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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 January 2006, 11:27 GMT
Washington diary: Simmering scandal

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

18 January

Jack Abramoff
Jack Abramoff: A gift to cartoonists?
On Washington's map of power no address is currently attracting more mirth and malice than K Street, the seat of the capital's most lucrative and crowded profession.

Forget politicians, journalists, policemen, spies or lawyers! The city's most popular guild owes its name to the drafty entrance hall of the Willard Hotel.

A dog's bark away from the White House this is where early practitioners of the guild first harassed President Ulysses Grant for face time and favours while he was trying to focus on his bourbon.

The world's first "lobbyists" exercised their right "to petition grievances" with a mixture of grovelling and bribery.

Half a century later even Woodrow Wilson complained that the capital was choked with "lobbyists". Today no fewer than 27,500 registered "policy consultants" toil at the coalface of influence and compromise.

'Small furry animals'

Their right to petition is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution as much as my right to free speech.

Laura Bush and daughter Barbara
"Flotus" (left) was unable to stay above the fray in Liberia

Their swollen ranks - they outnumber the 4,500 registered journalists on Capitol Hill by almost six to one - are a reflection of the size of government and the size of the economy.

Some of them represent Big Tobacco and Big Food. Others are in the pay of small furry animals.

Whether they hand out expensive golfing trips or T-shirts, they have all been given a bad name by one very bad apple: Jack Abramoff, the now-disgraced super lobbyist, who pleaded guilty to charges of corruption and who is in desperate need of an image consultant.

His decision to appear at his first court hearing wearing a baseball cap and his second wearing a black trilby and a black trench-coat have been gifts to cartoonists.

One explanation is that, being an orthodox Jew, this father of five needs to cover his head. So what is wrong with an old fashioned yarmulke, I ask you?

Rush to charity

The deal with the prosecutor is of course that Abramoff will name names. According to one estimate, at least 60 lawmakers could be "touched" by this scandal.

If this scandal festers on into the swampy Washington summer, it will become a Republican problem with possible consequences for the mid-term elections

The golfing holidays at St Andrew's in Scotland or the five-course meals at his own restaurant, the aptly named "Signatures" - now closed and looking for new owners as well as a new name - were not the crime.

But the reluctance of some lawmakers to disclose them as gifts on the Congressional register was.

Most important is the question if and how these "gifts" managed to influence their actions.

In an almost unprecedented outburst of post-Christmas charity, senators, representatives and even the administration donated lavishly.

There was a breathless rush to return all the campaign donations that had once come from Jack Abramoff.

Even the White House handed over $6,000 of the $100,000 raised by Abramoff for the presidential campaign to the American Heart Association.

"Very clever!" One late night comedian quipped: "So it goes straight back to Dick Cheney!"

'Scandal of the decade'

As Vin Weber, a former Republican Congressman from Minnesota and now a leading lobbyist told me: "It is not unusual in our profession to make a seven-figure salary. The problem with Jack Abramoff was that he wanted to make eight figures. He was too greedy!"

Such is the cloying nature of Washington politics that they tend to follow US leaders around the globe like a lingering odour

Weber also told me that this scandal - the biggest in 10 years he predicted - was one of those very rare truly bipartisan affairs. Both sides of the aisle were bought.

But the party that dominates Capitol Hill, also becomes the principal object of the lobbyists' affections. And nowadays that means the Grand Old Party.

If this scandal festers on into the swampy Washington summer, it will become a Republican problem with possible consequences for the mid-term elections.

So guess what? This week Rick Santorum, the rather earnest, some might say "sanctimonious" senator from Pennsylvania who is facing re-election and is trailing his Democrat rival in the polls, joined forces with the Yoda of the Grand Old Party, Senator John McCain, to initiate new legislation to curb the power of the lobby and the appetite of lawmakers.

"We need full disclosure and more transparency," he intoned.

Too right! Outside the Beltway the great electorate already holds its elected officials in very low esteem, according to the polls.

The Abramoff scandal will only make them more cynical.

'Out of the loop'

Such is the cloying nature of Washington politics that they tend to follow US leaders around the globe like a lingering odour.

Flotus - First Lady of the US - found herself in Liberia this week for the inauguration of Africa's first elected female President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

An interview in the US ambassador's residence with the usually-courteous Washington Times was peppered with questions about the lobbying scandal.

Flotus answered gamely that the vast majority Republicans were honest and she would be only too glad to campaign on their behalf.

Fighting talk from the fragrant Laura who likes to stay above the fray! It reminds me of the time that I had the privilege of following her husband on a breathless five-day, six-nation tour of Africa.

Dubya wanted to talk about Aids and development.

The White House press pack wanted to know about "yellow cake from Niger".

"Why do they keep pestering him about this strange pudding?" asked a befuddled local colleague, who was blissfully out of the Beltway Loop.


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