Poor Tom DeLay. He won't be able to blame this on Ronnie Earle.
The Justice Department's wide-reaching investigation of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff has entered a highly active phase as prosecutors are beginning to move on evidence pointing to possible corruption in Congress and executive branch agencies, lawyers in the case said.
Prosecutors have told one lawmaker, Rep. Robert Ney, R-Ohio, and his former chief of staff that they are preparing a possible bribery case against them, according to two sources knowledgeable about the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The 35 to 40 investigators and prosecutors on the Abramoff case are focused on at least half a dozen members of Congress, lawyers and others close to the investigation said. The investigators are looking at payments made by Abramoff and his colleagues to the wives of some lawmakers and at actions taken by senior Hill aides, some of whom went to work for Abramoff at the law firm Greenberg Traurig, the sources.
Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, now facing separate campaign finance charges in Texas, is one of the members under scrutiny, the sources said. Others include Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., and several members of Congress involved with Indian affairs, one of Abramoff's key areas of interest.
Prosecutions and plea deals have become more likely, the lawyers said, now that Abramoff's former partner — public relations executive Michael Scanlon — has agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy and to testify about gifts that he and his K Street colleagues showered on lawmakers, allegedly in exchange for official favors.
The events in 2000 that interest investigators are connected to the purchase by Abramoff and business partner Adam Kidan of SunCruz Casinos, owner of a fleet of Florida gambling boats.
Ney twice placed comments in the Congressional Record about SunCruz, first criticizing its former owner when Abramoff and Kidan were in difficult purchase negotiations, then, in October, praising Kidan's new management. Abramoff and Kidan are facing trial in January on charges they defrauded lenders in their purchase of the casino boats.
Investigators also are gathering information about Abramoff's hiring of several congressional wives, sources said, as well as his referral of clients to Alexander Strategy Group, a lobbying and consulting firm run by former senior aides to DeLay. Financial disclosure forms show that the firm employed DeLay's wife, Christine, from 1998 to 2002.
Alexander Strategy Group is run by former DeLay senior staffers Edwin Buckham and Tony Rudy. Rudy served as DeLay's deputy chief of staff until 2001, when he took a job with Abramoff, and later moved on to join Buckham.
Richard Cullen, an attorney for the DeLays, said Christine DeLay was hired by Buckham, an old family friend, to determine the favorite charity of every member of Congress. She was paid $3,200 to $3,400 a month for three years, or about $115,000 total, he said.