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The Justice Department’s probe of the biggest Congressional target in the sprawling Abramoff scandal, ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. And the reasons why likely speak to larger issues plaguing prosecutors at 950 Pennsylvania Avenue.

That’s the upshot of the news that after six years of federal scrutiny into the ties between convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Tex., the Justice Department has informed the Texan’s lawyers that he’s not going to face any criminal charges.

Little wonder that many Congressional watchdogs and lawyers familiar with the biggest public corruption scandal in decades are voicing a mix of confusion and disillusionment that Justice has failed to charge DeLay, the most powerful lawmaker with links to Abramoff. After all, DeLay’s office was instrumental in making Abramoff’s career a financial and political success and the Texan, in turn, reaped a bonanza of contributions to his campaigns, his PAC and his favored charity, as well as lavish junkets, free sports tickets and meals at the lobbyist’s own restaurant, Signatures.

“This was one of the worst lobbying and ethics scandals in decades and we ended up with just one member of Congress being held accountable,” said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, in a reference to the guilty plea of ex-Rep. Bob Ney, R-OH. But Justice’s failure to charge DeLay was in some ways unremarkable in light of the slow and often tortured course of the probe.

20 convictions, Abramoff pleaded guilty

To its credit, the DOJ has notched a total of 20 convictions of former Capitol Hill staffers and lobbyists, ex-Bush administration officials and Ney in its far-flung probe of Abramoff’s influence peddling operation. In early 2006, Abramoff himself pleaded guilty to defrauding four casino-rich Indian tribes out of almost $25 million, corrupting public officials, and tax evasion. He has continued to cooperate with prosecutors and recently finished serving a three-and-a-half year jail sentence.

But the decision to drop the DeLay investigation highlights just how difficult public corruption cases are to prove, and just how many problems continue to bedevil DOJ’s Public Integrity Section, which — along with the Fraud Section — has spearheaded the probe.

David Donnelly, campaign manager of the Campaign for Fair Elections, blasted the Justice decision as “further evidence that the scandal is not what is illegal, but rather what is legally permitted each and every day in Washington, D.C.”

Two of DeLay’s top aides, ex-press spokesman Michael Scanlon and ex-deputy chief of staff Tony Rudy, had pleaded guilty in 2005 and 2006, respectively, to criminal charges. Both men, who went from DeLay’s office to become lobbying associates with Abramoff, are still awaiting sentencing. And a third top aide, Ed Buckham, who was DeLay’s former chief of staff and who was implicated in Rudy’s plea, was long expected to be charged as well. But sources say Buckham has also been notified by Justice that his dealings with Abramoff are no longer under scrutiny.

Role of DeLay and his aides targeted

From the scandal’s inception in early 2004, when Abramoff’s influence-peddling network was first exposed in the national press, the role of DeLay and his aides in facilitating Abramoff’s rise was crucial. DeLay’s office often let Abramoff’s clients and would-be clients, like Indian-owned casinos and the impoverished Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, know that if they wanted access to the Texas Republican, hiring Abramoff could be beneficial.

While he served in Congress, DeLay and Abramoff and some of these aides took three lavish junkets overseas underwritten by the lobbyist’s clients: to Scotland, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Russia. These foreign excursions helped Abramoff cement his image and his business: Once DeLay returned to Washington in early 1998 from the Marianas, he was instrumental in leading successful efforts to block the extension of U.S. minimum wage laws to the island’s poorly paid immigrant garment workers.

Abramoff also nurtured his ties with DeLay by helping to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars — through his lobbying associates and clients — for the Texan’s campaigns, political action committee, and favorite charities. To some former GOP leadership aides, the links between Abramoff, aka “Casino Jack,” and DeLay, aka “the Hammer,” seemed symbiotic. “Jack raised money for the pet projects of DeLay and took care of his top staff,” said one ex-Capitol Hill aide in an interview a few years back. “In turn they granted him tremendous access and allowed Abramoff to freely trade on DeLay’s name.”

Not surprisingly, DeLay was in a celebratory mood on Monday, when he held a phone-in press conference declaring he had been “exonerated.” DeLay, who announced his intention to resign from Congress not long after Rudy pleaded guilty, bashed the federal investigation as a case study in the “criminalization of politics and the politics of personal destruction …” And he boasted that “the case was so weak that I was never interviewed by the investigators.”

Prosecutors don’t interview DeLay

Several lawyers familiar with the scandal told the Center they found the Justice Department’s failure to interview DeLay peculiar. DeLay’s lead attorney, Richard Cullen, who stressed how much assistance DeLay gave the DOJ, told the Center that “we most likely would have granted the request” if Justice had asked to speak with his client. What’s more, even if the DeLay probe was close to being dropped, some white-collar attorneys assert that Justice should still have interviewed him. “You don’t know what someone’s going to say until you talk to them,” one attorney said.

Similarly, some Justice Department veterans who worked on the Abramoff probe early on criticize the department for not deploying the same level of manpower brought to bear on the Enron accounting fraud case. “Unlike Enron, a team of experienced and seasoned prosecutors was not assembled from around the country with major courtroom experience,” said Josh Hochberg, who ran the fraud section during part of the George W. Bush administration, in an interview last year.

To Wertheimer of Democracy 21, dropping the probe without charging DeLay seems a mystery. “We may never know why Justice failed to prosecute Tom DeLay,” he said, “but there was never anything ‘innocent’ about the lavish financial benefits DeLay accepted from Abramoff or the access and influence DeLay provided to Abramoff.”

Despite the end of the federal probe, DeLay still has some legal headaches in Texas, where he has been indicted on charges of money laundering and conspiracy, allegations that are related to state legislative elections in 2002. DeLay and two political operatives were indicted in 2005 for allegedly laundering $190,000 in corporate money, which is strongly curbed under Texas law, to help GOP legislators get elected. That case is slated to go to trial, probably later this year.

Peter H. Stone is the author of the book, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff and the Buying of Washington.” A version of this piece appeared in the Daily Beast.

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