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As the Jack Abramoff investigation inches closer to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), federal prosecutors have now secured plea agreements from the ex-lobbyist as well as two former aides to DeLay, shedding light on an alleged bribery conspiracy that ran far longer than previously reported.
In a largely overlooked element of the plea agreements, first Abramoff and now Tony Rudy both pleaded guilty to a bribery scheme that began in 1997 and ran through 2004, which suggests that the bribery of Members of Congress and their staffs began much earlier than has so far been publicly acknowledged.
Friday’s deal with Rudy — like the deals previously struck with Abramoff and Mike Scanlon, the former DeLay aide and Abramoff business partner — detailed a series of actions that occurred mostly in 2000, 2001 and 2002. Most of those details leaked out to reporters well before Rudy pleaded guilty.
But Rudy pleaded guilty to a bribery conspiracy that ran January “1997 and through 2004,” according to Friday’s court filings.
In interviews, defense attorneys in Washington, D.C., suggested that this phrasing was notable, saying that Rudy must have turned over bribery details covering those years to the Justice Department, even if the prosecutors have chosen not yet to reveal them publicly.
“Something illegal happened then,” said Stan Brand, an ethics lawyer at Brand and Frulla.
Abramoff’s plea agreement, which was entered into Jan. 3, also detailed many actions that took place from 2000 through 2002, most of which dealt with favors he sought from Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) in relation to Abramoff’s clients. But also buried in the so-called “criminal information” that accompanied the plea agreement is a section that spells out the “conspiracy and its objects.”
In Abramoff’s case, the crimes began “at least as early as 1997 through at least April 2004.” In late February 2004, The Washington Post had reported on the scandal and prompted the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Unit to begin a corruption probe of Abramoff and his deal-seeking on Capitol Hill.
The length of the conspiracy cited in Rudy’s plea agreement is also noteworthy because it includes the latter half of 2002 and all of 2003 and 2004. During those years, Rudy was no longer working for Abramoff and instead was employed by Alexander Strategy Group, the firm started by Ed Buckham, DeLay’s former chief of staff who was for the first time singled out in court filings in the Rudy plea agreement.
Now, though his crimes during that period are not spelled out, Rudy has pleaded guilty to committing bribery while working with Buckham, which draws the investigation deeper into DeLay’s world.
Buckham — who once served as DeLay’s minister — is considered the single closest adviser to the former Majority Leader. He is known as a close friend of Christine DeLay, the lawmaker’s wife and an employee of Buckham’s at ASG for more than a year. And he remained a central political player to DeLay, as the lawmaker’s Americans for a Republican Majority PAC was housed in the offices of Buckham’s lobbying firm.
By using conspiracy statutes against Abramoff and the two ex-DeLay aides, prosecutors have been able to use an umbrella approach to any crime committed by the trio without fear of being curbed by a statute of limitations. If they were to move against any lawmakers, prosecutors could use the same conspiracy charge and go as far back as they want to bring charges, Brand and other lawyers said.
Rudy and Buckham have previously been using the same lawyer, Laura Ariane Miller, who accompanied Rudy to the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse a few blocks from the Capitol Friday. She didn’t return phone calls Friday requesting comment regarding Rudy and Buckham.
In a conference call with reporters, Richard Cullen, DeLay’s lawyer, said that the Texan was “bitterly disappointed” with Rudy’s actions, but added that he had not heard the lawmaker say he felt “betrayed.”
Cullen also put distance between DeLay and Buckham. Asked when the last time DeLay spoke with his former chief of staff and minister, Cullen said, “I would think it’s been some time.”
Cullen said he has voluntarily turned over to federal investigators about 100 e-mails written by DeLay staffers over the years that had to do with Abramoff, adding that his last contact with Mary Butler, the Justice lawyer leading the prosecution, came around Thanksgiving. He said that DeLay has no concerns about the investigation “as long as people are telling the truth.”
“Tom DeLay was [not] aware of the wrongs that Mr. Rudy was committing,” Cullen said.
Ney — whose actions have now been clearly identified in the Scanlon, Abramoff and Rudy pleas — claimed vindication in at least one critical aspect of the allegations against him. His office pointed to portion of the Rudy plea agreement in which Rudy says he invited Ney and his chief of staff, Will Heaton, on May 24, 2002, to a trip to Scotland.
In the Abramoff agreement, Abramoff had said that Ney was the one who requested the Scotland trip, placing a potentially greater criminal liability on Ney’s shoulders, given that Ney was helping the lobbyist’s client, the Tigua tribe of El Paso, Texas, in an effort to reopen their tribal casino. The Abramoff plea also said that the Tiguas were raising money for the Ney trip, which ended up costing more than $161,000, according to documents released by Senate investigators.
Ney has always said he didn’t know who paid for the trip and has said that Abramoff led him to believe it was a nonprofit on which Abramoff served as a board member.
“What this agreement makes clear for the first time is that, contrary to what has been misrepresented by others in the past, Congressman Ney in fact never solicited the trip to Scotland,” said Brian Walsh, Ney’s spokesman.
The Abramoff plea agreement in January also alleged that the bribery portion involving Ney began in 1999 and ran through April 2004. This suggests that any crimes that occurred in 1997 and 1998 did not involve Ney.
However, the most significant piece of Rudy’s plea deal may be its description of how the DeLay legislative and political world operated.
In at least three instances, court filings point out official actions that were taken in DeLay’s office that benefited Abramoff, his clients or Buckham. The plea deal and the accompanying documents do not mention DeLay by name, calling him “Representative #2.” (Ney is “Representative #1.”)
The Rudy plea deal never specifically alleges that DeLay took actions by himself to benefit the lobbyists, but several significant actions were taken that would be difficult for a staffer to orchestrate on his own, according to lawyers and aides familiar with Congressional operations.
In particular, Rudy pleaded guilty to working with “others” in 2000 to get appropriations for a key Abramoff client, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands — money that had been sought by Abramoff and Buckham. (Buckham was also not specifically named and instead was euphemistically referred to as “Lobbyist B”.)
Rudy had already worked with Scanlon, Abramoff and Buckham to line up staffers to travel to the CNMI in January 2000, including some on Ney’s staff. And in the spring of 2000, according to the plea deal, Rudy “obtained a letter” from DeLay opposing a postal rate increase that was being fought by the Magazine Publishers of America, an Abramoff client.
The publishers, along with Abramoff’s longest retained client, the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, funneled $50,000 to Rudy’s wife’s firm, Liberty Consulting — a deal that, according to Rudy’s plea agreement, was orchestrated by Abramoff and Buckham.
After leaving DeLay’s payroll at the end of 2000, Rudy joined Abramoff at his new firm, Greenberg Traurig, and, according to the plea deal, immediately began breaking the one-year ban on lobbying DeLay’s office. His first action, the agreement says, was to secure DeLay’s support for legislation for reparations payments. On March 22, 2001, DeLay signed on as the lead GOP co-sponsor of a bill to allow prisoners of war held by the Japanese during World War II to use federal courts to seek “compensation” from Japanese businesses in the United States “in connection with labor performed in Japan to the benefit of the Japanese nationals,” according the bill language.
The author of the bill was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a longtime friend of Abramoff who has continued supporting him throughout the investigation and even wrote a letter to a federal judge last month seeking leniency for Abramoff’s prison sentence.
Cullen declined to address the specifics of the allegations emerging from the Rudy plea agreement. But he said generally that DeLay either had no idea what Rudy and Scanlon were doing or that all of the actions he took comported with his long-held conservative views and were not the result of any influence-peddling by Abramoff or his ex-staffers.
“There’s no allegation that Mr. DeLay did anything for an improper reason,” Cullen said.
Another potentially critical element to the Abramoff and Rudy pleas, as related to DeLay, is that their criminal conspiracies begin in 1997 — just as DeLay and Abramoff’s professional relationship went global.
In August 1997, Abramoff took DeLay on a trip to Moscow, where he met with energy officials there. And in December 1997, Abramoff took DeLay and his family to the CNMI, where the lawmaker met with Abramoff’s clients and called him a close friend.
Cullen said he has told Butler, the lead prosecutor, that DeLay stands ready to continue cooperating with the case.
“We have nothing to hide,” he said.