A once powerful Washington lobbyist pleaded guilty to criminal corruption charges Tuesday as part of an agreement to cooperate with federal prosecutors investigating alleged influence peddling in the U.S. Congress.
Lobbyist Jack Abramoff pled guilty to charges of conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud in connection with his efforts to influence members of Congress.
Abramoff appeared before a federal judge in Washington and acknowledged that he engaged in a criminal conspiracy involving the corruption of public officials. He expressed sorrow and regret and asked for forgiveness.
Abramoff also faces separate fraud charges in connection with his attempts to a buy a cruise ship line in Florida.
As part of his plea bargain agreement with prosecutors, Abramoff will now cooperate in a wide ranging Justice Department investigation looking at his efforts to influence as many as 20 members of Congress and congressional staffers, including former Republican House leader Tom Delay of Texas.
"Government officials and government action are not for sale," said U.S. Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher. "The Justice Department will aggressively investigate and prosecute these types of cases, which have a devastating impact on the public's trust of government. We will not shy away from that responsibility no matter where the trail leads."
Democratic political consultant Michael Feldman says the fact that Jack Abramoff is now cooperating with prosecutors is making some lawmakers nervous.
"The very fact that he has reached a deal means that he has some information to offer and my guess is that there are members of Congress and senior staff who are very uneasy as a result," said Mr. Feldman.
Part of the case against Jack Abramoff involves allegations that he defrauded Indian tribes in several states of millions of dollars and that he sought to buy influence with several members of Congress by giving them lavish gifts and campaign contributions in violation of the law.
Most of the Abramoff gifts were directed to Republican members of Congress, but some Democrats accepted contributions as well. In recent weeks, several lawmakers have returned contributions from Abramoff.
Abramoff also raised money for President Bush's re-election campaign last year, but White House spokesman Scott McClellan could not say whether the president had ever met the once-powerful lobbyist.
"The wrongdoing that he apparently now is acknowledging he is involved in is outrageous and if he broke laws, he needs to be held to account and he needs to be punished," he said.
The political fallout from the Abramoff case could be significant.
University of Virginia expert Larry Sabato says the main reason for that is that Jack Abramoff tried to spread his influence around to so many members of Congress.
"Not all of them are guilty," he explained. "Not all of them even knew who he was. But there are bound to be more than a few who are deeply involved and in trouble."
Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg expects opposition Democrats to focus on the Abramoff influence peddling scandal as they try to make gains in congressional elections in November.
"We do not know and it is up to the Democrats over the next nine or 10 months to connect the dots from individual scandal, member to member to member, and then make that a party wide scandal," he said. "And we do not know if they are going to be able to do it."
Abramoff could be sentenced to as much as 30 years in prison for his guilty pleas. But that sentence could be reduced, depending on his level of cooperation with prosecutors.