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Scandal-plagued lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty Tuesday to three counts of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion as the Justice Department’s investigation shifts away from Abramoff and toward lawmakers and Hill staffers who allegedly accepted what Abramoff now says were bribes. The plea deal could send Abramoff to prison for nine to 12 years and will require him to pay about $25 million in restitution to his former Native American tribal clients that he admitted to defrauding. Abramoff is also expected to plead guilty later this week to fraud charges in Florida, bringing an end to both of the Justice Department’s investigations into him. In a deal that closely mirrors the one made in November by former business partner Michael Scanlon, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges, Abramoff admits to providing trips, entertainment, and campaign contributions to Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, in return for several official favors. Ney is identified in the plea document as “Representative #1.” (Ney’s lawyer has stated that Ney is Representative #1). Ney issued a statement Tuesday denying that he has done anything improper or illegal. “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,” Ney said in the statement, which echoes his past remarks on the matter. Abramoff also admitted to defrauding his tribal clients by directing them to pay millions of dollars to Scanlon’s consulting and public relations company, but concealing that he received kickbacks from Scanlon equal to half of the profits — an amount that exceeded $20 million. The charge that Abramoff defrauded Indian clients first surfaced in February 2004. Since then, the corruption investigation has widened to include Congress and members of the Bush administration. According to published reports, the Justice Department is currently investigating as many as 20 congressmen and Hill staffers. At the hearing Tuesday in a Washington, D.C., federal courtroom, Abramoff appeared a hollow shell of the K Street power broker that he once was. Frowning and avoiding eye contact throughout the hearing with anyone except U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle, Abramoff often seemed on the brink of tears as he sat quietly at the defense table. He answered Huvelle’s questions in monosyllables and barely spoke above a whisper. In a prepared statement Abramoff delivered at the end of the hearing, he said: “Words will not be able to ever express how sorry I am for this, and I have profound regret and sorrow for the multitude of mistakes and harm I have caused. I only hope that I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and from those I have wronged or caused to suffer.” Abramoff and his attorney, Abbe Lowell, did not answer questions after the hearing. Lowell released a statement saying his client had been in talks with the Justice Department for 18 months. With Abramoff and his former business partner Scanlon both having cut plea deals to cooperate with prosecutors, all attention is now focused on Capitol Hill. According to published reports, lawmakers under investigation by the Justice Department include Ney, Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. In addition to identifying Ney, Abramoff also implicated two congressional staffers-turned-lobbyists who worked for him at Greenberg Traurig. In the plea document they are referred to only as Staffers “A” and “B.” In his plea Abramoff alleges that Staffer A solicited contributions from Abramoff’s lobby clients for a charity that Abramoff controlled. Those funds were then used to finance a golf trip to Scotland attended by Ney. During the hearing Judge Huvelle stated that the activities of Staffer A’s wife and her organization are also under investigation. Abramoff also claims in his plea that Staffer B, a former Ney aide who joined Abramoff’s team at Greenberg, was the conduit through which he communicated with Ney to arrange what Abramoff now says were corrupt acts. Neil Volz, Ney’s former chief of staff who worked for Abramoff at Greenberg and is now a lobbyist with Barnes & Thornburg, is under investigation by the Justice Department. Other lobbyists under investigation are Tony Rudy, a former DeLay staffer who worked at Greenberg for a year before joining Alexander Strategy Group. Rudy’s wife, Lisa, operated Liberty Consulting, which did work for several Abramoff clients and associates. Edwin Buckham, another former DeLay staffer now at Alexander Strategy, and Kevin Ring, a former chief of staff for Doolittle who later went to work for Abramoff, are also being investigated by the Justice Department, according to several published reports. Ring declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. The others did not return calls for comment before deadline.

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