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How far will Abramoff scandal reach?

A number of lawmakers are under investigation for their connections with Jack Abramoff.

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What worries Washington most about the corruption scandal with ex-superlobbyist Jack Abramoff at the epicenter is how far it will reach.

Even those who never watched the Redskins play from his skybox, dined gratis at his Signatures restaurant, or teed off at St. Andrews in Scotland on his credit card are scrambling for cover.

While only one lawmaker was explicitly described in Mr. Abramoff's plea agreement - Rep. Bob Ney (R) of Ohio - hundreds more accepted funds from Abramoff and his wife, Pamela, or his tribal clients. And that's the rub.

It's not a crime to accept contributions from lobbyists. It's a bribe only if there's evidence of an agreement to perform an official act in exchange. But the political damage can go further.

"Careers usually end when the indictment is brought, whether [the accused] are cleared or not. Very few survive an election, once an indictment has been brought," says Stanley Brand, a Washington defense attorney who advised House Speaker Tip O'Neill during the 1978 ABSCAM bribery case, an FBI sting operation that convicted five House members and a senator.

Many on Capitol Hill say the Abramoff affair could eclipse ABSCAM. With Abramoff's help, federal prosecutors say, they are unraveling an "extensive" corruption scheme. While prosecutors have not disclosed the number of lawmakers under investigation, speculation runs from a half-dozen to as many as 60. At least a dozen FBI field offices are now involved in the investigation.

"Government action is not for sale," said Alice Fisher, head of the Justice Department's criminal division at a news conference announcing the plea agreement this week. Prosecutors will follow the evidence "no matter where that trail leads," she added.

Several lawmakers are already under fire in their home districts for ties to Abramoff. Mr. Ney, the first lawmaker to disclose that he is under investigation by the Justice Department, had submitted two statements into the Congressional Record bearing on a casino deal in Florida involving Abramoff and his associate, Michael Scanlon.

In return for this and other official acts, Mr. Ney and members of his staff got trips, including to Scotland for golf and Tampa, Fla., for the Super Bowl, tickets to sporting events, regular meals at Abramoff's upscale restaurant, and campaign contributions, according to information included in the plea agreement.


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