January 05, 2006


With the news of Abramoff's plea deal yesterday (but for technical difficulties, this post would have been up already), let's take a look at how it's playing in the media. Keep in mind that there are two sides to this: political and legal.

A typical local report went something like KHOU's:

A high-powered lobbyist with ties to congressman Tom Delay cut a tell-all deal with the Feds.

What does Jack Abramoff's guilty plea mean for DeLay?

No question that's the big question now. How will this impact the former House Majority Leader and word is, about a dozen other congressmen.

None of Tuesday's charges connect Abramoff and DeLay, but Travis County's prosecutor is now issuing subpoenas for records linking the Sugar Land Republican to the lobbyist.

Insiders believe the noose is tightening on some after Abramoff's guilty plea.
Jack Abramoff's guilty pleas, revealed among other things, a stunning fraud scheme. He admits to bilking Indian tribes of more than $60 million and getting nearly half of that in kickbacks.

"Abramoff admitted today to his participation in an extensive corruption shceme. Abramoff gave things of value to public officials including foreign and domestic trips, campaign contributions, excessive meal and entertainment," said Justice Department spokesperson Alice Fisher.
Meanwhile, Todd Gillman wrote in the Dallas Morning News that:
Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and lobbyist Jack Abramoff had been friends for years, trading easily on each other's success. One rose to the pinnacle of power in Congress. The other became the most sought-after lobbyist in town. They built a politically potent network of former aides, lobbyists and comrades-in-arms.

The question hanging over Washington on Tuesday: Could Mr. Abramoff's plummet and plea deal drag down his longtime ally?


During the Marianas visit, Mr. DeLay called Mr. Abramoff "one of my closest and dearest friends," though by early 2004, when a Senate committee had begun investigating the lobbyist, Mr. DeLay tried to distance himself, telling reporters that "if anybody is trading on my name to get clients or make money, that is wrong and they should stop it."
That's contradicted by one of the Washington Post's articles (who has generally done the deepest reporting on Abramoff) that said:
Soon [Abramoff] developed a key alliance with Rep. Tom DeLay, a conservative Republican from Texas who was working his way up in the House leadership. The two met at a DeLay fundraiser on Capitol Hill in 1995, according to a former senior DeLay aide. The aide recalled that Edwin A. Buckham, then DeLay's chief of staff, told his boss: "We really need to work with Abramoff; he is going to be an important lobbyist and fundraiser."

DeLay, a Christian conservative, did not quite know what to make of Abramoff, who wore a beard and a yarmulke. They forged political ties, but the two men never became personally close, according to associates of both men.
More from Gillman's DMN article:
Jan Baran, a Republican ethics lawyer who once represented Speaker Newt Gingrich, said the plea deal might carry no implications for Mr. DeLay.

"There's nothing in [Abramoff court documents] that involves him or suggests his involvement. ... If the Justice Department has some information about other public officials, they presumably would have included it by now," he said.

He noted that courts are strict when it comes to enforcing bribery law. Prosecutors must prove quid pro quo -- Latin for "something for something." Mr. DeLay got favors from Mr. Abramoff. But so did several hundred colleagues.

Bribery would require proving the legislators offered a specific legislative favor in exchange for the power lunches, golf outings, trips and campaign cash. Accepting such dining and activities without the promise of legislative action is routine and legal in Washington.

As I said before, there are two elements to this: legal and political. Wonkette herself, Ana Marie Cox wrote today in the New York Times:
But who is actually going to receive Jack Abramoff's Lady-and-the-Tramp-style kiss of death? The only plausible candidate at the moment is Representative Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican who appears to be a rather ham-fisted bungler. Mr. Abramoff had dealings with dozens of Washington bigwigs, yet Representative Ney is the only one to make a (pseudonymous) appearance in the indictment.

What Mr. Ney did was either very bad or very stupid, likely both. But he hardly needed Mr. Abramoff to besmirch his reputation: he has recently drawn scrutiny for the unlikely feat of winning $34,000 on an initial $100 bet during a London casino romp, and on another junket he met with a convicted con artist whom MSNBC reported had "cheated on his taxes and was involved in a deal to swindle Elvis Presley." Mr. Ney refused to discuss these issues with the press because of "national security implications." Well, Richard Nixon did give Elvis a federal drug agent's badge.

Despite the desperate glee of the editorializers and the almost-as-desperate rinsing of Abramoff funds from Republican coffers, the smell in the air is panic, not blood. In order to cast their net beyond Diamond Bob Ney, the feds would have to, as one Republican source told the Times, "pursue a different definition of bribery" - that is, prove that "if somebody were to give a gift or a campaign contribution in the same time period as a member took an official action, that in and of itself would constitute bribery." And you thought Patrick Fitzgerald was criminalizing politics.

Sad to admit it, but most of what Jack Abramoff did with politicians (as opposed to his outright fraud with Indian tribes) wasn't criminal so much as extreme. The Hollywood arc would have a chain-gang of Congressmen breaking rocks by the final reel, but we are unlikely to get such satisfaction outside of celluloid.
Legally, Cox is very likely right. The conventional wisdom right now is that Ney ends up not running for re-election, but is the only one right now who seems likely to take the fall in regards to Abramoff (unless there are "smoking guns" in Abramoff's files, which I rather doubt). On the other hand, Abramoff's plea deal requires him to provide evidence about lawmakers. Abramoff has a strong incentive to do whatever he can to make prosecutors pleased with him.

DeLay's opponents are likely to bring the issue up again. There are probably two ways they will try to frame it:
1) "aura of corruption." That is, despite lack of legal problems for Delay re: Abramoff, the fact that some of DeLay's former aides turned out to be bad apples, it de facto is a problem.

That was the basic charge that Newt Gingrich kept alive in his ethics allegations against then-Speaker Jim Wright in the 80s, but then it turned out that Wright had actually done something wrong. He'd sold lots of his books to people as a way to make money for himself, and so he had to resign because Democrats began to abandon Wright. (Incidentally, this story, along with the rest of the story behind Wright's rise and fall as Speaker of the House, is told in The Ambition and the Power, which just happens to be over on my sidebar.)

DeLay's opponents will almost certainly try to combine the Earle indictment with his ties to Abramoff. I've always been skeptical about arguments that this will win elections by themselves. Absent actual legal problems (that is, assuming DeLay wins on the Earle indictment...because if he doesn't, then the issue is moot), then ethics issues aren't usually as successful as their proponents hope. Remember IranContra and Whitewater? Reagan and Clinton both went on to be very popular presidents, despite the scandals. I could probably do a post examining the recent history of ethics issues in campaigns...and in fact I might.

Of course, if current events make the story is fresh in voter's minds during a general election, it is definitely dangerous for DeLay. Timing is everything.

2) DeLay's opponents can charge that DeLay has changed from the guy who attacked Democrats for accepting lobbyist-paid trips. This is probably easier to get voters to accept -- lots of voters think people change as soon as they're elected, whether it's true or not -- but it's much less persuasive and motivating to voters.

Now, when I've been saying "DeLay's opponents," I don't necessarily mean DeLay's GOP primary opponents. I think DeLay's primary opponents they will be much more careful, because if they go too far, they won't help themselves with GOP primary voters. His primary opponents are likely to be much more careful, choosing instead phrases like "we should have a Congressman we are proud of."

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