by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- The Jan. 3 guilty plea by Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials threatens to unravel a network of right-wing lobbyists and lawmakers whose rise since the early 1990s was fueled as much by cash and influence-peddling as by ideological conviction.
Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to fraud charges in yet another case in Florida the next day, has stood at the nexus of right-wing Republican politics since 1994 when the party gained control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 50 years.
His downfall -- and the threat he now poses to powerful Republicans, beginning with his most-important political patron, former House Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay -- will clearly bolster Democratic efforts to paint the incumbent party as hopelessly corrupt in advance of November's mid-term elections, in which the Democrats hope to regain control of at least one house of Congress.
Indeed, in the wake of Tuesday's guilty plea, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called on Republican lawmakers to elect a new leader by the end of this month, dealing DeLay's hopes of returning to the post if he can overcome his own legal problems in Texas a serious, if not fatal, blow.
Democrats have not emerged unscathed, however, as some high-ranking members of the opposition party also received campaign contributions from Abramoff.
Under the plea bargains worked out between his lawyers and federal prosecutors, who have worked for more than two years on the case, Abramoff, 47, will have to repay more than 26 million dollars to his former clients -- mostly Indian tribes that run gambling casinos on their reservations -- and the U.S. Treasury. He could also be sentenced to as many as 30 years in prison.
But the prison sentence will almost certainly be substantially reduced as Abramoff cooperates with the broader investigation. According to published reports, prosecutors are currently focused on half a dozen lawmakers, including DeLay, who allegedly took favours or cash from Abramoff in exchange for votes, but could expand to as many as 15 or 16 others.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Abramoff has himself said he has information that could implicate as many as 60 congressmen and senators and their staffs, as well as a number of officials in the Bush administration .
"The case is significant and the corruption scheme with Abramoff is very extensive," said Alice Fisher, the federal prosecutor in charge of the investigation. Other observers said the corruption scandal was shaping up to be the worst in decades.
Indeed, last September, the former head of the federal procurement office in the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), David Safavian, was arrested for "lying and obstructing a criminal investigation" into Abramoff's dealing with the federal government.
The White House announced Wednesday that it was returning a 6,000-dollar campaign contribution connected to Abramoff, who reached "Pioneer" status in Bush's 2004 re-election campaign by raising more than $100,000 on its behalf.
The White House announcement was the latest in a series of similar moves by Republican leaders, including DeLay, Speaker Dennis Hastert, and Acting Majority Leader Roy Blount, in recent days to try to disassociate themselves from the lobbyist's largesse by promising to return or donate to charity tens of thousands of dollars in Abramoff-related campaign contributions.
Abramoff began his rise to power in the 1980s when he teamed up as chairman of the College Republicans National Committee with two other rising Republican superstars -- Grover Norquist, currently director of Americans for Tax Reform, who has been one of the far right's key strategists and a close adviser of Bush's top political aide, Karl Rove; and Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition who more recently served as the 2004 campaign's field marshal in the southern states and is currently running for lieutenant governor in Georgia.
In the mid-1980s, Abramoff enlisted in various activities related to the so-called "Reagan Doctrine," the policy that provided covert military and paramilitary support to "anti-communist" insurgencies in the Third World, according to a recent Washington Post investigation.
In that capacity, he worked closely with Nicaraguan "Contra" leaders in lobbying Congress, Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, and the apartheid regime in South Africa, which secretly paid his International Freedom Foundation (IFF) some 1.5 million dollars for various services, according to testimony before the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
But his lobby career really took off with the Gingrich-led "Republican Revolution" in 1994 when he began soliciting clients from Indian tribes, from whom he eventually collected nearly 82 million dollars in lobbying fees in exchange for his efforts to ensure that Congress and the executive branch would do nothing to interfere with their lucrative casino operations.
Those fees were then translated into campaign contributions, often made through a network of front organizations, overseas golfing, free meals at this Capitol Hill restaurants, and seats in his skybox apartments at Washington's sports events.
He and DeLay linked up in 1995, and the latter's steady rise up the Republican leadership ladder bolstered his image as the "go-to guy" for influence in the House.
The two made an odd couple -- DeLay, a fervent evangelical Christian and the effective leader of the Christian Right in the House, and Abramoff, an Orthodox Jew -- but they had common interests, particularly in consolidating Republican control of Congress and in promoting a far-right agenda both in the U.S. and in the Middle East.
Earlier this year, Newsweek reported that a group of Abramoff's Indian clients donated more than one million dollars to the Capital Athletic Foundation, a charity supposedly set up for poor, inner-city youth, and much favoured by DeLay. According to Newsweek, more than $140,000 of the money was sent to radical Jewish settlers in the West Bank, which they used to buy camouflage suits, sniper scopes, night-vision binoculars, and other "security" equipment.
According to the "American Conservative," Abramoff also persuaded Rep. Robert Ney, another member of the Republican leadership who appears to be a major target of the investigation, to award a contract worth three million dollars to improve cell-phone reception in House office buildings to an Israeli telecommunications company, instead of to U.S. bidders.
Abramoff also has had a long-time relationship with Daniel Lapin, a far-right rabbi originally from South Africa, who was a pioneer in building an alliance between some Orthodox Jewish leaders and the Christian Right, of which Reed has been a major figure.
Nor has his foreign interests been limited to Israel. Despite his fervent Zionism, Abramoff represented the Pakistani armed forces in Washington in the late 1990s, Malaysia, Zaire under former President Mobutu Sese Seko, and, more recently, Russian oil companies.
It was also disclosed earlier this year that the government of Gabonese President Omar Bongo paid Abramoff nine million dollars in 2003 to secure a White House meeting with Bush that eventually took place in May 2004.
According to the Post, he and a former DeLay aide, Michael Scanlon, who has also pled guilty to charges in the same federal investigation, set up the non-profit "think tank," which actually worked as a lobbying arm for clients whom they did not wish to officially represent, including Malaysia and oil companies working in Sudan.
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