WASHINGTON-When it comes to Jack Abramoff, the U.S. Department of Justice has a lot to brag about.
After all, federal prosecutors have won guilty pleas from both the former lobbyist and his associate Michael Scanlon, as well as former Representative Bob Ney, R-Ohio. Three others have also pleaded guilty, and when former General Services Administration official David Safavian chose to go to trial on charges that he lied to investigators, the jury landed squarely on the side of the government.
Yet as the investigation enters its fourth year, there’s no indication that the probe is nearing an end. And that’s raised questions about what’s left to do, who remains under investigation, and whether federal prosecutors, particularly in the Justice Department’s public integrity section, have moved quickly enough to either bring charges or, alternatively, to clear suspects.
It’s been a quiet five months since there’s been significant action in the case. And the latest news to come out of the investigation is that former Interior Department official J. Steven Griles received notification that he was a target. There’s been no word on the fate of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas-though his lawyer said last month that DeLay has not been notified that he’s a target-or several lower-profile officials caught up in the probe.
The public integrity section’s handling of the Abramoff scandal has led to some internal friction with prosecutors from other parts of the Justice Department as well as investigative agents.
And despite the fact that the case has been Justice’s largest public-corruption matter in decades, the investigation has been beset by the high turnover of prosecutors and supervisors in the two sections running the probe, both of which have operated without a permanent leader for more than a year, according to current and former government officials and lawyers with knowledge of the case. ( Legal Times, an affiliate of The National Law Journal, interviewed more than a dozen such sources, all of whom were granted anonymity to discuss a pending investigation.)
At least one federal official-Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney-became so concerned about the progress of the case that he contacted Justice Department supervisors in 2005.
By all accounts, the investigation is far from being shuttered, which might surprise those who believe that most of the big fish have been hooked. Interviews and court documents indicate that approximately 10 federal prosecutors are currently involved to varying degrees, aided by more than 20 agents from other federal agencies, including the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the Interior Department.
Prosecutors have also had significant evidence at their disposal. Greenberg Traurig, Abramoff’s former law firm, turned over thousands of pages of the former lobbyist’s e-mails early in the investigation.
Additionally, the investigation’s two central figures, Abramoff and Scanlon, began cooperating with investigators more than a year ago. Both are awaiting sentencing-a sign that there are likely still more prosecutions to come. (Abramoff is already in prison serving a sentence in a federal conviction in Florida.) But the pace of the investigation remains a bit of a mystery to some.
“It’s beginning to look like the classic independent-counsel investigation,” said one lawyer with knowledge of the probe. “[It] shouldn’t be taking this long.”
That’s a view the Justice Department firmly rejects. “The public integrity section, and the department as a whole, aggressively prosecute public corruption wherever it is found,” said spokesman Dean Boyd in a statement.
He pointed out that the public integrity section had a hand in 63 convictions across the country last year, nearly twice as many as it did in 2001. “The record of the public integrity section in this case and other public corruption cases speaks for itself.”
Nor is the Justice Department alone in praising its record in the investigation, particularly given Abramoff’s far-ranging contacts with government leaders in both the executive and legislative branches.
“Even if it was shut down now, you’d have to say it’s been a very successful investigation,” said Randall Eliason, a lecturer at George Washington University Law School and former public-corruption prosecutor who left the Justice Department in 2001.
According to sources interviewed for this story, among those who have been most heavily scrutinized by investigators but have not been charged are former DeLay chief of staff Edwin Buckham, former Ney chief of staff William Heaton, and Italia Federici, the former director of a conservative-leaning environmental group with close ties to Griles.