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The Corrupting Influence of Money and Power in Washington

One of Washington's most powerful lobbyists, Jack Abramoff, pleaded guilty to corruption charges twice this week, in Washington on Tuesday and in Florida on Wednesday. The charges of conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion stemmed from a federal investigation of influence peddling in Washington. VOA's Peter Fedynsky reports that Abramoff fell victim to the temptations of money and power in the nation's capital.

In 1988, Jack Abramoff was a rising Republican star who spoke at the Party's nominating convention that year. Since then, Abramoff earned tens of millions of dollars as a lobbyist for gambling casinos owned by American Indian tribes, who sought favorable laws from Congress to protect their financial interests.

David Boaz, Executive Vice-President of the Cato Institute think tank in Washington, says Abramoff's downfall was not lobbying, but greed. "There are honorable and decent lobbyists. There are people who are here to represent an interest group, a state, an ethnic group. But I think he represents what lobbying can come to, and he reminds us that when you put a lot of money out on a platter, people are going to want to get a hold of it, and they're going to use any means necessary to get hold of it," said Mr. Boaz.

Alice Fisher, the U.S. Deputy Attorney General said, "Government officials and government action are not for sale." She also says the Justice Department will aggressively investigate and prosecute cases like Abramoff's, which have a devastating impact on the public's trust of government.

Ms. Fisher added, "We will not shy away from that responsibility no matter where the trail leads."

That trail is expected to lead to Congress. Jack Abramoff, in a deal with prosecutors to get a reduced sentence, is likely to implicate lawmakers who accepted his bribes.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, an organization that promotes civic values, says Washington corruption scandals usually affect the majority party. "That doesn't mean there are no efforts to influence the minority parties, but the principal efforts almost always involve the party in power, the party or the individuals from that party who can deliver results."

Today, that means the Republican Party. In the 1980s, it was the Democrats in Congress. Several were arrested after they accepted bribes from FBI agents posing as Arab oil sheikhs.

The Cato Institute's David Boze says honest lawmakers are those who come to Washington to serve the people or to advance a specific idea. He says those who fall victim to material temptations lack the strength to do what is right. "It's moral weakness, but it's also specifically philosophical weakness. If you're not here for any particular purpose, then you're going to find yourself very comfortable taking dinners from lobbyists."

Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 says it is human nature to take advantage of any system, but that voluntary respect for the law as well as strong enforcement are the best ways to keep corruption to a minimum. "Another key to complying with rules is an understanding that the rules are going to be applied to everyone in the same way; that there is not one set of rules for the powerful and the wealthy, and another set of rules for everyone else."

Jack Abramoff and those he allegedly bribed are not the first, nor are they likely to be the last, corrupt individuals in Washington. Having pleaded guilty, Abramoff will be sentenced to considerable time in jail. If prosecutors find corroborating evidence against any politicians he names, they too will lose the freedom and power they once enjoyed.