WASHINGTON – The bribery investigation involving influence-peddler Jack Abramoff may have been stymied by a federal judge in Florida just as prosecutors began asking questions about the lobbyist's ties to the White House.
U.S. District Judge Paul Huck refused to delay Abramoff's prison sentence for fraud charges Thursday, rejecting a plea by the Justice Department's top corruption prosecutor, who said Abramoff was providing information about officials whose names hadn't yet surfaced in the case.
In the past month, the FBI has been pursuing leads about Abramoff's access to the White House and whether he was able to help lawmakers get Bush administration backing for their bills, according to someone familiar with the direction of the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity because of its secrecy.
A congressional report released Friday showed that Abramoff had hundreds of contacts with White House officials over three years, including 10 with top Bush aide Karl Rove. While Abramoff provided officials with meals or tickets to sporting events, the report said his efforts to influence presidential appointments and nominations "were often not successful."
During Thursday's court hearing in Miami, Ed Nucci, acting chief of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, did not mention any targets of the Abramoff case. He told the judge, however, that with the disgraced former lobbyist behind bars, "what we need from Mr. Abramoff will be impossible to get."
Huck ordered Abramoff to report for his nearly six-year prison sentence Nov. 15. Justice Department officials had asked for at least an extra month and could have returned to court then for another extension.
"There are so many areas that have to be explored and so many pockets," Nucci said during Thursday's hearing.
Huck, who was appointed to the bench by President Clinton, said Abramoff should not receive special treatment. Abramoff pleaded guilty in Florida to concocting a fake wire transfer to buy an offshore gambling fleet.
"My main concern is, there comes a time when people have to pay the piper, so to speak. I think that time has come," Huck said.
Abramoff pleaded in the Florida case on Jan. 3. Hours later, he flew to Washington to plead guilty to bribing members of Congress.
Since then, Abramoff and others have provided information that helped prosecutors win guilty pleas from Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and several congressional aides. In recent weeks, discussion has also turned to the White House.
The Justice Department had no comment Friday evening about how it would continue debriefing Abramoff on the newly shortened timeline.
Officials also declined to say whether they would ask Huck to reconsider his ruling. Prosecutors had told Huck they would be willing to file sealed documents describing Abramoff's help, but as of Friday evening they had not.
Prosecutors have already won guilty pleas from Abramoff, Ney's former chief of staff and two aides to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Former Bush White House official David Safavian was found guilty in June of covering up his dealings with Abramoff while in the General Services Administration.
Abramoff and the House aides are cooperating in the bribery investigations.
Others under scrutiny who have not been charged and maintain their innocence include DeLay and Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who received about $150,000 in donations from Abramoff and his associates and whose aides traveled on the lobbyist's jet to the 2001 Super Bowl.
Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., also used Abramoff's luxury sports box for a fundraiser without initially reporting it. Doolittle's wife and one of his former aides worked for Abramoff.
Steven Griles, a former deputy Interior Department secretary, is also under scrutiny, as is Italia Federici, former Interior Secretary Gale Norton's political fundraiser.