Published April 20, 2012
WASHINGTON – Tony Rudy was among the first people to plead guilty in the long-running probe of influence peddling tied to Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. On Friday, the former aide to Rep. Tom DeLay was the last person sentenced in an investigation that focused on Congress, racked up 21 convictions, yet netted only one lawmaker.
Rudy's cooperation over the past six years helped win convictions of 18 people, but U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle still gave Rudy a sentence of five months in a halfway house and three years of probation for his role in conspiring with Abramoff and others to accept a stream of gifts when Rudy was a staffer and to offer gifts to public officials when he became a lobbyist — all in exchange for legislative favors.
Team Abramoff's brazen behavior included lavish foreign trips for public officials, as well as frequent meals and tickets to sporting events. All the while, Abramoff and his coterie of former congressional aides were grossly overbilling their Indian tribe clients and secretly lobbying against them in order to create more need for lobbying services.
Abramoff spent 3 ½ years in federal prison for his crimes. His crimes have long since been depicted in a documentary movie and a Hollywood release, with actor Kevin Spacey playing Abramoff.
In recent months, Abramoff has been promoting his memoir recounting his time of influence. He says the reforms generated by the scandal that bears his name didn't go nearly far enough to eliminate the corruption.
Former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, was the only member of Congress charged in the investigation. He served a year in prison and six months in a halfway house for granting political favors to Abramoff and his lobbying associates in exchange for golf trips, including a pricey one to Scotland, other gifts and campaign donations. Ney briefly hosted a radio program in Ohio and now does occasional commentary for the Talk Radio News Service in Washington.
DeLay, a Texas Republican who rose to House majority leader, was one of several members of Congress who were investigated by the Justice Department but never charged. He was tried and convicted on state charges not related to the Abramoff investigation.
Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the Washington-based Public Citizen watchdog group, said the absence of charges against more members of Congress has bothered him. "They caught a lot of little fish, and they deserved to be caught, but not many bigger ones," Holman said.
The government acknowledged in a written report that Rudy "provided detailed information about his knowledge and interactions with several public officials and lobbyists who were significant parts of the Abramoff investigation," although the information did not lead to criminal charges.
Laura Miller, Rudy's lawyer, said in court Friday that "many public officials one might have thought would be charged weren't for a variety of reasons."
The Justice Department did not respond to questions about Rudy's cooperation or his sentence. But spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said: "The department is proud of the work it did in investigating and holding accountable 20 individuals, including a U.S. congressman, for their roles in the Abramoff matter. As we always do, we followed the facts and the law in bringing to justice these individuals for their crimes."
The revelations led to reforms in Congress to limit the wining and dining of lawmakers, and eliminate free trips. Abramoff has said the reforms don't go far enough because they don't impose limits on campaign contributions from lobbyists to lawmakers.
Holman, who helped draft the legislation, said the changes have made a big difference, but he also agreed with Abramoff on the need to cut off opportunities for lobbyists to collect campaign cash for the lawmakers they seek to influence.
Rudy, 45, has been living in California, where he runs a business that does marketing, among other things, he said in court Friday. He also has spent a lot of time coaching children's sports teams and doing other volunteer work, he said.
As a congressional aide, Rudy helped secure appropriations for Abramoff clients and developed a strategy to defeat legislation that would have restricted Internet gambling.
The government says that while Rudy worked for DeLay in the late 1990s, Abramoff's lobbying team paid $50,000 to Rudy's wife for what prosecutors described as a "low-show job." Prosecutors allege she was hired only because she was Rudy's wife and that Rudy continued to accept payments from Abramoff's associates even though he knew she had stopped working.
Huvelle said Friday that she was particularly struck by the arrangement with Rudy's wife. "It is fairly brash to funnel $50,000 to your own pocket basically, as a public servant," Huvelle said.
In 2000, Rudy left the government, joined Team Abramoff and lobbied Congress in violation of a one-year federal ban imposed on former congressional staffers.
As a lobbyist, Rudy helped organize several all-expense-paid trips. An outing to the 2001 Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., for some House and Senate staff members included a gambling cruise on Abramoff's SunCruz casinos. Rudy helped organize a lavish 2002 trip to Scotland for congressman Ney and David Safavian, who is serving a year in prison for lying to investigators about his relationship with Abramoff. Safavian was the General Services Administration's chief of staff and later worked in the White House as the top procurement official in the George W. Bush administration.
While working for DeLay, Rudy was the conduit for tickets to sporting events for numerous congressional staffers to advance Rudy's political influence and DeLay's political standing. At the time, DeLay held the No. 3 leadership post for Republicans in the House.
In the late 1990s, Rudy's many gifts from Abramoff's lobbying team including use of a private jet to play golf at Pebble Beach in California. Rudy failed to disclose any of the gifts that he received from Abramoff — including trips, golf and frequent meals.
Huvelle also ordered Rudy to pay $100,000 to several Indian tribes that were lobbying clients and a $5,000 fine.
Associated Press writer Pete Yost contributed to this report.