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Lobbyist Abramoff Indicted on Fraud Charges


A prominent Washington lobbyist was indicted on federal fraud charges yesterday. Scandal had already wracked Jack Abramoff's empire of lobbying and political organizing. That scandal has come uncomfortably close to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and some other lawmakers, mostly Republicans. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

Abramoff was indicted not in Washington, but in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The federal grand jury there indicted Abramoff and an old friend, Adam Kidan, on six counts each: one of conspiracy and five of wire fraud. Abramoff and Kidan teamed up in September 2000 to buy the Suncruz Casinos cruise line. The seller was Konstantinos Boulis. The victims, according to the indictment, were two lending companies that were dealing with Abramoff and Kidan. The indictment says that Abramoff and Kidan faked documents to show that they had put up $23 million of their own in addition to the money they were borrowing. It says that what they really did was cut a deal with Boulis to reduce the purchase price without telling the lenders.

Under the deal, Boulis remained at SunCruz after the sale, but he and Kidan fought, and gradually the whole transaction fell apart. In February 2001, Boulis was shot to death, gangland style, at the wheel of his BMW in Ft. Lauderdale. That case is still open.

There's nothing in the indictment to suggest the killing is linked to the SunCruz transaction, but it makes clear that Boulis likely would have been indicted if he were still alive. Abramoff's involvement in SunCruz is only tangentially related to his Washington work. Congressman Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican with ties to Abramoff, did insert two statements in the congressional record seemingly meant to pressure Boulis to sell SunCruz. And Abramoff did bring congressional staffers down to Florida to relax on SunCruz ships. But, again, the indictment makes no connections to Washington lobbying.

Still, it's news in the nation's Capitol when a top-dollar lobbyist, someone who took House Majority Leader Tom DeLay golfing in Scotland, someone who raised a hundred thousand dollars for President Bush, someone of that caliber, is facing six felony charges. Abramoff is already being investigated by the Justice Department here. The Senate Finance Committee is probing his network of tax-exempt organizations. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee has released hundreds of e-mails in which Abramoff and a consultant schemed to overcharge their clients, mostly Indian tribes. And the House Ethics Committee is likely to look further at Abramoff's ties to Tom DeLay.

Ken Gross is a lawyer who specializes in campaign finance and lobbying law. He says that for Abramoff and those who used to work with him, the bleeding has just begun.

Mr. KEN GROSS (Attorney): As a matter of law, there should be no effect. But since the ethics committees are such public matters, the fact that there's an indictment floating out there just makes for more intrigue.

OVERBY: And according to Abramoff's defense attorney in Florida, Neal Sonnett, the political impact goes the other way, too. Even though Abramoff lives in suburban Maryland and the prosecutors are in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Abramoff was taken into custody in Los Angeles, where he was traveling with his daughter. Sonnett said that usually a defendant could at least fly back so his lawyer could accompany him to the FBI office.

Mr. NEAL SONNET (Abramoff's Defense Attorney): Well, I certainly think that the insistence on the part of the Justice Department that he surrender 3,000 miles away, with no regard for the safety of his 12-year-old daughter, was caused by the fact that he's a very high-profile person and the government was anxious to trumpet his arrest.

OVERBY: Sonnett says Abramoff denies any involvement in any illegal activity, and he'll fight the charges. Adam Kidan issued a statement that he has fully cooperated with the three-year investigation and did nothing wrong. No word yesterday from Abramoff's old friends on Capitol Hill, but Democrats hope to use him as a poster boy as they paint the Republican-controlled Congress as corrupt and out of touch with the voters.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

United States & World Morning Edition
Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.