Ex-Young aide tipped FBI in investigation of congressmen

ZACHARES: Due to be sentenced in Abramoff scandal, role revealed.

November 17, 2010 

Federal prosecutors in Washington revealed this week that a former aide to Rep. Don Young provided substantial help to the FBI in criminal investigations of two congressmen, including one in which he secretly recorded a conversation at the request of agents.

The congressmen were identified only by letter, and their actual identities could not be determined. The FBI investigations of both representatives were closed without charges being brought, the Justice Department said.

The investigations of "Congressman A" and "Congressman B" focused on gifts of travel and paid expenses, in the case of "A" by super lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and "B" by other lobbyists.

Information about the aborted criminal investigations was contained in a motion filed by federal prosecutors in advance of the sentencing next week of Mark Zachares, who was special counsel to Don Young on the House Transportation Committee. The motion is seeking a reduced sentence for Zachares, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to a single count of fraud related to undisclosed gifts and travel he received from Abramoff and his cronies.

Zachares, a former Alaskan, had faced 18 to 24 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. But the Justice Department says he should get credit for "substantial assistance to the government in the investigation of other matters," reducing his potential sentence to 12 to 18 months.

Judges are not bound by the guidelines, and Zachares himself is seeking probation. Prosecutors acknowledged that Zachares' cooperation was "complete, forthcoming and truthful in every instance."

According to Zachares' plea, he was a former top official of the Northern Mariana Islands government, a U.S. possession in the Pacific, when Abramoff was lobbying on its behalf. When Zachares returned to the mainland, Abramoff tried to place him in a job where he could help the lobbyist and his clients. Zachares landed on the House Transportation Committee where Young was chairman, working there from 2002 to 2004.

After Zachares agreed to plead guilty, he "cooperated extensively and usefully in the investigation of Congressman A for accepting things of value from lobbyist Jack Abramoff," the Justice Department said. Zachares provided eyewitness evidence about the congressman's travel and receipt of expense payments from Abramoff. Zachares also conducted "expert research" on legislation as part of that investigation and secretly recorded a telephone conversation with another witness to Congressman A's travels.

But prosecutors halted their investigation of Congressman A over the Constitution's Speech or Debate privilege, which makes it difficult for the executive branch, including the Justice Department, to prosecute someone from Congress when legislation is involved.

In the case of Congressman B, Zachares tipped off the FBI to lobbyist-paid travel and expenses previously unknown to investigators. Though the investigation of that congressman was "extensive," it was halted "as a result of legal and evidentiary issues."

A Justice Department spokeswoman wouldn't comment about the identities of either representative. The motion for reduced sentence said that prosecutors would only discuss the issue in closed court. Zachares' attorney, Ed MacMahon, said he couldn't talk about the investigations.

Young himself was under investigation by the FBI for several years. While one focus of that investigation was on gifts and excessive campaign contributions in Alaska by the defunct oil field service company Veco, other issues had arisen as well, including allegations he inserted money for a Florida interchange in a highway bill after receiving campaign contributions from a developer.

Young reported spending more than $1 million defending against the allegations. He has acknowledged that he asserted the Speech or Debate privilege during the investigation but has repeatedly refused to discuss any details of the inquiry.

Asked whether he was Congressman A or B, Young's office deferred questions to Young's attorney, John Dowd. In an e-mail, Dowd said he had "no response."

While several Congressmen were investigated by the Justice Department in the Abramoff case, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Young matches Congressman A in several ways. Zachares would have had the ability to observe Young when Young visited the Mariana Islands capital of Saipan in February 1999. The next year, Young killed legislation sponsored by then-Sen. Frank Murkowski to reform labor practices on the islands, which Murkowski had likened to slavery.

Young then was chairman of the House Interior Committee, which had jurisdiction over the territory. Abramoff lobbied on behalf of the island government and garment manufacturers who sought to keep the status quo.

As he assisted the Justice Department in its investigations, Zachares had his sentencing delayed a dozen times. Cooperating defendants will often not be sentenced until they get a chance to testify in trials so they can get the benefit of additional sentence reductions.

But on July 22, the 12th time that prosecutors reported on Zachares' status to U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle, a firm date for his sentencing was set, indicating his testimony would not be needed at any trial.

Less than two weeks later, the Justice Department informed Dowd that it had dropped its investigation of Young.

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