Monday, November 28, 2005

Lifted veil: Lobbyist's guilty plea exposes Washington influence peddling at its most corrupt

Lobbyists, their clients and the government officials to whom they give money and perks have long maintained that there is no direct connection between money and gifts and official actions. The guilty plea of lobbyist Michael Scanlon, charged with defrauding Indian tribes and conspiring to bribe government officials, makes it much harder to maintain that fiction.

Scanlon, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, is cooperating with prosecutors. His partner in the scheme was lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has been charged in an unrelated case with committing fraud in the purchase of a gambling cruise ship line.

U.S. Rep. Robert W. Ney of Ohio admits he is "Representative No. 1" in the government's charge against Scanlon. But his lawyer denies there was any link between various wining and dining and gifts and Ney's official acts benefiting Scanlon, Abramoff and their clients. Ney and staff members were beneficiaries of a golfing trip to Scotland arranged by Abramoff.

If Ney and his lawyer are right, and no wrongdoing took place, that might be the biggest scandal of all. Lobbyists and the special interests they represent can give members of Congress money and many of the things and pleasures money can buy, and still maintain with a straight face that the loot does not influence an official's behavior.

The case of Scanlon and Abramoff is more egregious than the run-of-the-mill influence peddling in Washington because the amounts are so large. According to Scanlon's plea, he and Abramoff defrauded Indian tribes of at least $53 million. As for Abramoff, the events surrounding his purchase of the cruise line are even more appalling. Three mobsters hired as "consultants" to the cruise line stand charged with the gangland-style murder of the line's previous owner.

The taint might go beyond K Street and Capitol Hill to the White House. David H. Safavian, a White House procurement official, was indicted for allegedly lying to investigators about his relationship to Abramoff.

However the case involving Scanlon and Abramoff turns out, the only way to clean up the mess is for the voters to elect officials who will put the public interest above the ministrations of lobbyists paid to promote their clients' narrow agendas.

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