Rupert Cornwell: Out of America Special

Scandal, DC-style: The fall of Jack Abramoff could bring down some of Washington's most powerful people
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The Independent Online

The wood-panelled restaurant Jack Abramoff owned on Pennsylvania Avenue, where he wined and dined his pals in Congress, now stands shuttered and empty. The millions of dollars he showered on the politicians in campaign contributions are being hastily turned over to charities. But official Washington will not be rid of him so easily.

Barely two years ago, Abramoff was the uncrowned king of K Street, or "Gucci Gulch", the thoroughfare that is to the Washington lobbying industry what Lord's is to cricket. Now he is the central figure in the biggest political sleaze scandal here in a generation - a morass of kickbacks, fraud, influence peddling and bribery that could bring down some of the biggest names on Capitol Hill.

Last week his disgrace was complete. The erstwhile super-lobbyist shuffled out of a Washington courthouse just four blocks from his Signatures restaurant, after completing a plea bargain with federal prosecutors. A black fedora half-obscured his face, a black raincoat was belted tight around his ample belly. It was a pitiful end to a career that was a case study in how, beyond the glitzy receptions and the formulaic press conferences, Washington really works.

The young Jack Abramoff first made his name in the early 1980s as chairman of the College Republicans. He went to Hollywood and produced a couple of movies, before riding back into Washington on the crest of the stunning Republican takeover of Congress at the 1994 mid-term elections. Along with his College Republican friends, the conservative Christian leader Ralph Reed, and the tax-cutting fanatic Grover Norquist, he was part of a powerful network that expanded to include an ambitious Texas Congressman called Tom DeLay.

Lobbying is about money and access - and in both Abramoff had the inside track. DeLay was his crucial contact and ally. Simultaneously, Abramoff struck a financial gusher, in the shape of six Indian tribes ready to spend mega-dollars to protect their lucrative casino gambling interests.

Along with his sidekick Michael Scanlon (once DeLay's spokesman), Abramoff extracted $80m (£45m) from the tribes to advance their cause in Washington. The scheme was complex, yet beautifully simple. Some of the Indian money they kept, some they used to shower favours on Congressmen, some they used to show they were very powerful people. As well as the tribes, Abramoff counted Pakistan's military among his many clients. His pace was frenetic, yet he found time to set up ventures including Signatures and a Jewish prep school in the Washington suburbs. By the end of the decade, he ran a veritable industry of influence-peddling.

Abramoff kept four luxury skyboxes at DC-area sports arenas, where he held 72 fundraising events - mostly for Republicans - between 1999 and 2003. In an average year, Signatures provided $80,000-worth of free meals for his chums; for the most favoured there were trips to St Andrews and other Scottish shrines of golf, organised by kindly Jack and paid for by the hapless tribes.

With its licensed lobbyists and insatiable thirst for campaign funding, the US legislative system has been called legalised bribery. With Jack Abramoff, it toppled over into outright corruption. But the tribes who made him ultimately destroyed him. The tawdry saga came out at Senate hearings in early 2004, complete with emails from Abramoff and Scanlon describing their clients as "monkeys" and "troglodytes".

The FBI started an investigation, and in late 2005 Scanlon struck a plea bargain, fingering Abramoff. To save his skin - or, rather, reduce a possible 30-year sentence to a maximum of 11 - Abramoff followed suit, admitting tax evasion, fraud and conspiracy to bribe and agreeing to co-operate with prosecutors. In other words, he'll name names. The FBI is believed to be probing at least 20 members of Congress and senior aides.

Abramoff's confession has turned on the kitchen light in the middle of the night. The cockroaches are scuttling for cover, handing back money, and repeating, mantra-like: "Jack Abramoff? I never knew him." But heads will roll. Among them is DeLay, who yesterday confirmed his role as majority leader of the House of Representatives is over. In 2000 he accepted an Abramoff trip to Scotland. So in 2002 did the Republican Congressman Bob Ney, who is set to be ousted from his chairmanship of a powerful House committee - and possibly worse. Dennis Hastert, the Speaker, has hastily given the $69,000 of funding he received from Abramoff to a fortunate charity, but it may not be enough to save him.

Despite the indictment of David Safavian, a top contracting official at the White House, this scandal hardly brushes George Bush. But it could yet be a disaster for the President. Most (though not all) of those involved are Republicans, and voters could punish the party by handing control of Congress back to the Democrats at this autumn's mid-term elections. That in turn would allow Democrat-controlled hearings into Iraq and other embarrassments, making his final two years in office a misery.

By then Jack Abramoff will almost certainly be behind bars. Back when he was the star of K Street, a colleague sensed the disaster that lay ahead. Be more careful, he warned Abramoff, or he would be "dead, disgraced, or in jail". The second prediction has already been fulfilled. The third shortly will be. As for the first, suffice it to quote Conrad Burns, a Republican senator tarred by the scandal. "Frankly, I wish Jack Abramoff had never been born."

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