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GOP Leaders Seek Distance From Abramoff

"If Jack Abramoff tells the truth, what he'll do is clear the air, and everyone will see there's no connection between Jack Abramoff's money-dealing and Tom DeLay," DeGuerin said.

Yesterday, Texas prosecutor Ronnie Earle, who has been overseeing the probe into illegal corporate donations there, tried to find that connection by sending subpoenas to Abramoff's two former employers in Washington, seeking documents and any correspondence involving DeLay and certain contributions by Abramoff clients.

The subpoenas are based on evidence that the law firm Preston Gates Ellis LLP and several Abramoff clients, including the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, made donations to Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee organized by DeLay and his associates. That committee has been indicted on charges of illegally using corporate funds, and Earle now appears to be seeking information on what the donors expected to get in return for their payments.

Even before the plea agreement was unveiled, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had circulated a 1997 quote from DeLay hailing Abramoff as "one of my closest and dearest friends."

"Tom DeLay was majority leader of the House of Representatives," said DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), "and Tom DeLay said Jack Abramoff was his best friend, nobody else."

But Democrats could be ensnared by the Abramoff case, as well. The lobbyist oversaw at the law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP a team of two dozen lobbyists that included many Democrats. The biggest beneficiaries of campaign contributions directed by the Abramoff team included such high-ranking Democrats as then-Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (R.I.), a former head of the House Democrats' campaign committee.

Some key Republican strategists have complained that GOP leaders have been slow in responding to a scandal that has been unfolding for months and in holding internal elections to permanently replace DeLay in the House leadership.

With Abramoff's plea, that may change. In November, The Post detailed a fundraiser held by Hastert at one of Abramoff's restaurants that netted from the lobbyist's law firm and tribal clients at least $21,500 for the speaker's political action committee. Since then, numerous lawmakers from both parties have returned such donations, but only yesterday did Hastert join the line.

"While these contributions were legal, he believes that it is appropriate to donate the money to charity," said Ron Bonjean, Hastert's spokesman.

Staff writers Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this report.

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