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Washington quakes as lobbyist is netted

Washington, Jan. 4: At least 20 American lawmakers and scores of Congressional aides are quaking in their boots following yesterday’s plea bargain by one of the most powerful men here in a scandal that has shades of India’s cash-for-questions episode, which netted several MPs.

It was announced this morning that President George W. Bush would give to charity $6,000 which he received from lobbyist Jack Abramoff, his wife and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe that the lobbyist represented.

Bush has received more than $100,000 in campaign contributions raised by Abramoff for his re-election in 2004: he was designated a “pioneer” by the election campaign for his fund-raising effort.

Abramoff, who once charged $750 an hour for his services as a lobbyist, yesterday appeared in court here and pleaded guilty to “providing things of value for an official act”, fraud, tax evasion, failure to disclose payments, misrepresentation, participation in public corruption schemes and a host of other charges.

The scandal has already tainted Dennis Hastert, speaker of the US House of Representatives, who is due in India soon on an official visit. Hastert is second in the line of succession to the White House after vice-president Dick Cheney in the event of a crisis.

Hastert and a political action committee led by him received $69,000 from the disgraced lobbyist. The money will now be given to charity.

In the biggest corruption scandal to hit Washington in a generation, the Center for Responsive Politics has calculated that 316 federal candidates and party organisations received nearly $4.4 million since 1999 from Abramoff and his clients.

These include Tom DeLay, leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives, one of Bush’s trusted allies, who resigned recently to face charges of corruption and violations of election law.

Abramoff has been closely identified with Republicans, but true to the nature of the lobbying business, many Democrats also benefited from his generosity.

But today, after the implications of his plea bargain sunk in on Capitol Hill, his former friends and beneficiaries were distancing themselves from the lobbyist. White House press secretary Scott McClellan typically claimed today that Bush does not know Abramoff personally.

Lest skeletons tumble out of the White House cupboard, he added a rider that it is possible that the two met at holiday receptions and that Abramoff did attend three Hanukkah receptions hosted by the President.

The scandal comes at an awkward time for India. New Delhi recently hired two lobbyists at a total annual fee of over a million dollars to mount an unprecedented effort to see through the Indo-US nuclear deal.

But with leading lights on Capitol Hill under scrutiny for corruption involving lobbyists, most lawmakers and their aides will be wary of dealing with power brokers for some time. Not a good augury for India in a crucial year for its relations with Washington.

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