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Corruption Probe Targets Congress

Official Washington is nervously waiting for the next revelations in the criminal corruption case involving a former high-powered lobbyist, Jack Abramoff. He has admitted trying to improperly influence members of Congress with gifts and campaign contributions and is now cooperating with prosecutors in a massive investigation that could implicate several lawmakers in a bribery scandal.

The art of lobbying politicians is as old as the Republic. In fact, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of Americans to, in its words, petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The term lobbyist became popular in the early to mid 19th century when people seeking influence or favors from lawmakers would wait in corridors, reception rooms, and even hotel lobbies in hopes of a chance meeting to make their case.

But there is often a fine line between lobbying and bribery, and federal prosecutors say former high-profile lobbyist Jack Abramoff crossed that line numerous times.

U.S. Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher detailed what she described as Abramoff's extensive corruption scheme at a Justice Department news conference.

"Abramoff gave things of value to public officials including foreign and domestic trips, campaign contributions, excessive meals and entertainment and others things of value all with the intent and at times with the understanding that the public official would act to benefit Abramoff or his clients," she said. "As admitted by Abramoff, his actions often produced the official influence that he sought."

Abramoff is now cooperating with prosecutors in an investigation that will probe his connections with as many as 20 members of Congress and their aides.

Political analysts say Abramoff's plea bargain deal with prosecutors could have huge political implications.

Larry Sabato directs the Institute for Politics at the University of Virginia.

"People on Capitol Hill should be very nervous, because Jack Abramoff's plea deal depends entirely on his ability to feed highly damning information about congressmen and congressional staff to prosecutors," he said.

The impact of the Abramoff corruption scandal could be felt in this year's congressional midterm elections when all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and one-third of the 100 seats in the Senate will be at stake.

Once again, analyst Larry Sabato.

"The only reason why an average person should care would be if Abramoff did indeed bribe members of Congress, because fundamentally, our representatives are supposed to be responsive to us and not to lobbyists and not to those with big money," he added.

Jack Abramoff is a Republican who gained influence as a lobbyist with members of Congress after Republicans won control of both the House and Senate in the 1994 elections.

Although he gave more to Republicans over the years, Abramoff also made contributions to Democrats.

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says lawmakers from both parties could be vulnerable in the elections this year, because of their connections with Abramoff.

"This is going to set off what is likely to be a major political scandal," said Mr. Rothenberg. "We have to see whether it affects one party or both, but it is clearly a problem for a number of members of Congress."

In recent weeks, members of Congress from both parties as well as President Bush's re-election campaign have given campaign donations they received from Jack Abramoff to charity.

The budding Abramoff scandal has also become a rallying cry for restricting the power of lobbyists and for campaign finance reform in general.

Former House Speaker and Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich told the public affairs network C-SPAN that the entire system needs to be changed.

"I think that the degree to which lobbying has become a gigantic industry is something which should concern every American, and I think we need to completely revisit both election law, how we raise money, and the ground rules for lobbying in Washington," said Mr. Gingrich. "So, I hope this will be a wake up call that there is something profoundly wrong with the system when somebody like Abramoff could exist."

Jack Abramoff's major clients were Native American Indian tribes who hired him to help advance their casino businesses with members of Congress. But as part of his plea deal, Abramoff has admitted that he and his business partner swindled the Indian tribes out of millions of dollars and accomplished little on their behalf in Washington.