A well connected Washington lobbyist agreed on Tuesday to give evidence against top politicians whom he allegedly bribed, in what analysts predict may prove the biggest congressional scandal in US history.
The lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, pleaded guilty to engaging in a conspiracy involving "corruption of public officials" as well as fraud and tax evasion, after striking a deal with federal prosecutors that is expected to lift the lid on a culture of corruption in Congress, in which legislative favors are routinely exchanged for perks.
Politicians from both parties received money from Abramoff and his business clients, but the scandal is likely to inflict most damage on the Republican party, and could ultimately threaten its hold on Congress.
One of the party's most powerful figures, Tom DeLay, who was instrumental in orchestrating its victories in 2000, 2002 and 2004, is at the center of the investigation for his close financial ties to Abramoff. A senior White House budget official, David Safavian, has been arrested for failing to report gifts from the indicted lobbyist.
"This is potentially the biggest congressional scandal in history," said Melanie Sloan, formerly a federal prosecutor and the head of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog organization. "Abramoff knew everybody. He knows how Washington works."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan was unable to say on Tuesday whether US President George W. Bush had ever met Abramoff, but he denounced the lobbyist.
"What he is reportedly acknowledged doing is unacceptable and outrageous," he said. "If laws were broken, he must be held to account for what he did."
Abramoff was a central fixture in Washington political life, wining and dining top politicians in his own restaurant, hosting them in plush corporate boxes at sporting events and paying for golf trips to Scotland.
The lobbyist and his partners also coordinated political donations worth US$1.7 million to more than 200 members of Congress on behalf of clients such as the Choctaw Indian tribe in Mississippi, the US-administered Northern Mariana islands in the Pacific and Russian oil magnates.
Legislation passed by Congress in recent years directly benefited those clients and the justice department is now seeking to prove that those votes were bought.
Papers presented to a Washington court on Tuesday alleged that Abramoff gave "money, meals, trips and entertainment to public officials and their relatives with the intent to influence and in return for agreements to perform official acts" benefiting Abramoff and his clients.