Abramoff plea: digging up K Street

The history of lobbying shows a web of conflicts

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Lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty plea to charges of mail fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials, could potentially open a Pandora's Box on both K Street and Capitol Hill, industry experts said.

"This thing is going to get a lot worse before it gets a lot better," said Paul Miller, President of the American League of Lobbyists. "And as busy as it's been, this is the calm before the storm."

The storm will be sparked by Abramoff's plea agreement, which stipulates that the lobbyist must provide information and testimony to prosecutors "concerning any matter," presumably including his dealings with members of Congress and their staff as investigators continue to scrutinize the relationship between politicians and K Street.

Throughout the past decade, the Center for Public Integrity has scrutinized and monitored the lobbying industry. The Center's LobbyWatch project provides access to data from 2.2 million public documents and details who the lobbyists and lobbying firms are, how much they spend and on whom.

For example, the Center found that Abramoff was one of 52 registered lobbyists who were major fundraisers for George W. Bush's presidential campaigns. Abramoff raised at least $100,000 for Bush's 2004 campaign and lobbied on issues brought before the White House for 19 clients.

In addition, federally registered lobbyists have served as the treasurers of at least 868 political committees since 1998. These committees have spent more than $525 million to influence the political process.

Abramoff is only one—albeit one of the most high profile—of the many well-connected operatives who have sought to reshape the political landscape through money and access. The Center for Public Integrity's LobbyWatch, an ongoing series of stories and a frequently updated database, reveals that the lobbying industry has grown more pervasive and influential on all political levels, over time becoming a "fourth branch of government."

Prosecutors' ability to require that Abramoff provide evidence about his transactions with members of Congress, congressional staffers and executive branch officials marks a turning point in this paradigm. Abramoff's plea gives credence to calls for greater transparency throughout the lobbying industry and will serve as a catalyst for increased scrutiny of K-Street activities.

"It [the Abramoff plea] has people shaking in their boots a little," said Celia Viggo Wexler, the vice president for advocacy at Common Cause. "What he did goes beyond the pale, and not what a typical lobbyist would do. But there are plenty of lobbyists wining and dining out there."

There are laws regulating the industry, but compliance is incomplete. Currently, the Senate has less than a dozen people who keep track of the $2 billion-a-year lobbying industry. An April 2005 Center study found that nearly 14,000 documents that should have been filed periodically with the Senate Office of Public Records were missing. Similarly, 49 of the top 50 lobbying firms had failed to file one or more required forms.

In addition, the Center for Public Integrity has issued numerous reports and investigative studies on lobbying industry issues, including:

The Revolving Door: In April 2005, the Center for Public Integrity revealed that more than 2,200 former federal government employees had registered as federal lobbyists between 1998 and 2004 and that nearly 250 former members of Congress and agency heads had registered to lobby.

Campaign Finance: A Center study revealed that more than 1,300 registered lobbyists have personally given more than $1.8 million to President Bush from 1998 through March 2004. Senator John Kerry received $520,000 from 442 lobbyists during the same period.