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Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

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).

Whatever. You get the feeling today in Washington that a large rock has been moved and tons of creepy, little creatures are scurrying around to get out from under the sun. Wouldn't it be ironic if Abramoff, the telegenic Poster Boy for political graft, were to end up serving through his testimony as a catalyst for massive reform of current lobbying practices? Wouldn't it be something if the criminal trials that come out of this plea deal serve to educate (and, necessarily, repulse) the voting public about how their laws truly get crafted and enacted? Bruce Springsteen said it best: from bad things, mama, good things one day come.

Already on Tuesday we saw why Abramoff was able during his salad days to charm the pants off both his poor clients — many of whom paid him so handsomely but who in the end were defrauded — and the politicians who like Claude Rains in Casablanca now claim to be shocked, shocked that Abramoff was up to no good. During his brief court appearance in Washington, Abramoff, less dapper than usual, practically oozed with remorseful soundbytes.

"Your honor," he said in court, "words will not be able to ever express how sorry I am for all this, and I have profound regret and sorry for the multitude of mistakes and harm that I have caused. All of my remaining days, I will feel tremendous sadness and regret for my conduct and for what I have done. I only hope that I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and from those I have wronged or caused to suffer. I will work hard to earn that redemption."

Cue the violins. Of course, this tearjerker would play even better if 1) it had been televised, and 2) Abramoff's illegal conduct had taken place in an instant instead of over many carefully-choreographed years. But clearly Abramoff and his attorney know how the pre-trial game is played in Washington; know how to come off as a repentant and polished witness. This is just another headache for all those pols to treat as their year of living dangerously begins. And, of course, the difference between the sleazy Abramoff and the sleazy politicians he dealt with is that the former isn't an elected official entrusted to honorably conduct the nation's business.

It's hard to overplay what the Abramoff deal means for the investigation now underway in Washington. What's different about this deal compared with the plea deals we've seen recently involving former corporate executives is that Abramoff isn't a small fry who now will help the feds get the big chiefs. He isn't a Richard Causey who now will try to bring down Enron's Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. Abramoff instead is the big guy in all of this, the Don, the center of the wheel who now will help the feds collect the spokes. He's a big prize for the feds. And a big worry for his former vessels of money.

By Andrew Cohen

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