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Possible Impact of Abramoff's Plea

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Joining us now is Kenneth Gross. He is with the law firm of Skadden, Arps in Washington, DC, and advises clients on matters regarding regulation of political activity.

Good morning.

Mr. KENNETH GROSS (Skadden, Arps): Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Just how worried should people on Capitol Hill be about what Jack Abramoff has to say?

Mr. GROSS: Well, there'll be many sleepless nights on Capitol Hill as the lead into our discussion here demonstrated. Mr. Abramoff has become a full-fledged member of the prosecution team as a result of this plea agreement.

MONTAGNE: Twenty members of Congress are said to have received contributions from Abramoff. How much legal trouble could they be in? And could they all be in trouble?

Mr. GROSS: Well, you know, I'm unwilling to go that far. Historically, political contributions have not been treated as bribes. If political contributions are bribes and then you ask for help from that same politician, then you could run a paddy wagon up K Street and clear out the place because that's the way business is done in this town, and that doesn't make a bribe. There has to be something more than that, preferably from a prosecutor's standpoint, some personal benefit conferred on a member of Congress or a senior staffer and some kind of deal, some kind of quid pro quo, some kind of extraction of an agreement specifically for something in return for something given.

MONTAGNE: Well, speaking of staffers, current and former Hill staffers have been named in this case. Is there any difference between them and, say, their bosses? Are they likely to be indicted?

Mr. GROSS: There may be some indictments of staffers. There are issues of potentially, you know, bribery could involve staffers. And there's another count, involving staffers specifically, and that is this rule, which is a felony statute, that says that you cannot lobby a member within a year after leaving your office, after--say your chief of staff for a year. After being in that position, you can't lobby that member. Typically, that has not been enforced in the legislative branch criminally, but here, they're squeezing everybody they can to get them to cooperate and get them to turn the next guy over in this domino process of prosecution here.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's explore a little more about what Jack Abramoff did that is different from what other lobbyists do. Where did he cross the line?

Mr. GROSS: Well, according to the information, the document that precedes the plea agreement that we now have, there were specific benefits conferred and specific things asked for from a particular member of Congress and others, such as will you help my client get a particular contract while they're conferring golf trips and tickets to shows. And, you know, this is not an easy case for a prosecutor to prove. We've had other scandals in the past. We had a case involving Secretary Espy in the Clinton administration, and the Supreme Court set a pretty high bar for proving bribery in saying that you actually had a deal. But here, the extraction of a promise, an extraction of something back from the legislature in connection with giving something is a closer connection than the average situation. Here's the $5,000 contribution. Will you help me pass legislation acts?

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, after all scandals--earlier scandals, you always hear tougher ethics rules, something good will come out of this. What do you think in this case?

Mr. GROSS: I think that is inevitable. So many of these laws, campaign finance, lobby gift restrictions, are scandal-driven. There's already some legislation in the hopper. Congress--Senator Feingold, Senator McCain, Congressman Ney himself have some bills out there. So I think we'll be seeing legislation, an attempt to help the political factor in this, as well.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. GROSS: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Kenneth Gross is a political law attorney. He's also former associate general counsel and head of enforcement at the Federal Election Commission. You can read the charges against Jack Abramoff at npr.org.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.