were doing in exchange for the money he was putting into their campaign coffers.

Sources said Abramoff has been cooperating with the Justice Department for months without any kind of plea deal. He will not be sentenced until his cooperation is complete, the source added.

Kickback scheme detailed

The court documents allege Abramoff deprived his clients of his honest services by overcharging them to fund the alleged kickback scheme with Scanlon.

Listed in the court documents are four Native American tribes that contracted Abramoff's services. The documents said the tribes gave millions of dollars to Scanlon's firm, which then paid Abramoff 50 percent of the profits it made.

According to the documents:

  • Starting in 2001, Abramoff persuaded a Louisiana tribe to pay nearly $30.5 million for "grassroots work" to a Scanlon company, which, in turn, kicked back nearly $11.4 million to Abramoff.
  • In 2001 Abramoff also persuaded a Mississippi tribe to give nearly $14.8 million to Scanlon, who funneled nearly $6.3 to Abramoff.
  • A Michigan tribe gave $3.5 million to Scanlon's firm in 2002; $540,000 ended up in Abramoff's pocket.
  • Also in 2002, a Texas tribe gave $4.2 million to Scanlon, and nearly $1.9 million found its way to Abramoff
  • According to e-mail obtained by a Senate committee, Abramoff made a fortune from the tribes while privately mocking tribal leaders as "monkeys" and "morons."

    In one instance, Fisher told reporters, Abramoff took fees from one client, then worked for another client with competing interests. She did not identify the clients.

    Influence peddling alleged

    Scanlon pleaded guilty in November to a single conspiracy count as part of a deal with the Justice Department. He agreed to pay about $19.7 million in restitution for kickbacks he admitted receiving, and promised to testify against Abramoff.

    Prosecutors also detailed a "stream of things of value" given to an unnamed congressman, identified in the court documents as Representative No. 1, and to members of his staff.

    The items listed include a "lavish" golf trip to Scotland, tickets to sporting events and other entertainment, meals at Abramoff's "upscale" Washington restaurant, and campaign contributions to the representative and his political action committee in exchange for a series of actions by that representative.

    The Justice Department would not identify the congressman. But government sources have said he is Rep. Bob Ney, a veteran Republican from Ohio who heads the House Administration Committee.

    In the court documents, prosecutors alleged Abramoff, Scanlon and others got the lawmaker "to perform a series of official acts."

    According to the documents, the acts included supporting bills, placing statements in the Congressional Record, meeting with the lobbyist's clients and supporting a client of Abramoff in a bid to win a contract for wireless telephone service for the House of Representatives.

    Ney is known to have entered comments in the Congressional Record against a man standing in the way of an Abramoff project -- a 2000 casino fleet purchase -- and he took a 2002 golf trip to Scotland that Abramoff sponsored.

    Ney denies wrongdoing

    "At the time I dealt with Jack Abramoff, I obviously did not know, and had no way of knowing, the self-serving and fraudulent nature of Abramoff's activities," Ney said Tuesday in a statement.

    Ney's office said he has "never done anything illegal or improper and the allegations in this plea agreement do not change this fact."

    The statement continued, " Whenever Congressman Ney took official action, he did so because of his understanding of the merits and facts of the situation and not because of any improper influence from Jack Abramoff or anybody else."

    Ney continues to cooperate with the investigation "to separate truth from fiction," his office said.

    Ney is the only member of Congress to disclose that he has been subpoenaed -- a step required under House rules -- as part of the investigation.

    However, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said in a statement that Abramoff's plea agreement was a sign of Republicans' "culture of corruption."

    "Today, Jack Abramoff admitted to conspiring to bribe members of Congress -- a despicable action that strikes at the heart of our democracy. Sadly, it is not a surprise because this Republican Congress is the most corrupt in history and the American people are paying the price," Pelosi said.

    Florida plea expected

    Abramoff's name also surfaced earlier this year amid ethics questions about DeLay, a longtime friend. The Washington Post has reported DeLay, a Texas Republican, took two expensive overseas trips that Abramoff and other lobbyists bankrolled -- a violation of House rules, if true.

    DeLay has denied wrongdoing, calling the report "just another seedy attempt by the liberal media to embarrass me."

    DeLay, who is facing unrelated money laundering charges, was forced by party rules to step down from his leadership position in September after he was indicted in Texas.

    Abramoff will also plead guilty Wednesday to charges in Florida, said Neal Sonnett, his Miami attorney. Those charges stem from Abramoff's role in the 2000 purchase of SunCruz Casinos, a fleet of offshore gambling boats.

    In the Florida case, Abramoff and a partner, Adam Kidan, are accused of falsifying a $23 million wire transfer to obtain $60 million in financing. Kidan pleaded guilty last month.

    CNN's Suzanne Malveaux, Kelli Arena, Ed Henry, Kevin Bohn, Paul Courson and Rich Phillips contributed to this report.

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