Abramoff the Insider

by Sara del Nido | 1/5/06 6:00am

Yesterday's front page picture of Jack Abramoff in the New York Times depicted a man who could have come straight out of "The Godfather." The grim facial expression, black trench coat, and throwback-to-the-forties fedora are clear illustrations of the prominent Republican lobbyist's famously flamboyant personality.

But this particular get-up of Abramoff's is not as much of a fashion faux-pas as it may seem. The gangster image that his clothing portrays happens to be remarkably consistent with the shady situation in which he currently finds himself. Abramoff pleaded guilty several days ago to charges of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion. He also admitted to providing favors -- in the form of golf trips, sports tickets and monetary campaign contributions -- to lawmakers in Congress in return for special treatment for himself and his clients. The scandal was instantly threatening to a staggering number of power brokers in Washington (particularly Republicans) because so many of them negotiated and interacted with Abramoff in the past.

While the scope of the scandal is growing by the day, the most recent development is by far the most frightening to those entangled with Abramoff's sketchy activities. In a recent deal with federal prosecutors, Abramoff agreed to assist investigators in tracking down those who engaged in corrupt activities, such as bribery. Abramoff is, in effect, an insider. The question that now hangs over Washington is this: Who will get ratted out?

As Abramoff increasingly becomes a political liability, a disturbing number of politicians are showing signs of nervousness. Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert has distanced himself from the lobbyist by donating $69,000 worth of Abramoff's campaign contributions to charity. President Bush himself has done the same with $2,000 of similar contributions from Abramoff. Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, who is currently struggling to regain his post as majority leader, now faces an even more uphill battle due to his past close alliance with the lobbyist. DeLay is no stranger to charges of corruption, having been indicted in a case of money laundering in Texas. Other politicians who have been implicated include Republican Representative Bob Ney of Ohio, conservative strategist Grover Norquist and candidate for Georgia lieutenant governor Ralph Reed. The charges have been even more far-reaching: David Safavian, former head of the White House Procurement Office, has been arrested in the course of the investigation and even Karl Rove has been linked to dealings with Abramoff.

In a statement that harkened back to Nixon's pledge to get to the bottom of the Watergate break-in, White House spokesman Scott McClellan condemned Abramoff's actions, calling them "unacceptable and outrageous," even as a number of President Bush's close aides and colleagues face implications of criminal wrongdoing, as do several Democratic leaders. Democrats, nonetheless, have been quick to jump on the scandal as indicative of what they call the Republican "culture of corruption," and are expected to make this a main pillar of their campaign in the 2006 midterm elections.

Whether or not you agree with the Dems on this one, the Abramoff investigation is proving to be one of the most significant in recent history. It is certainly one of the biggest corruption cases in government ever and the investigation could result in legislation that toughens up discipline among lobbyists.

Perhaps the Democrats are right about the "culture of corruption." But if charges against Democratic leaders as well as Republicans are true, perhaps it is also a culture of hypocrisy and a culture of cover-ups. The values we all officially champion -- integrity, honesty, responsibility -- seem to be largely absent from Washington today. While I am very glad that the Abramoff corruption charges are being uncovered at all, it is disheartening that politicians seem to be pinning all the blame on the lobbyists, when the guilt may in fact also rest with many of their own ranks.

It is a rare occasion indeed when I agree with something Newt Gingrich says, but his statement a few days ago regarding the scandal was truly on target: "You can't have a corrupt lobbyist unless you also have a corrupt member and a corrupt staff."