Hastert, Justice Dept. Dispute Inquiry Story

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006

ABC News says federal investigators have put House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) "in the mix" of their corruption probe centering on convicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty says the ABC report involving Hastert -- even the "in the mix" language -- is "untrue."

And Hastert, calling the story "absolutely" wrong, is demanding a retraction.

Who's right?

It is highly unusual for the Justice Department to confirm or deny that someone is under investigation. Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said that federal guidelines allow such statements in cases receiving "substantial publicity" and that the decision was based on the guidelines "combined with the inaccuracy of the information."

On "World News Tonight" Wednesday, Brian Ross, ABC's chief investigative correspondent, said the bribery probe "now includes" Hastert but cautioned that the investigation is "clearly at the very beginning. The allegations could well prove unfounded." George Stephanopoulos, the network's chief Washington correspondent, called the implications "potentially seismic."

Ross said in an interview: "I think our story is accurate. We've gone back to our sources, and they believe what we reported was accurate as they knew it. There seems to be some disconnect between what the congressman thinks, what the Justice Department thinks and what the FBI thinks. . . . There may be a semantics issue here as to what constitutes being under investigation."

Reporters for NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox News and other news organizations checked out ABC's report but were waved off by law enforcement officials. "Within 15 minutes, we had three or four basic denials saying in effect this was a complete overreach, and we chose not to run it," said John Reiss, executive producer of "NBC Nightly News."

The dispute with ABC comes as the news business has been beset by declining public confidence, several high-profile media mistakes and leak investigations by the Bush administration aimed at pressuring journalists into revealing confidential sources. Ross recently reported -- again based on unidentified sources -- that federal leak investigators are tracking his calls and those of other journalists.

Hastert told Chicago radio station WGN yesterday that the information was leaked to "intimidate" him after his criticism of an FBI raid on the office of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) as a violation of the separation-of-powers doctrine.

In asking for a retraction, two Hastert attorneys told ABC News President David Westin in a letter that for the network to repeat the "false" statement on its Web site after the Justice Department's denial "constitutes libel and defamation" and reflects a "malicious intent" to damage Hastert's reputation.

As was reported last year, Hastert was among four House Republican leaders who signed a 2003 letter to then-Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton in an effort to block an Indian casino opposed by tribes represented by Abramoff. Shortly before the letter was sent, Abramoff hosted a fundraiser for Hastert's political action committee. In January, the speaker said he would give to charity the donations, estimated at $69,000, that he received from Abramoff and Abramoff's clients.

Several dozen members of Congress -- some at the urging of Abramoff's team of lobbyists -- wrote letters asking Norton not to allow tribes to establish casinos on off-reservation sites. Legal experts have said that campaign contributions alone, even if closely timed to a lawmaker's action, are not likely to become a focus for investigators in the Abramoff case.

Ross said yesterday the Hastert inquiry he described "could wash out and be nothing." Asked if the alleged inquiry should have been the top story on "World News Tonight," Ross said: "Questions are being raised about the speaker of the House -- that's worthy of a lead story."

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