By Jonathan Weisman and Derek Willis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
The senior Democrat on the Senate committee investigating former lobbyist Jack Abramoff announced this week that he will return $67,000 in donations from Indian tribes represented by the indicted Republican.
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.), vice chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, said he has never met Abramoff, nor did he advocate any program backed by Abramoff's tribal clients that he would not have otherwise embraced. But his move, reported yesterday in the Forum of Fargo, N.D., illustrates how broadly the political stain of Abramoff's money is spreading on Capitol Hill.
"I have returned all contributions to my campaign committee and my leadership political action committee from tribes represented by Mr. Abramoff's law firm and from individuals employed by his law firm during the time he was at the firm," Dorgan said in a statement. "Even though those contributions were legal and fully reported as required by law, I will not knowingly keep even one dollar in contributions if there is even a remote possibility that they could have been the result of any action Mr. Abramoff might have taken."
Aides conceded that the senator did advocate for programs pushed by Abramoff's clients around the time he was accepting tens of thousands of dollars from associates and clients of the lobbyist.
Dorgan's reimbursement came as a number of lawmakers move to amend campaign disclosure forms to reflect in-kind contributions from Abramoff and his clients, particularly the use of Abramoff's MCI Center skybox.
The Justice Department is leading a wide-ranging criminal investigation of Abramoff and his former partner, Michael D. Scanlon, based on evidence that points to possible corruption in Congress and the executive branch, according to lawyers involved in the case. Scanlon pleaded guilty on Nov. 21 to conspiring to bribe a congressman and other public officials, and he agreed to pay back more than $19 million he fraudulently charged Indian tribal clients. Scanlon has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
Prosecutors have already told one lawmaker, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), and his former chief of staff that they are preparing a possible bribery case against them, according to two sources knowledgeable about the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The 35 to 40 investigators and prosecutors on the Abramoff case are focused on at least half a dozen Republican members of Congress, including former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), lawyers and others close to the probe said.
The investigators are looking at payments made by Abramoff and his colleagues to the wives of some lawmakers and at actions taken by senior Capitol Hill aides, some of whom went to work for Abramoff at the law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP, lawyers and others familiar with the probe said. Since January 2004, Ney's congressional committee has filed 10 amended reports covering activities prior to 2004. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has acknowledged he did not properly report two fundraisers in Abramoff's sky box in 2002 and 2003. Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) has reported repayments totaling $12,880 to the Chitimacha and Choctaw tribes for in-kind contributions at 10 fundraising events.
Joe Eule, Hayworth's chief of staff, said such events are usually followed by a letter from event sponsors detailing the value of in-kind contributions, such as food and tickets, that must be reported to the Federal Election Commission or repaid. In the case of the Abramoff-sponsored events, Hayworth received no such letter and the events were forgotten, Eule said.
When some of the events were reported by the press, Hayworth aides contacted the FEC, which suggested that the tribes be reimbursed, he said.
Republican political strategists hope the rash of Abramoff-related activities will defuse the issue ahead of the November 2006 elections. Democrats have run two television advertisements in Montana, castigating Burns for his activities on behalf of Abramoff, but as the lobbyist's taint spreads, its political impact may dissipate, said Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
"If the Democrats are alleging that Republicans are guilty of any wrongdoing, they're sitting in the same boat," he said. "It just becomes a nonstarter."
Dorgan aides said yesterday that the senator is guilty of nothing. He attended a March 2001 fundraiser in Abramoff's skybox, after being told it belonged to the Choctaws. He did press the Interior Department in 2003 to decide whether the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts deserved federal recognition, around the time he accepted at least $11,500 from an Abramoff partner representing the tribe.
But, a Dorgan aide said, "they had a pretty good case. They had been waiting 29 years for a decision."
And Dorgan did push to fully fund an Indian school construction program in 2002, around the time he collected $20,000 from Abramoff clients who wanted the program. But, the aide said, Dorgan has always supported school construction funds, and the program does not aid any specific tribe.
"I have worked for many years to improve the lives of American Indians," Dorgan said.