By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 5, 2006
Republican Party officials said yesterday that President Bush will give up $6,000 in campaign contributions connected to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, joining an expansive list of politicians who have shed more than half a million dollars in tainted campaign cash.
The announcement came as Abramoff pleaded guilty in a second criminal case, acknowledging that he conspired to defraud lenders in the purchase of a fleet of Florida casino boats five years ago. The court appearance in Miami came a day after Abramoff pleaded guilty before a federal judge in Washington to defrauding Indian tribe clients of millions of dollars, conspiring to bribe members of Congress and evading taxes.
Under plea agreements negotiated in the two federal cases, the once-powerful lobbyist promised to provide evidence and testimony in a wide-ranging Justice Department investigation of the lobbying of Congress and of federal agencies.
Fearful of the adverse political fallout from the expanding corruption investigation, Republicans in both houses of Congress moved forward with face-saving legislation to tighten lobbying regulations and to discourage dealings between lawmakers and influence-peddlers.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) called again for a limit on "pork-barrel" projects in annual spending bills, which Abramoff himself has called "favor factories."
And the conservative National Review -- a staunch defender of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) in his fight against campaign finance charges in his home state -- urged the lawmaker to give up his bid to return to the GOP leadership, citing his close connections to Abramoff.
Republican leaders in Washington hope the legislative moves and campaign refunds will insulate their party as Abramoff begins cooperating with one of the largest congressional corruption investigations in decades.
"The problem is that power corrupts, and we simply have too much of it," Flake said.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said that Bush does not know Abramoff personally, although the two may have met at holiday receptions.
Abramoff raised more than $100,000 for the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign, making him an honorary Bush "Pioneer." But the campaign is giving up only $6,000, which came directly from Abramoff, his wife and one of the Indian tribes the lobbyist represented. The money will be donated to the American Heart Association.
The gesture was criticized by the watchdog group Public Citizen, which called for an accounting of all the money that Abramoff had raised for the campaign.
"President Bush needs to . . . reveal just how much money Abramoff raised for him and who that money came from," said Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch.
But McClellan contested any suggestion that Abramoff's fundraising had won him any special favors or access.
"If someone thinks that money is coming in with strings attached, it doesn't get in the door," he said.
At least 24 politicians have now pledged to relinquish $515,199 in Abramoff-tainted campaign cash, including some of the most powerful Republicans in Washington. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) will give up at least $60,000. DeLay, the former House majority leader, has pledged to donate $57,000 in Abramoff-linked contributions to charity. And acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) plans to shed the $8,500 that Abramoff and his wife donated to his political action committee.
"Because the donor of these funds has admitted to activities which are illegal and which we deplore as detrimental to our form of government, the executive director of the Rely on Your Beliefs will recommend that the board donate these funds to a charity," said Blunt spokeswoman Burson Taylor.
All but three of the 24 politicians giving up the funds are Republicans. The three Democrats -- Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.) -- have pledged to shed a total of $97,000 in contributions. A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Reid has no intention of shedding the $47,000 he has received from Abramoff's lobbying team and tribal clients.
"Abramoff was a Republican operative, and this is a Republican scandal," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley. "Any effort by Republicans to drag Democrats into this is doomed to failure."
The half-million dollars in pledged donations and refunds make up a fraction of the $5.3 million that Abramoff, some of his lobbying colleagues and tribal clients showered on 364 federal candidates and campaign committees from 1999 to 2004. About 64 percent of that money went to Republicans, about 35 percent went to Democrats, and 1 percent went to candidates not affiliated with either party.
But it is not clear that simply shedding Abramoff's cash will get lawmakers out of the lobbyists' shadow. According to Abramoff's guilty plea, the contributions were aimed at winning specific favors, such as torpedoing legislation or securing federal contracts.
"You just can't give the money back and forget about what the money was for," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
With that in mind, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) asked Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) just before Thanksgiving to draft a package of lobbying restrictions, according to Robert L. Traynham II, a Santorum spokesman. That effort will run parallel to a push from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has drafted his own lobbying legislation. McCain's partner in an earlier campaign finance effort, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), also has a proposal.
"I will be working with colleagues this session to examine and act on any necessary changes to improve transparency and accountability for our body when it comes to lobbying," Frist said in a statement yesterday. "Some members have already made recommendations to me, or introduced legislation. I look forward to working to secure the continued integrity of the Senate."
In the House, a group of rank-and-file members approached Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) last year to press him on the dangers that Abramoff presented. Out of those meetings, Rogers, a former FBI agent who had focused on public corruption in Chicago, began work on a House lobbying measure, according to a Rogers aide.
The aide would offer no details, but he said the proposal is likely to tighten the rules on the public disclosure of lobbying contacts and to lengthen the time former lawmakers and aides must wait before they can pursue careers as lobbyists.
Rogers's efforts are seen by GOP leadership sources as more palatable than the separate packages that have been drafted by Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and a group of Democrats. Shays has been outspoken in his condemnation of lobbying in the House, and of the Republican leadership's refusal to permanently replace DeLay, who stepped down as majority leader in September after he was indicted on charges of campaign finance violations.
Research database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.