Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

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Think of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff now as a tour guide for federal prosecutors. After agreeing to plead guilty to three felony charges in an influence peddling and bribery case, Abramoff now will lead government attorneys by the hand through the sordid thickets of his corrupt deals, pausing especially to point out along the way when those deals involved our elected officials.

Today, then, is a great day for the federal lawyers who are in charge of an investigation that hopefully will change the way Washington does business. Concomitantly, it is an awful day for every member of Congress, mostly Republicans but some Democrats, too, who suckled up to Abramoff when he was on top. For the feds, the Abramoff deal makes their jobs much easier. For Abramoff's old contacts, people like Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, the deal means, at best, a ton of legal expenses and more political embarrassment. At worst, it means prison time.

Never mind all the spin you'll likely hear (or already have heard) about this case. Just read Paragraph 32 of the "Factual basis for the plea of Jack A. Abramoff." It reads: "Beginning as early as January 2000, Abramoff… and others engaged in a course of conduct through which one or both of them offered and provided a stream of things of value to public officials in exchange for a series of official act and influence and agreements to provide official acts and influence…" What happens now will be the filling in of the blanks in that sentence.

It's hard to tell now whether the criminal cases that arise out of this momentous day will turn on factual disputes or legal standards. If Abramoff indeed bribed members of Congress, and if he names under oath those members of Congress, it's hard to imagine that there would be any defense that would create reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors. Just ask the recently-disgraced former Congressman, Randy "Duke" Cunningham, about the political and legal impact of being caught accepting bribes.

Indeed, I imagine that any elected officials fingered by Abramoff would either resign their office or plead guilty themselves — or some combination thereof. The phrase used in court during Tuesday's hearing — "corruption of public officials" — certainly will make a great campaign slogan this November for opponents of the political hacks who took Abramoff's money in exchange for what the judge said were "certain official acts."

But I also suspect that there will be gray areas, too, in the cases to come. Will prosecutors have a hard time proving the quid pro quo that goes along with any deal? Will defense attorneys somehow be able to spin their client's contact with Abramoff as mere lobbying? Congressman Ney said immediately after the Abramoff deal: "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."

And that's really all Ney and his pals can say at this point. The only defense here is that the elected officials did not have the requisite criminal intent at the time they made their deals with Abramoff and Company. They'll say that their votes and their other "certain official acts" are justifiable apart from anything Abramoff may have given them. They'll say that they were entitled to take money from lobbyists — that politicians do it all the time — but that they never did Abramoff's bidding on Capitol Hill (which begs the question, why would Abramoff have given them the money without getting something in return).