Bush hands back tainted funds from disgraced lobbyist

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The Independent US

Republicans, Democrats and much of official Washington are scrambling to distance themselves from Jack Abramoff as the Justice Department vowed to "follow wherever it leads" the trail of corruption involving the disgraced former super lobbyist, who is now co-operating with investigators.

Yesterday, luminaries including the House speaker Dennis Hastert and the former House majority leader Tom DeLay, as well as top Democrats - the Senate minority leader Harry Reid among them - let it be known they were returning campaign contributions from Mr Abramoff, his associates and their clients.

At the same time, President Bush's re-election team announced it was returning $6,000 (£3,400) in direct contributions from the network of the lobbyist, who in all helped raise more than $100,000 for the victorious 2004 Bush/Cheney campaign.

A day after his plea bargain here, Mr Abramoff himself was back in court - this time in Miami, where was was pleading guilty to separate fraud charges, over the $140m purchase in 2000 of a fleet of Florida casino gambling boats. The combined offences could send the former lobbyist to jail for up to 11 years.

But that potential punishment is eclipsed by the shock waves still reverberating around Capitol Hill after Mr Abramoff pleaded guilty on three counts of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe, in what may be the biggest influence peddling scandal in Washington in a generation. It seems set to overshadow the House bank and post office affair of the early 1990s, and could match the Abscom scandal of 1982, in which an FBI sting operation led to the downfall of six congressmen and one senator.

The court papers make specific reference to only one lawmaker, the Ohio Republican Bob Ney, chairman of the House Administration Committee, who accepted an all-expenses-paid golfing trip to Scotland and other favours from Mr Abramoff.

Mr Ney insists he did nothing wrong and was duped by Mr Abramoff. But he and perhaps 20 others - members of Congress and their top aides - are believed to be under investigation by federal prosecutors. The "corruption scheme" operated by the lobbyist and his associates "is very extensive and we will continue to follow it wherever it leads," said Alice Fisher, Assistant US Attorney General and in overall charge of the probe.

The scheme basically involved the charging of massive fees to Mr Abramoff's clients, most notably Indian tribes hoping to protect their lucrative gambling interests. Part of this money was kept by the lobbyist and his partner Michael Scanlon, while part was showered on congressmen and interest and advocacy groups linked to them, to win their support.

The repercussions of Mr Abramoff's fall extend further still. Though some Democrats have been drawn into the scandal, Republicans have far more to lose - possibly even their decade-long control of Congress when the mid-term elections take place in November. In a foretaste of the rhetoric that will feature in the Democratic campaign, Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, declared yesterday that Mr Abramoff's confession in the Washington courtroom proved that "this Republican Congress is the most corrupt in history". At the very least however, the latest developments would seem to spell the definitive end of the reign of Mr DeLay.

As a crucial figure in securing passage of Mr Bush's legislative agenda, the Texas Republican was one of the most powerful and feared politicians in Washington, until he was forced to step down temporarily as majority leader after being indicted in his home state for illegal fundraising practices. Mr DeLay was also the key ally of Mr Abramoff on Capitol Hill, and received an estimated $70,000 in campaign contributions from the lobbyist (as well as an expenses-paid golfing trip of his own to St Andrews in 2000). Yesterday, Newt Gingrich, Mr Hastert's predecessor as Speaker and architect of the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, said it was vital that Republicans choose a permanent replacement for Mr DeLay.

Mr Abramoff and Mr Scanlon (a former press spokesman for Mr DeLay) achieved notoriety in 2004 when hearings by a senate committee exposed how they had extracted $80m in fees from the hapless Indian tribes. Other prominent associates of Mr Abramoff have also been tarnished by the scandal - among them the former Christian conservative leader Ralph Reed, and the anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist. But the biggest casualty may be the reputation of Congress, regarded as corrupt by 80 per cent of Americans, according to a recent poll. The one hope is that the latest disgrace will spur into life a body that has not lifted a finger in the affair: the House Ethics Committee.