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Jack Abramoff's $10,000 Question

Time, January 23, 2006:
Lobbyist Jack Abramoff's Oct. 23, 2000, e-mail to his business partner Michael Scanlon was, as usual, not subtle. "Would 10K for NRCC from Suncruz for Ney help?" Scanlon shot back: "Yes, alot [sic]! But would have to give them a definate [sic] answer--and they need it this week ..."

That electronic exchange, a record of which was reviewed by TIME, is among the evidence that Republican Congressman Bob Ney of Ohio accepted favors from Abramoff and Scanlon as part of an alleged quid pro quo--a charge to which the business partners each recently confessed in larger plea deals. While the plea agreements spell out various gifts, campaign donations and junkets that Abramoff and Scanlon say they provided to Ney in return for "official acts," the e-mails present in one place the specific elements of a swap that Abramoff has told investigators was prearranged and explicitly reciprocal, according to a source close to the Justice Department probe. To wit: a $10,000 donation to the Republicans just days before Ney inserted into the Congressional Record a statement praising an Abramoff business partner. Ney's lawyer, Mark Tuohey, calls the accusations "totally false."

Abramoff has told the feds, according to the source, that Ney, the chairman of the powerful Committee on House Administration, and his staff repeatedly demanded help in raising cash for the National Republican Campaign Committee--the "NRCC" of Abramoff's e-mail. Under then House majority leader Tom DeLay, Ney and his fellow G.O.P. chairmen had to meet steep fund-raising quotas or risk losing their plum positions.

On Oct. 20, 2000, the e-mail records show, Scanlon sent Abramoff Scanlon's draft of a statement praising Adam Kidan, a co-owner of SunCruz Casinos, a Florida gambling-boat company that Abramoff and Kidan had bought the month before, after a public dispute with the previous owner. Abramoff and Kidan, who have since pleaded guilty in Florida to fraud in connection with their financing of the SunCruz purchase, hoped that Ney's positive statement would "let people know that SunCruz now was in honest hands," according to a source familiar with the case. In an Oct. 23 e-mail, Abramoff proposed throwing $10,000 at the NRCC in the form of a SunCruz check signed by Kidan. The money was sent within days, and Ney got credit within the G.O.P. for raising it. Ney then inserted praise for Kidan into the Oct. 26 Congressional Record.

Tuohey denies that Ney was under pressure to raise funds and says his client had no contact with Abramoff or Scanlon regarding SunCruz. "There was a check to NRCC by SunCruz, and Ney knew nothing about it," Tuohey says.

As the Abramoff scandal has unfolded, alarm has spread on Capitol Hill that Justice Department prosecutors are building corruption cases on legally reported campaign donations--a worry that revelations of the alleged Ney quid pro quo are sure to fuel. Although refusing to comment on the specifics of the Ney case, a U.S. government expert on criminal law made the following point: "Contributions are lawful only if made in support of a lawmaker's policies. They are clearly illegal as part of a prenegotiated deal involving a quid pro quo." For a host of nervous politicians familiar with the murky ways of Washington, that fine a distinction is probably small comfort.