The $4bn industry that is America's guilty secret

Lobbying is Washington's grubby secret. Some say lobbying is part of the democratic process. Others claim it is legalised bribery, even corruption. But love it or loathe it, it is the way Washington works.

Usually you hear little about the quiet meetings, the lavish lunches and junkets that lubricate American politics. But every once in a while something comes along to open the system to what it hates most: daylight. The case of Jack Abramoff, influence-peddler extraordinaire, is one of those somethings.

Once Mr Abramoff claimed to have done nothing illegal, that his only sin was to have been too good at his job. But now his career is in ruins, a jail term of nine years or more beckons - an incarceration that would be even longer but for the plea bargain he reached yesterday with federal prosecutors.