U.S. News

Republican figure pleads guilty in Abramoff probe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Republican activist pleaded guilty on Friday to obstructing Congress and evading taxes in a deal with prosecutors probing the influence-peddling scandal involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Italia Federici faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, but she will likely serve far less. Sentencing was set for November 16 and prosecutors will weigh the value of her cooperation in the ongoing investigation.

She also faces between $6,000 and $60,000 in fines and must pay taxes owed plus interest.

Abramoff, currently serving a six-year prison sentence, is at the center of a lobbying scandal that has resulted in prison time for several Bush administration officials and one congressman.

As head of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, Federici, 37, had close ties to senior Interior Department officials, including former Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Founded by Federici and Norton in 1997, CREA is a nonprofit group that touts Republicans’ environmental accomplishments and criticizes established environmental groups like the Sierra Club.

According to the plea agreement, Federici introduced Abramoff to the Interior Department’s No. 2 official, Steven Griles, in March 2001. Federici and Griles at the time had what the agreement describes as a “close, personal relationship.”

Federici served as a go-between for Griles and Abramoff, whose Indian-tribe clients had interests before the Interior Department.

Federici’s involvement masked the extent of Abramoff’s influence over Griles, the agreement says, allowing the two to discuss how to block casinos that might compete with those owned by Abramoff clients, among other matters.

According to the agreement, Abramoff and his clients donated roughly $500,000 of the $723,500 CREA took in during that time. The payments stopped in May 2003.

It also said Federici sought to minimize the extent of her involvement with Griles and Abramoff before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in 2005.

Federici also admitted to failing to pay $77,243 in taxes she owed on the $233,955 she earned between 2001 and 2003 as head of CREA.

She pleaded guilty to both charges and her lawyers declined to comment after the hearing. She has previously expressed regret for her actions.

Griles pleaded guilty in March to obstructing Congress, becoming the highest-ranking Bush administration official convicted in the lobbying scandal. His sentencing is scheduled for June 26.

Former Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio is also serving a 30-month prison sentence for accepting bribes.