The central figure in the mainland's most high-profile influence-peddling scandal since 1949, Ma De , has pleaded guilty to bribery charges after advancing the careers of 18 officials in Heilongjiang province, his lawyer said yesterday. Ma, formerly party secretary of Suihua city, went on trial in the Beijing No 2 Intermediate People's Court yesterday. The court was told that Ma, 55, took more than 550,000 yuan and US$55,000 from 18 people between November 1992 and February 2002, in exchange for helping them secure promotions. But Ma's web of bribery involved as many as 265 officials - all of whom were sacked after he revealed the magnitude of the corruption to prosecutors. Officials included heavyweights such as former land and natural resources minister Tian Fengshan and the chairwoman of the Heilongjiang committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Han Guizhi. More than 50 of the cadres involved were at the municipal level or higher. A long indictment was read yesterday during Ma's seven-hour court appearance. After the hearing, his lawyer, Qian Lieyang, said Ma had admitted his guilt. 'I personally believe he won't be sentenced to death because he handed over all the bribes that were given to him and disclosed the wider net of corruption,' Mr Qian said. 'That assistance should win him a lighter punishment.' He expected a sentence to be handed down by early next month. Former Heilongjiang environmental protection bureau chief Wang Shenyi, who was implicated in the corruption scandal and allegedly took more than 2 million yuan in bribes, will appear in the same court today.