The new alchemists


Published: Friday, January 6, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 10:23 p.m.

Two lobbyists turned con men may be about to blow

the lid off 'business as usual' in the nation's capital.

Sorcerers once tried to turn base metal into gold. But in the D.C. Swamp they are practicing a form of political alchemy.

President Bush, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton and dozens of other elected officials are scurrying to turn tainted campaign cash into clean money by the simple device of passing it on to charities.

If only official Washington could that easily wash its hands of Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon.

Alas, the super lobbyist duo will turn state's evidence and - in return for lighter jail sentences and lesser fines - have promised to tell all about the politicians and staffers who did their bidding in return for campaign cash and party favors.

Now that Abramoff has copped a plea to conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion, among other things, he and his partner in crime, Scanlon, will help the Justice Department in an investigation that could ultimately pin rap sheets on as many as 20 members of Congress and congressional aides. Already linked to the dynamic duo are such political luminaries as former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and House Administrations Committee Chair Bob Ney, R-Ohio.

There is a major corruption scandal brewing. And coming at the very beginning of an election year it has the potential to shake up the political status quo like no dirty dealings since the banking scandals of the early 1990s.

"The corruption scheme with Mr. Abramoff is very extensive and we will continue to follow it wherever it leads," Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher told reporters this week.

The politicians, of course, are frantically denying any association whatsoever with Abramoff. This week, for instance, U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., told the St. Petersburg Times that he thought a conservative think tank, not Abramoff, had paid for Feeney's 2003 golf junket to Scotland.

"It's an embarrassment and we were misled," a cruely victimized Feeney complained to the Times. "We were lied to."

Still, if indictments do follow indictments, it may at least serve to peel away the veil of legitimacy that has for years barely covered "business-as-usual" in the D.C. Swamp.

The nation's capital is positively awash in dirty influence cash, but the polite fiction that props up our modern campaign finance system maintains that elected officials simply cannot be bought, no matter how many donations, globe-trotting junkets or expensive tokens of appreciation are thrown at them.

Before it's all over, the Abramoff-Scanlon scandal may finally put the lie to that polite fiction.

It may also serve to show just how cheaply influence can be purchased in the D.C. Swamp.

By all accounts, the scams that Scanlon and Abramoff pulled on their clients - mostly Indian tribes - garnered them tens of millions of dollars. They could not have operated so successfully for so long without the influence of friends in high places. And yet, from what is known thus far, any favors passed on to the politicians amounted to petty cash.

Trips to a "world-class" golf course in Scotland. Super Bowl luxury box seats. Free meals at a posh restaurant. Junkets to the Mariana Islands. A $50,000 payment to the wife of a congressional aide.

And of course, tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions - tainted money that Bush, Hastert, Frist and dozens of others are now frantically trying to purify by passing it on to the American Heart Association and other charities.

Here's hoping that this scandal well and truly blows up in the face of official Washington. Because nothing else seems to make an impression on business as usual there.

The Federal Elections Commission is a joke. Congressional ethics committees are toothless watchdogs. Influence is a commodity so openly bought and sold that only the force of law may finally embarrass the politicians and lobbyists into changing business as usual.

Just as the ancient sorcerers could not change base metal into gold, neither can the new political alchemists turn rank corruption into a virtue.

Members of Congress need only consult their pollsters to know that the American people hold them in very low esteem indeed. Perhaps it will require a pair of extraordinary scam artists turned stool pigeons to finally force the business-as-usual crowd to clean up their act.

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