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AP Federal prosecutors and

AP: "Federal prosecutors and lawyers for Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff are putting the finishing touches on a plea deal that could be announced as early as Tuesday, according to people familiar with the negotiations. The plea agreement would secure the lobbyist's testimony against several members of Congress who received favors from him or his clients."

Buckle-up your seatbelts. Then

Buckle-up your seatbelts. Then go read this Post article on Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, Russian arms-and-oil hustlers, a piggy bank called the U.S. Family Network and a whole lot more.

First off, this is a helluva piece of reporting. And the story the author, R. Jeffrey Smith, tells has so many moving parts that it's not easy to summarize. If you want all the details, just go read the thing. It'll be time well spent.

The key points, though, ran as follows, near as I can tell.

For five years in the late 1990s there was an outfit called the U.S. Family Network, a pretty classic astroturf operation and, like a number of them, pretty closely linked with Tom DeLay.

Only USFN did little or no public advocacy on behalf of conservative family issues or much of anything else. It seems to have been run pretty much as a piggy bank and money pass-through by and for a number of DeLay operators -- including Jack Abramoff and Ed Buckham.

The Marianas Island sweatshop folks chipped in half a million dollars; the Choctaws chipped in a quarter million; and some shadowy Russian oil and gas interests (also Abramoff clients) ponied up a cool million dollars for USFN -- money laundered through a now-defunct British law firm. (The Russians apparently wanted to give DeLay a fancy car; but DeLay's folks suggested that might cause problems.)

Basically everybody who gave was getting something from DeLay; and USFN was the coin machine. As Smith puts it, rather prosaically, "records, other documents and interviews call into question the very purpose of the U.S. Family Network, which functioned mostly by collecting funds from domestic and foreign businesses whose interests coincided with DeLay's activities while he was serving as House majority whip from 1995 to 2002, and as majority leader from 2002 until the end of September. (italics added)"

And what did the money from USFN go for? A ton of it seems to have been cycled back to Ed Buckham's firm, The Alexander Strategy Group -- one of key money gatekeepers in the DeLay machine. Some went for attack ads against Democrats and other political operations. A pretty sizeable chunk was ...

used to finance the cash purchase of a townhouse three blocks from DeLay's congressional office. DeLay's associates at the time called it "the Safe House."

DeLay made his own fundraising telephone pitches from the townhouse's second-floor master suite every few weeks, according to two former associates. Other rooms in the townhouse were used by Alexander Strategy Group, Buckham's newly formed lobbying firm, and Americans for a Republican Majority (ARMPAC), DeLay's leadership committee.

They paid modest rent to the U.S. Family Network, which occupied a single small room in the back.

Like I said, you can read all the lurid details in the piece. But let's back up for a moment to get a look at the big picture.

What's going on here? Abramoff's involved in this one; but not just him -- one-time partner and (surprisingly dangerous to Abramoff) eventual rival Ed Buckham. Foreign and domestic corporations pay money in to front groups for favors. And what happens to the money? Lots certainly goes to personally enrich the chief lobbyists like Abramoff and Buckham. But look closely and you'll see that lots gets pumped back in to the machine -- the capitol hill 'safe house', political ads, money to the consultancies that no doubt underwrites other political operations, 'grassroots' and otherwise.

It's like we've been telling you for months. This is a slush fund. Lots of secret money, often from overseas, that can get spread around off the books in DC. That's how this sort of political machine works.

Heres a question some

Here's a question some of our lawyer readers may be able to help with -- but software developers and others may have good suggestions too.

As regular readers know, we've spent a decent amount of time this last year putting together timelines of key events and stories, often with reader participation. As we build toward launching TPMmuckraker.com we're looking for ways to put these projects together in a more organized and graphically intuitive way.

Now, I know that there is software designed primarily for litigators who want to use graphically intuitive timelines in their courtroom presentations. So that's one source of software we might be able to use to put information together in a more user-friendly way than just a straight vertical list of events in chronological order. I know there are other niche software tools available that do similar sorts of things as well.

So if you've worked with any of these programs or tools of whatever sort, can you drop us a line? Let us know how well you think the tool worked, whether it produces timelines that might be useful for us as we create various scandal and event timelines at TPMmuckraker.com. Thanks in advance for your help.

TPM Reader JL thinks

TPM Reader JL thinks TPMmuckraker is only the beginning ...

TPM said

"Perhaps the new owners [of renamed Signatures] can turn it into the pol-nerd equivalent of a sports bar where aggreived Dems hang out and whip themselves up into a frenzy over the latest Abramoff story".

If TPM is going to branch out, rent office space, have a "world office" and hire beat reporters, it needs to invest and let its vast wealth do some work. I suggest TPM ask for donations so TPM can buy Signatures and make this stroke of genius idea happen ASAP. My check for your coming scamblog is on its way. I'll invest in the new TPM Signatures scam-bar tourist attraction too!

Once we've got reporters hired and some place to put the computers and phones we'll consider other strategic acquisitions.

Play to your strengths

Play to your strengths! says TPM Reader CD in this shrewd bit of business advice ...

in true abrahamoffian fashion, they really need to capitalize on whatever angle they possibly can for their own selfish profit. i say it has to be "the ethically compromised cafe." it's not as if the movers and shakers they once catered to would really ever get comfy there again, so they might as well exploit their notoriety to draw in the tourists

Sounds right to me. Perhaps the new owners can turn it into the pol-nerd equivalent of a sports bar where aggreived Dems hang out and whip themselves up into a frenzy over the latest Abramoff story.

Jack Flips Hot Cakes, DeLay's Bacon, Lettuce & Tomato sandwich, Mike Scanlon Chicken Wings.

Late Update: Still more from TPM Reader CD: "and of course they would serve milkshakedowns and scamburgers. possibilities are endless....."

Bush tumbles from 42

Bush tumbles from 42% approval in last week's CNN/USAToday poll to 41% in new CNN poll out today!


Can't I make a big deal about meaningless statistical blips too?

Ahh the Shame the

Ahh the Shame! the Humanity! the pure unadulterated humor value!

Signatures, Jack Abramoff's pricey DC eatery where the beautiful people right-wingers ate well and the congressmen ate for free, is looking for a new name.

And they've set up a special page at the restaurant's website where you can sign up and suggest one.

I think I'm going to put in for 'License Plates'.

(ed.note: Special thanks for TPM Reader OM for the catch.)

Late Update: Okay, I thought License Plates was pretty damned funny. But TPM Reader VT just came in with Jack in the Box. And that may take the prize.

Even Later Update: Bravo! TPM Reader HTH manages both nominal continuity and residential appropriateness by renaming Signatures, The Pen or perhaps The Federal Pen, though here brevity may be the soul of wisdom.

Its not too early

It's not too early to start thinking about it: what is the president going to say in his state of the union address? what claims will he make, fraudulent or otherwise? And what will the alternative be?

A couple quick follow-ups

A couple quick follow-ups on the Abramoff article in the Post today.

First, there's this passage ...

DeLay, a Christian conservative, did not quite know what to make of Abramoff, who wore a beard and a yarmulke. They forged political ties, but the two men never became personally close, according to associates of both men.

"Personally close" can mean a lot of things. And what it means in the often-inherently-phony world of politics is anyone's guess. But in this context I take the passage above to mean that though they had politics and political money ties, it was always an arm's length relationship on a personal level.

That's not what I hear in talking to people. In fact, I have an February 2003 email between Abramoff and Christine DeLay in which they discuss a private dinner with the DeLays, the Abramoffs and Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin and his wife Irene the night before. The email makes it sound the two couples were close and socialized together.

Remember too that back in August the Post ran an unrebutted but now endlessly discredited claim that DeLay had washed his hands of Abramoff in early 2001 after first hearing about the murder of Abramoff's erstwhile business partner Gus Boulis.

Certainly, claims that the two men weren't close would be entirely self-serving from the DeLay side; on the Abramoff side, that's less clear. But for the reasons above and others, call me unconvinced.

Then there's this passage ...

Abramoff wallowed in his access, real and imagined. When his crack administrative assistant Susan Ralston bolted for a position with White House political adviser Karl Rove, Abramoff told colleagues he had gotten her the job even though it was Ralston's old boss, Reed, who made it happen, her former colleagues said.

Is this really credible? Abramoff was tight with Rove. And 2000/2001 when just on the cusp of Abramoff's glory days when he was a huge player in DC. And his right-hand-woman (she was a key player for both men; the title understates her role) went to work for Rove when the Bush administration came in.

We know that Abramoff worked assiduously and fairly successfully to get colleagues and business associates of his into key positions in the administration for obvious reasons. And his key assistant goes and becomes the gatekeeper for Karl Rove. But he had nothing to do with it.

I just don't think that passes the laugh test.

It was Ralph Reed? He's close to both men of course. And perhaps he put in a good word for her too. But somehow I figure the guy who'd worked with her closely for years would be the more likely person to have secured the appointment than someone like Reed she'd never worked with.

And look at the phrasing. "Ralston bolted for a position with White House political adviser Karl Rove." Apparently she just couldn't get away from him quick enough.

Of course her "former colleagues" say that Abramoff didn't have anything to do with getting her the job! Ralston's now at the center of -- if not necessarily implicated in -- two on-going criminal investigations. She doesn't need any more trouble than she's already got.

I don't know the specifics of how she went from Abramoff to Rove. But I think more than self-serving testimony from Ralston's proxies is needed to jettison the common understanding that Jack got her the job.