Threat of federal charges against DeLay grows

By Holly Yeager and Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington
Published: November 22 2005 00:05

The likelihood of federal charges against members of Congress intensified on Monday when a key player in a broad corruption probe pleaded guilty to conspiracy and agreed to co-operate with investigators.

Under a plea agreement with the Department of Justice, Michael Scanlon, a former aide to Tom DeLay, the powerful Texas congressman, admitted that he had conspired to defraud four Native American Indian tribes that operated or hoped to operate casinos.

He faces up to five years in prison and agreed to pay nearly $20m in restitution. Mr Scanlon, who operated a grassroots public relations firm, admitted that he and an unnamed lobbyist conspired to charge the tribes high fees and split the profits.

Mr Scanlon and Jack Abramoff, a Republican with close ties to Mr DeLay, earned more than $80m from Indian tribes from 2001-2004. Those transactions are being examined by the Senate Indian affairs committee, and by federal investigators.

Mr Abramoff has been indicted in Florida on fraud and conspiracy charges involving gambling boats.

Court papers in Mr Scanlon’s case also allege that a congressman received campaign contributions and valuable gifts, including a trip to Scotland to play golf, in exchange for official acts to benefit clients of Mr Scanlon and Mr Abramoff.

The case against Mr Scanlon is being led by the department’s Public Integrity office, a division that oversees the prosecution of elected and appointed public officials.

Most prosecutions by the DoJ involve large-scale fraud or corruption and hinge on the co-operation of relatively minor players who agree to plea bargains, and to testify against others, in return for more lenient sentencing.

The action by the DoJ potentially represents a serious threat to several lawmakers.

Although Mr DeLay’s earlier indictment on unrelated money laundering charges forced him to give up his seat as majority leader in the House of Representatives, it is unclear how strong the case against the Texas Republican is.

Mr DeLay and his supporters have accused Travis County district attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, of being on a political witchhunt.

It would be more difficult for Mr DeLay or other Republicans to make such claims about federal prosecutors.