How far will it go? That's what many nervous officials in Washington are wondering as they brace for what is showing signs of becoming the biggest influence-peddling scandal in decades. An investigation that began nearly two years ago into whether lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his associate Michael Scanlon bilked six Indian tribes out of $80 million now looks as though it could touch dozens of lawmakers, their current and former staff members and Bush Administration officials. The Justice Department is preparing to test whether accepting lawfully reported campaign contributions may constitute corruption, subjecting Washington politicians to an entirely new standard. Even those who are not in legal jeopardy over their dealings with Abramoff and Scanlon could face embarrassing questions at home. All of which is about the last thing the Republicans who control Congress wanted to hear as they move into what is an already hostile political climate for next year's midterm elections. "There's certainly a sense of foreboding among Republicans that this is the big one," says Charlie Cook, whose nonpartisan Cook Political Report tracks congressional elections. "This is the one that could really catch on."
Last week produced the biggest development yet in the case: a plea agreement by public relations man Scanlon, who was once a press secretary for Texas Congressman Tom DeLay. In the agreement, Scanlon acknowledged that he and "Lobbyist A" (Abramoff) showered "Representative #1" (Ohio Congressman Bob Ney) and his staff with lavish trips, tickets to sporting events and concerts, sports-arena boxes for fund raisers, campaign contributions, golf outings and free meals at Abramoff's "upscale restaurant," Signatures. The plea agreement alleges that Ney, chairman of the House Administration Committee, provided "official acts and influence," including introducing legislation, and giving a leg up to an Abramoff client's bid to install cell-phone antennas in the House buildings. It also charges that Ney pressured Administration officials on behalf of Abramoff and Scanlon's clients. Ney denies having acted improperly. "Whenever Representative Ney took official action--actions similar to those taken by elected representatives every day as part of the normal, appropriate legislative process--he did so based on his best understanding of what was right and not based on any improper influence," Ney spokesman Brian Walsh said.
The plea agreement suggests that Ney is only one of numerous public officials the feds are looking at and that Scanlon, who has been cooperating with them since June, could be their star witness. Says Scanlon's attorney Stephen Braga: "The government's investigation is much broader--and Mr. Scanlon's cooperation in that investigation is much more extensive--than [the facts] recited in the plea-agreement papers." Adding to lawmakers' concerns is that federal authorities may be lowering the bar for corruption cases from earlier scandals in which, typically, individuals blatantly handed politicians expensive gifts and cash. At a time when money is flowing into politics as never before, the Justice Department is suggesting that legally reported campaign contributions may constitute bribery if it can be proved that they were given in return for official actions.