WASHINGTON -- Lobbyist Jack Abramoff yesterday pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion charges in one of the biggest corruption cases in recent Washington history, agreeing to cooperate with prosecutors who are investigating whether members of Congress took bribes from him in exchange for favors.
Abramoff admitted that he told Indian tribes to give money to a lobbying firm while hiding his own $20 million take and that he also tried to bribe public officials, the government said.
The plea bargain sent shockwaves through Capitol Hill as lawmakers awaited word on possible indictments of members of Congress. The government said Abramoff gave ''money, meals, trips, and entertainment to public officials and their relatives . . . in return for agreements to perform official acts."
The indictment did not provide the name of any public official who took action after receiving money or gifts from Abramoff. But it does refer to Abramoff's collaboration with an unnamed member of Congress. Yesterday Representative Robert W. Ney, Republican of Ohio, issued a statement indicating that he was the unnamed member, and denied any wrongdoing.
In pleading guilty, Abramoff told US District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle: ''Words will not ever be able to express my sorrow and my profound regret for all my actions and mistakes. I hope I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and those I've wronged or caused to suffer."
The head of the Justice Department's criminal division, Alice S. Fisher, vowed to continue the investigation no matter where it leads.
''Government officials and government action are not for sale," she said at a news conference. ''The Justice Department will aggressively investigate and prosecute these types of cases, which have a devastating impact on the public's trust of government."
The charges against Abramoff revolved around his scheme to collect $20 million from Indian tribes in Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, and Texas.
Separately, Abramoff today is expected to plead guilty to charges involving fraudulent financial dealings in seeking to purchase a Miami cruise ship company, a deal that was largely unrelated to his tribal lobbying.
Abramoff, 46, faces up to 30 years in jail for the Washington-based charges, but prosecutors said that could be cut to 9 1/2 years under sentencing guidelines, with a possible further reduction for cooperating with the government in cases against others. He is expected to pay $25 million in fines to his victims and $1.7 million in evaded federal taxes. Prison time from his Miami charges could be served concurrently with his Washington-based charges, a Justice official said.
The case has been the talk of Washington for months because Abramoff has been a close associate of many leading officials, most of them Republicans. Abramoff was a top fund-raiser for President Bush and worked closely with Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader who resigned his leadership post late last year after being indicted in a separate case alleging violation of Texas voting laws.
In addition, Abramoff had close dealings with such high-profile Republicans as antitax activist Grover G. Norquist and former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed.
Abramoff's role unraveled partly because of hundreds of e-mails between Abramoff and various associates obtained by federal investigators. While Abramoff represented himself publicly as a pious man who worked on behalf of tribal interests, he described tribal leaders in one e-mail as ''moronic," adding: ''I'd love us to get our mitts on that moola!! Oh well, stupid folks get wiped out."
Prosecutors made the deal with Abramoff partly in hopes of gaining new information for their investigation into the activities of an undisclosed number of public officials, including members of Congress and congressional aides.
Abramoff urged tribes to give money to numerous public officials, and at least two dozen members of Congress have returned contributions related to Abramoff. Senator Conrad Burns, Republican of Montana, returned $150,000 just before Christmas. Senator Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, returned $67,000. Both have denied wrongdoing.
Abramoff got his start in politics at Brandeis University in Massachusetts in 1980, organizing college Republicans and forming an alliance with a Weston native, Norquist, who was rallying GOP members at Harvard Business School. The pair moved to Washington, where they worked for the national party with another rising GOP star, Reed.
Abramoff's lobbying for tribes took off in the late 1990s, when some Republicans were pushing for a tax on Indian casino profits. Abramoff was hired by tribes to help kill the tax idea. Then Abramoff started collecting millions of dollars from tribes to help other casino interests.
The indictment cited four examples of how Abramoff exploited tribes, in conjunction with Capitol Campaign Strategies, the firm run by his partner, Michael Scanlon, a former DeLay press secretary who has pleaded guilty in a related case. The indictment declared that by concealing their conspiracy, Abramoff and Scanlon violated laws against fraudulent dealings. The two called the scheme ''Gimmie Five," shorthand for Abramoff's collection of half of the profits:
Abramoff advised the Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians to hire Capitol Campaign Strategies for $14 million without disclosing to the tribe that he had secretly arranged to receive $6.4 million in that arrangement.
Abramoff advised the Louisiana Coushatta tribe to pay his partner, Michael Scanlon, and others $31 million without disclosing to the tribe that he would receive $11.4 million.
Abramoff advised the Michigan Saginaw Chippewa tribe to pay Capitol Campaign Strategies $3.5 million without disclosing to the tribe that he would receive $540,000.
Abramoff persuaded the Texas Tigua tribe to pay Scanlon $4.2 million in its effort to win approval for reopening its casino, without disclosing to the tribe that Abramoff would receive $1.8 million and that Abramoff was working separately to oppose the Tigua's effort to reopen the casino.
No charges were filed related to the work by Abramoff's firm for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts, which paid $50,000 to two of Abramoff's partners as part of an effort to win federal recognition and possibly build a casino.
While Abramoff's dealings with the tribes were widely publicized during Senate hearings into his tribal lobbying, his relationships with members of Congress received far less scrutiny during that probe. As a result, there has been much tension on Capitol Hill about whether Abramoff would strike a deal and implicate lawmakers. Those fears may have been increased by a portion of the Abramoff indictment that refers to ''bribery and . . . fraud involving public officials."
Much of the speculation yesterday was focused on Ney, the chairman of the Committee on House Administration. Ney's congressional website notes that he has been described as the 11th most powerful member of Congress.
The indictment says Abramoff ''provided a stream of things of value to a Member of the United States House of Representatives (Representative #1) and his staff." The indictment says that gifts include ''a lavish trip to Scotland to play on world famous courses, tickets to sporting events, and other entertainment," and campaign contributions.
Some of the money for the Scotland trip came from a $50,000 donation Abramoff arranged from the Tigua tribe, the indictment said.
In exchange for those gifts, the indictment says, the congressman worked on ''advancing the application" by an Abramoff client to get a wireless telephone system installed in House offices.
As soon as Abramoff's plea bargain was released, Ney issued a statement alluding to his involvement with Abramoff in matters covered by the indictment, but denying any wrongdoing.
''At the time I dealt with Jack Abramoff, I obviously did not know, and had no way of knowing, the self-serving and fraudulent nature of Abramoff's activities," Ney said in a statement yesterday. His spokesman added that ''the truth will show that congressman Ney did nothing wrong."
Representative Martin T. Meehan, the Lowell Democrat, said he hoped that the plea bargain will lead Congress to tighten lobbying restrictions, just as the Watergate scandal prompted limits on campaign contributions. Meehan has proposed legislation that requires lobbyists to disclose meetings with members of Congress, among other measures.
''Given the plea bargain agreement, there is an assumption that there is more to this case than we know," Meehan said, when asked in a telephone interview about the state of concern about possible future indictments. ''This agreement means that Abramoff's web of corruption will begin to unravel. That can only help our efforts to pass meaningful lobbying and ethics reforms."
The plea deal follows a number of high-profile cases affecting top Republicans, including the DeLay indictment, the indictment of former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis ''Scooter" Libby in the CIA leak case, and a guilty plea on bribery charges by former US representative Randy ''Duke" Cunningham.