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Ethics Issue May Not Rouse 11th District

Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), shown at his ranch near Tracy, Calif., publicly declared last month:
Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), shown at his ranch near Tracy, Calif., publicly declared last month: "I never broke any rules in the House. I never broke any laws. All I've done is fight for the things that I believe in." (By Rich Pedroncelli -- Associated Press)

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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 4, 2006

Enraged by what he saw as corruption in his own party, a 78-year-old legend of Republican politics emerged from retirement this year to challenge House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo for California's 11th Congressional District seat.

But as former congressman Pete McCloskey traverses Pombo's district hammering the incumbent for ties to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and indicted former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), one response has been dominant, he conceded: shrugs of indifference.

With California's Tuesday primary approaching, McCloskey's experience may have broader significance for the larger contests in November. The "culture of corruption" theme featured so prominently in Democratic campaign literature may not be so potent, after all.

"When I talk about ethics, the response quite often is, 'Yeah, he's a crook, but he's our crook, and isn't everybody a crook out there?' " McCloskey said in an interview last week. "I'm not sure it makes much of a dent on anyone in [California's] San Joaquin Valley who's worried about water, the traffic and air that has become some of the worst in California."

Pombo has never been charged with any wrongdoing. For Democrats looking to seize control of the House this fall, McCloskey's showing this Tuesday may be instructive, and he is not likely to draw much blood. That could mean that an entrenched, well-funded incumbent is not likely to be unseated on nebulous ethics accusations alone, suggested Amy Walter, a House political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Instead, challengers will have to wage a multi-pronged attack that includes, but is not limited to, ethics issues.

Pombo declined to be interviewed for this article. His chief political consultant, Wayne Johnson, said insinuations of unethical behavior have been "created out of whole cloth" by some Internet denizen "sitting in his underwear in Massachusetts writing it up on his blog."

But as insinuations go, few other incumbents have provided as much ammunition as Pombo, 45, a rancher who arrived in Washington in 1992 as a cowboy-booted outsider but who has risen to a position of power and prominence in inner GOP circles.

As chairman of the committee that oversees both Indian gaming issues and U.S. territories, Pombo had been courted hard by Abramoff's biggest clients: Indian tribes enriched by their casinos, and officials of the Northern Mariana Islands eager to fend off U.S. mainland labor laws.

Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe members of Congress, personally gave $7,500 to Pombo's campaign and leadership political action committee, according to campaign records and a Washington Post analysis. Seven of Abramoff's lobbying associates gave another $7,000, while his tribal clients and Northern Mariana interests pitched in $29,250.

Three of the four players who have pleaded guilty in the Abramoff corruption scandal -- Abramoff, former DeLay deputy chief of staff Tony C. Rudy, and former congressional aide Neil G. Volz -- were all Pombo donors. In 2000, Pombo's then-press secretary, Doug Heye, attended three World Wrestling Federation events at Abramoff's MCI Center luxury skybox.

In 2004, Pombo visited the Northern Marianas, meeting with owners of factories that some critics have labeled sweatshops.

Pombo and his family rented a recreational vehicle in August 2003 for a 5,000-mile tour of 10 national parks, all at federal taxpayers' expense. The cost? $4,935.87 for the RV, plus $1,500.51 in expenses. His chief of staff, Steve Ding, has also garnered unwanted attention for racking up $87,000 in commuting expenses from his home in Stockton, Calif., to his work in Washington between 2003 and 2005.


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