By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 9, 2006
With Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) formally removed from congressional leadership, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) took the next step yesterday in Republican efforts to distance the party from a growing corruption scandal, saying the House will move soon to tighten the rules governing lobbyists' access to lawmakers.
Hastert tasked House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) to head the GOP's effort to draft new lobbying rules. The move comes months after House Democrats, led by Reps. Martin T. Meehan (Mass.) and Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), and Republican Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.), unveiled proposals to mandate more disclosure of lobbying contacts, ban most lobbyist-sponsored trips and lengthen the time former House members and staff must wait before taking up lobbying.
"Over the past several months, I have spoken with many members about the need for such reforms. . . . Now is the time for action," Hastert said in a statement.
The move came as federal investigators probing the activities of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff moved closer to the House GOP's leadership suites in what promises to be one of the largest federal corruption scandals in decades. DeLay said Saturday that he would not try to regain his House majority leader post, which he was forced to relinquish in September after he was indicted on campaign finance charges in Texas.
That announcement has touched off what promises to be a fierce struggle for House leadership. In the first sign that even Hastert could be in trouble, Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.) said Republicans should consider whether to replace the speaker. "The time is right for us to do some soul-searching and have an open dialogue about the direction of the House."
DeLay said yesterday his decision was not related to the Abramoff inquiry, telling Fox News Channel, "I am not a target of an investigation."
But last week, a prominent client of Abramoff's former law firm offered fresh revelations linking Abramoff to DeLay's office, saying it had sent $25,000 to an Abramoff-linked Orthodox Jewish group in 2000 as part of a lobbying campaign to thwart a proposed postal rate increase. That money appears to have then been paid to the wife of Tony C. Rudy, the deputy chief of staff of then-House Majority Whip DeLay who was helping to spearhead efforts against the increase.
Under the plea agreement made public Tuesday, Abramoff said that he and others sought Rudy's agreement to help torpedo the postal rate increase and a prohibition on Internet gambling. "With the intent to influence those official acts," the documents say, Abramoff provided "things of value, including but not limited to . . . ten equal monthly payments totaling $50,000" to the wife of a congressional aide called "staffer A" but identified elsewhere as Rudy. Those payments came from clients "that would and did benefit" from Rudy's actions.
The Washington Post had previously reported that $25,000 had come from eLottery Inc., an Internet gambling firm and Abramoff client, which sent the money to a Seattle-based foundation, Toward Tradition, that then paid fees to Rudy's wife, Lisa.
On Friday, the Magazine Publishers of America, which had hired Abramoff's firm Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds LLP in 2000 for a $10 million campaign against the postal rate increase, revealed where the other half came from.
"I can confirm that based on direction from Preston Gates, the MPA did make a $25,000 contribution to Toward Tradition in 2000," said MPA spokesman Howard J. Rubenstein. The MPA directors "had absolutely no knowledge of how the money would be used, and if it turns out that it was used for an improper purpose, they would be, quite frankly, outraged."
A Preston Gates spokeswoman said Friday night that the firm cannot discuss private matters but that "neither the firm nor the client had any knowledge of Jack Abramoff's orchestration of a payment to the wife of a congressional staffer."
The foundation's leader, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, has said Lisa Rudy helped organize a conference for the group in exchange for her fees.
The Abramoff plea agreement's focus on the postal rate increase and Internet gambling bill signals that federal investigators are turning up the heat on Rudy and his wife, possibly with DeLay as an eventual target, said Stanley M. Brand, a former general counsel to the House, who described DeLay's legal problems as "extreme."
The U.S. Postal Service had proposed a 15 percent increase, triggering a fight from the magazine industry. With a lobbying contract worth millions, Preston Gates put its heavyweights on the team, including Abramoff, and then directed the MPA to make its $25,000 contribution to Toward Tradition, headed by Lapin, a longtime friend of Abramoff's.
On May 1, 2000, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call quoted Rudy as saying, "We're planning to do all we can so that the postmaster general sticks to his word" and reduces the rate increase. By December, the magazine publishers were claiming victory: The rate increase that went into effect in January 2001 was considerably smaller.
The case could be significant for investigators, Brand said. Federal prosecutors need only prove there was an agreement to pursue official action in exchange for favors, and the Abramoff plea repeatedly states that such agreements existed. But juries often want to see that the action took place, and in the postal rate episode, that would be clear.
Such episodes underscore why House leaders want to move forward with legislation. "We want to deal with this issue and get it behind us as quickly as possible," Dreier told Fox News yesterday.
The issue will also play prominently in the fight over a new slate of Republican leaders that could emerge after DeLay's departure. House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) declared his candidacy for DeLay's job yesterday, challenging acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who also declared his candidacy yesterday.
Many members fear that neither Blunt nor Boehner represents a break with the DeLay era, because both have accepted donations from Abramoff clients. Boehner said that he would be the candidate for reform, noting that in the early 1990s he was one of seven members who tried to clean up a scandal in the House's bank and postal system.
"I've had a commitment to cleaning up problems and to accountability since I came to Congress," the eight-term lawmaker said.
Blunt told colleagues he was the candidate of GOP unity and "common-sense solutions."
Staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum contributed to this report.