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Top Republican lobbyist pleads guilty in US corruption case

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A top Republican lobbyist pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion in a case which could lift the lid on one of the most explosive US political corruption scandals in decades.

"Words will not ever be able to express my sorrow for this," Jack Abramoff, 46, said at a brief appearance in US District Court, where he expressed "profound regret for the multitude of mistakes and harm I have caused.

"I only hope that I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and those I have wronged," said the former powerbroker in the dollar-soaked Washington lobbying community.

The guilty plea followed days of negotiations between Abramoff's lawyers and prosecutors and sets the stage for his cooperation in an investigation which threatens a number of powerful members of the US Congress, including Tom Delay, the former Republican majority leader of the House of Representatives.

Abramoff could face up to 30 years in prison and restitution of 25 million dollars but is expected to receive a significantly lesser sentence in exchange for his testimony against former associates in Congress and their aides.

Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle was asked by prosecutors to defer sentencing until Abramoff has finished cooperating with the authorities. The next hearing was set for March 24.

Court papers filed on Tuesday alleged that Abramoff and associates conspired to "corruptly give, offer and promise things of value, including money, meals, trips and entertainment" to public officials.

The purpose of the gifts was "the intent to influence, and in return for agreements to perform, official acts."

A bevy of favors funnelled to a member of Congress identified only as "Representative 1" and his staff, included a trip to Scotland's world famous golf courses, tickets to sporting events and meals at Abramoff's swank Washington restaurant.

Published media reports have identified Republican congressman Robert Ney of Ohio as having received favors including golf trips and meals. Ney has accused Abramoff of misleading him.

Delay, who stepped down as majority leader after being indicted on money laundering charges in his home state of Texas, has also been linked with Abramoff.

Political movers in the US capital have been on edge for months over the fate of Abramoff, who earned tens of millions from representing Indian tribes, and who courted scores of lawmakers on both sides of the political divide.

President George W. Bush's Republican party in particular has been concerned about the impact of the Abramoff case, worried that the taint of corruption could hinder its chances in mid-term elections in November.

The party has been hit by a string of other headaches, including an insider trading probe against Senate Majority leader Bill Frist.

The White House was rocked last year by the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby on charges arising from a probe into the outing of CIA spy Valerie Plame.

Bush's spokesman Scott McClellan on Tuesday took care to distance the White House from Abramoff, as reports surfaced of the plea deal.

"What he is reportedly acknowledging doing is unacceptable and outrageous," McClellan said. "If laws were broken he must be held accountable for what he did."

Abramoff was expected to plead guilty on Wednesday to charges in another probe, in Florida, in which he faces charges of conspiracy and wire fraud in connection with a casino deal and faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted.

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