Abramoff may stay out of jail until D.C. investigation is over

Jack Abramoff was sentenced to 70 months in prison yesterday on conspiracy and fraud charges tied to his purchase of a South Florida casino fleet, but the infamous lobbyist could stay out of jail until federal prosecutors finish their wide-ranging probe of influence peddling and corruption on Capitol Hill.

Abramoff pleaded guilty in the Florida case in January, one day after signing a plea deal in Washington that calls for him to help government lawyers investigating the Congress members and aides involved in his vast lobbying network. Abramoff and former business partner Adam Kidan admitted faking a $23 million wire transfer in 2000 to help obtain a loan financing their $148 million purchase of the SunCruz Casinos boats.

“I have started the process of becoming a new man,” Abramoff said yesterday in remarks prepared for delivery to the court. “I am much chastened and profoundly remorseful over the reckless and hurtful things I have done in my life, especially those which have brought me before you today.”

The Justice Department had secured a two-week delay from U.S. District Judge Paul Huck, citing Abramoff’s cooperation with the Washington probe, which could implicate as many as 20 members of Congress and their aides. Huck ultimately chose the minimum prison term allowable under federal guidelines, giving Kidan the same sentence.

The Florida case is largely separate from the bribery and fraud charges Abramoff faces in Washington over his lobbying for multiple Indian tribes, an Israeli wireless company and other clients. Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), referred to in the Washington plea agreement, also inserted comments in the Congressional Record in March 2000 aimed at embarrassing Abramoff’s rival in the SunCruz purchase.

Ney has long maintained that he was never involved with Abramoff’s crimes and contends that the federal investigation eventually will exonerate him.

Konstantinos “Gus” Boulis, the owner who eventually sold the SunCruz fleet to Abramoff and Kidan, was killed in a gangland-style shooting shortly after the sale. Prosecutors have ruled out Abramoff as a suspect in the murder case, according to published reports.

While Huck ordered Abramoff to report for the start of his sentence within 90 days, an extension could be granted if government prosecutors and defense attorneys agree that Abramoff needs more time to share information in the Washington probe. U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvane agreed this month to postpone Abramoff’s status conference in the Washington case, originally scheduled for last week, until June to encourage his further cooperation.

Abramoff will serve his sentence in the Washington case, which could range from nine and a half to 11 years, concurrently with his Florida prison term.

Abbe Lowell and Neal Sonnett, Abramoff’s attorneys, said the low sentence would not chill Abramoff’s participation in the congressional investigation.

“He will continue to work hard to fully cooperate with the Department of Justice and law enforcement agencies and to make restitution to all victims,” Lowell and Sonnett said in a statement. “This is the course he set out many months ago and the course he intends to follow and complete no matter how long it takes.”

Abramoff has sardonically remarked on lawmakers’ eagerness to distance themselves from his toxic reputation, and few members of Congress were commenting publicly on yesterday’s sentencing. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), however, wrote to Huck urging him to consider Abramoff’s patriotism and positive qualities, one of more than 260 letters the judge received asking for mercy on the lobbyist once famous for his excesses.

Rohrabacher, who reportedly was listed as an Abramoff reference for the SunCruz loan at issue in the case, did not return a request for comment by press time.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who has pressed the Bush administration to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Abramoff’s lobbying on behalf of the Northern Mariana Islands territories, said the case is far from closed.

“Complete justice will not be served until all of Abramoff’s activities and connections are exposed and all of his partners in crime are punished,” Miller said in a statement.

Josephine Hearn contributed to this report.