WASHINGTON - Justice came to Jack Abramoff Sept. 4 as U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle sentenced him to 48 months in prison for corrupting public officials, evading taxes, and defrauding tribes, other clients and business partners.
The charges stemmed from the criminal one-time lobbying impresario;s manipulation of tribes, whose fees he used to buy influence on Capitol Hill and operate charities, many of them shams. Many of his services to tribes were also shams, though evidence in his case includes indications of positive achievement for tribes as well. But Huvelle said his misconduct was not a matter of aberrancies in otherwise upright conduct. ''It was a consistent course of corruption.''
Abramoff presented himself for sentencing as a broken man who has found the path of redemption in a return to his Judaic faith. ''I come before you broken, just broken. ... The pain for me and my family has been intense. ... I fell into an abyss, your honor, and I don't quite know how I can get out.''
Huvelle said she didn't question his repentance.
With Abramoff's guilt settled, the issue before the court was the length of his sentence. The Department of Justice, citing Abramoff's unstinting cooperation in exposing Capitol Hill corruption, argued for a sentence of 39 months. Huvelle found that too lenient, though in view of Abramoff's ongoing services to the government she reduced his sentence by 60 percent of the maximum allowed by federal guidelines. He will eventually serve just short of six years on the District of Columbia charges, she said. Attorney Philip H. Hilder of Houston, who represented whistle-blowers in the Enron prosecution, estimated afterward that with time already served and days off for good behavior, Abramoff is apt to serve roughly three and a half more years in prison.
The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan urged judge Huvelle to hand Abramoff the maximum sentence of more than 10 years. Their spokesmen described the impact of Abramoff's meddling in tribal elections, and added that they continue to be excluded from full participation in politics as ''Abramoff tribes.''
Chief Fred Cantu Jr. of the Saginaw Chippewa said the sentence seemed overly lenient. ''But we have to respect the decision of the court, and we will do that.''
Vice Chairman David Sickey of the Coushatta (Chairman Kevin Sickey remained in Louisiana, responding to the threat of Hurricane Gustav) took issue with the notion of Abramoff's services in cleaning up his own corruption. Tribes came forward first to expose Abramoff, he said.
Cantu and Sickey both said they were disappointed that in summarizing Abramoff's offenses, Huvelle dwelt on the damage he did to trust in the federal government, especially the legislative and executive branches, without mentioning the damage he visited on tribal governments.