WASHINGTON – Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to three federal charges Tuesday, suggesting he will cooperate in a Washington probe that could implicate several congressional officials in a cash-for-influence scandal.
Abramoff pleaded guilty on Tuesday in U.S. District Court to honest services fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion relating to his service to Indian tribes, several of whom are Abramoff's former clients. Abramoff appeared in front of Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle.
Huvelle received acknowledgement from Abramoff when she said he had engaged in a conspiracy involving "corruption of public officials" and that he and others had engaged in a scheme to provide campaign contributions, trips and other items "in exchange for certain official acts."
The plea deal carries up to 30 years in prison, but prosecutors will recommend a sentence of 9 1/2 to 11 years, providing Abramoff cooperates with federal prosecutors. Restitution to his clients could be at least $25 million. As part of the agreement, Abramoff will lay out of all his finances and all of his activities within 45 days, at which point the government will determine exactly how much he must pay. He will also have to pay $1.7 million to the IRS.
As part of the plea deal, Abramoff has also agreed to give "truthful information" and to testify if necessary to a grand jury or to a trial before a jury.
"The defendant understands that this plea agreement is explicitly dependent upon his providing completely truthful testimony in any trial or other proceeding, whether called as a witness by the Unites States, the defense or the court," reads the plea agreement.
As Tuesday's court session neared its end, Abramoff stood at the defendant's table and said, "Words will not express my sorrow and profound regret."
He also expressed "tremendous sadness and regret for my conduct" and said, "I hope I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and those I've wronged or caused to suffer." He added he "will work hard for my redemption."
The criminal information — charging documents issued by a federal prosecutor with a defendant's permission to bypass a grand jury — says that Abramoff, partner Michael Scanlon and others allegedly bribed "Representative #1."
Abramoff corruptly gave "money, meals, trips and entertainment to public officials and their relatives with the intent to influence and in return for agreements to perform official acts" benefiting Abramoff, Scanlon and their clients, the court papers say.
Representative #1 is identified elsewhere in documents as Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney, chairman of the House Administration Committee. The criminal information says Ney received a golf trip to Scotland and other valuable gifts in exchange for help to Abramoff's clients.
It also says Abramoff solicited $50,000 from a wireless telephone company and got Ney's agreement to push the company's application to install a system in the House of Representatives.
Ney's attorney, Mark Tuohey, described the charges as "nothing new" and a repeat of a November plea deal with Scanlon. Ney issued a statement saying that he has never done anything wrong or illegal and the plea agreement doesn't change that.
"At the time I dealt with Jack Abramoff, I obviously did not know, and had no way of knowing, the self-serving and fraudulent nature of Abramoff's activities," Ney said.
Ney's office also said the contract awarded in 2002 to Foxcom for wireless equipment in the House was not Ney's decision, though it was his prerogative, but rather a decision made collectively by the companies that would incur the cost of installation.
The congressional probe, of course, could grow much deeper as Justice Department lawyers are believed to be focusing on as many as 20 lawmakers and aides, and Abramoff's testimony could lead to untold revelations.
"We're going to expend the resources to make sure people know that government is not for sale," Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher said after the hearing.
Already, the Bush administration's former chief procurement official, David H. Safavian, has pleaded innocent to charges made this fall that he made false statements and obstructed investigations into the 2002 golf outing.
Even the appearance of a relationship with Abramoff has led several lawmakers, including Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.; Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.; Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.; and Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla.; to return campaign contributions from Abramoff.
Already under investigation for his relationship with Abramoff is Rep. Tom DeLay. DeLay is said to have received golf outings and other trips as well as $57,000 in political contributions from Abramoff, his lobbying associates or his tribal clients between 2001 and 2004.
On Wednesday, DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden said DeLay is cooperating with the Department of Justice.
"Mr. DeLay believes everyone should cooperate with the [Department of Justice], that his counsel has contacted officials and informed them of his willingness to cooperate should that be required and that everything was fully vetted by lawyers, promptly and publicly disclosed," Madden said.
Abramoff and his partners represented Indian tribes for five years ending in early 2004. The tribes contributed millions of dollars in casino income to congressional campaigns, often routing the money through political action committees. Prosecutors say Abramoff and Scanlon conspired to defraud Indian tribes in Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi and Texas by pocketing $20 million in hidden profits.
Before the plea, White House spokesman Scott McClellan had said he was aware of media reports that Abramoff was to plead guilty and called the alleged actions "unacceptable and outrageous."
"What he is reportedly acknowledging doing is unacceptable and outrageous," McClellan said. "If laws were broken, he should be held accountable and punished."
McClellan said he is double-checking into whether President Bush had ever met Abramoff.
Campaign finance records do show that Abramoff raised at least $100,000 for Bush's 2004 re-election effort, making him a campaign "pioneer." Abramoff and his partners also made at least 200 contacts with the Bush administration in 2001, including with Vice President Dick Cheney's advisers and then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. The meetings related to Abramoff's client, the Northern Mariana Islands, which has territorial status with the United States and wanted friendly hires at federal agencies and to preserve its exemption from the U.S. minimum wage.
In a separate agreement to be reached on Wednesday, Abramoff will appear in a Florida courtroom to plead guilty to two counts of fraud stemming from the 2000 purchase of the SunCruz Casinos cruise ship.
In Florida, Abramoff will plead guilty to two of the six charges in the federal indictment, Abramoff's Miami attorney, Neal Sonnett, said. Abramoff and a former partner were indicted in August for allegedly lying about their assets to help secure financing to purchase some gambling boats.
Sonnett said his client will also agree to cooperate in any ongoing federal investigations in Washington. The Florida plea agreement will come on Wednesday.
Abramoff will plead guilty to counts one and three of the indictment, wire fraud as well as conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, Sonnett said. The plea agreement states that sentencing guidelines call for Abramoff to be jailed for 70 months to 87 months, but that period could be reduced because of Abramoff's cooperation.
"The government will dismiss the remaining counts of the Miami indictment at the time of sentencing and will also recommend that the sentence imposed in the Miami case run concurrently to any sentence imposed as a result of charges filed today in the District of Columbia," Sonnett told FOX News in a letter.
In 2000, Abramoff and former partner Adam Kidan began the purchase of the SunCruz fleet for $147.5 million from Miami businessman Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis. Prosecutors allege the team faked a $23 million wire transfer to make it look like they had more money to contribute to the deal than they did. Based on that transfer, lenders Foothill Capital Corp. and Citadel Equity Fund Ltd. agreed to provide $60 million in financing for the purchase.
Kidan pleaded guilty Dec. 15 to one count of conspiracy and one count of wire fraud. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and up to $500,000 in fines at a sentencing hearing scheduled for March 1.
As part of his November plea deal, Scanlon agreed to cooperate in the SunCruz case. In that agreement, Scanlon admitted helping Kidan and Abramoff buy SunCruz, partly by persuading Ney to insert comments into the Congressional Record designed to pressure Boulis to sell.
Boulis, also founder of the Miami Subs restaurant chain, was found shot to death in February 2001 during a bitter struggle for control of SunCruz. In September, Fort Lauderdale police arrested three men, including one who had worked for Kidan and had ties to New York mobsters, in the murder case.
Kidan and Abramoff have repeatedly denied any involvement in the Boulis killing. The three men arrested on murder charges have all pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial in Fort Lauderdale.
FOX News' Major Garrett, Molly Henneberg, Jamie Nelson, Mike Levine and Jennifer Lipkin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.