By MARK SHERMAN
A former top aide to Rep. Tom DeLay pleaded guilty Friday to conspiracy and promised to cooperate with a federal investigation of bribery and lobbying fraud that has so far netted three convictions and prompted calls for ethics reform in Congress.
Tony Rudy, DeLay's former deputy chief of staff, admitted to conspiring with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff both while Rudy worked for DeLay and after he left the lawmaker's staff to become a lobbyist himself.
He faces up to five years in prison, but could receive much less based on the extent of his help with the investigation, U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle told Rudy at a court hearing in Washington.
As a top aide to DeLay in his role as House majority leader, Rudy took payments from Abramoff in 2000, then helped stop an Internet gambling bill opposed by Abramoff's clients, according to court papers.
Later, while working as a lobbyist, Rudy also was extensively involved in arranging a golf trip to Scotland for Rep. Bob Ney, described as Representative 1, and congressional staffers, the court papers said.
Rudy, who resigned as DeLay's deputy chief of staff in 2001, is the first person to plead guilty in the case since Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud charges in January. Michael Scanlon, a former DeLay press secretary who later became a lobbying partner with Abramoff, pleaded guilty in November to conspiring to bribe public officials.
The plea agreement contains no allegations that DeLay, who it describes as Representative 2, did anything wrong.
As part of the deal, Rudy pleaded guilty to the single conspiracy count and prosecutors agreed not to pursue other possible charges against him or his wife.
"The American public loses when officials and lobbyists conspire to buy and sell influence in such a corrupt and brazen manner. By his admission in open court today, Mr. Rudy paints a picture of Washington which the American public and law enforcement will simply not tolerate," said Alice Fisher, assistant Attorney General in charge of the Justice Department's Criminal Division.
Rudy, 39, stood with his head slightly bowed and his hands clasped in front of him as the judge detailed how he took free trips, tickets, meals and golf games from Abramoff while working for DeLay.
Rudy, a lawyer, answered the judge's questions in a strong voice but seemed more subdued when Huvelle asked if he understood that he was pleading guilty to a felony and would lose some rights.
"Yes your honor," he said quietly.
His lawyer, Laura Ariane Miller, objected when Huvelle described the allegation that he took things "in exchange" for official acts. Instead, Miller said that her client sought and received gifts.
Huvelle said that under the sentencing guidelines, which are not mandatory but often used by judges, Rudy could receive 24 to 30 months in prison because he does not have a criminal record and acknowledged his crime.
The judge said that prosecutors could ask for a lower sentence, depending on his cooperation. Rudy was allowed to remain free pending the sentencing
Rudy and his lawyer left the courthouse without commenting to reporters.
Ney's lawyer, Mark Tuohey, said a guilty plea by Rudy doesn't change Ney's situation. The congressman continues to maintain his innocence. Tuohey said he hadn't seen the court papers filed Friday and couldn't comment in detail on them.
Court papers say Rudy sent an e-mail inviting Ney and his then-chief of staff Neil Volz to Scotland in 2002, promising golf and "drinking and smoking Cubans." Ney contends he thought the trip was properly paid for by a GOP policy group for a legitimate international parliamentary event.
"Mr. Rudy had nothing to do with Mr. Ney's Scotland trip at all, nothing," Tuohey said. When asked whether Rudy could have sent the e-mail invite, he said, "If he did, I haven't seen it."
Ney is cooperating with Justice Department requests for information. For example, Ney spokesman Brian Walsh said the Ohio Republican has provided prosecutors with stacks of receipts to prove he and his staff paid for their own food at Abramoff's downtown Washington restaurant. Ney also has said he was duped by Abramoff into entering statements on the Congressional Record in support of Abramoff's purchase of a fleet of Florida casino boats.
After leaving DeLay's office, Rudy first joined Abramoff's lobbying team at the Greenberg Traurig law firm. Soon after, he signed on with another former DeLay staffer, Ed Buckham, at the Alexander Strategy Group.
Associated Press writers Gina Holland and David Hammer contributed to this report.© 2006 The Associated Press
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