By R. Jeffrey Smith and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade were surprised three years ago to be invited to a luncheon in honor of visiting Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), hosted by Bogoljub Karic, a wealthy Serbian businessman who had been barred from visiting or trading with the United States because of his close ties to former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Weldon "was visiting solely because of Karic," whom he was trying to get off the U.S. blacklist, a former senior embassy official familiar with the visit concluded. "It seemed odd" at the time, because Karic had no obvious tie to Weldon's district outside Philadelphia, and Weldon should have known the embassy was shunning contacts with him, the official said.
What the embassy apparently did not know is that the Karic family that year signed a contract with Weldon's daughter, Karen, and a business partner that called for monthly payments of $20,000 for "management, government and public relations," according to a copy of the March 2003 contract. In all, the family paid Karen Weldon's firm $133,858 that year for efforts she undertook to set up a foundation for it.
Curt Weldon's visit and that deal are under investigation by the FBI, according to a law enforcement source familiar with the probe. His efforts to assist clients of his daughter's consulting firm in their dealings with the federal government are the focus of that probe, according to sources familiar with it .
FBI raids of six locations in Pennsylvania and Florida on Monday, including one of Karen Weldon's home and another of her consulting and lobbying firm, were part of the bureau's search for evidence of whether the lawmaker used his influence to benefit himself or his daughter's firm, according to the sources. They spoke on the condition that they not be named because of the sensitivity of the investigation.
A grand jury has been impaneled as part of the investigation, and it has obtained evidence gathered via wiretaps of Washington area cellphone numbers, the sources said.
Weldon has said he did not take actions to enrich his daughter or himself. His attorney, William J. Winning, said yesterday that "the congressman did nothing wrong, nor did his daughter do anything wrong." Winning added that he was not prepared to justify or discuss Weldon's travels.
Besides looking at Weldon's Karic connection, the FBI is examining the lawmaker's contacts with a Russian-managed oil and gas company, Itera International Energy Corp., the sources said. The company's offices in Jacksonville, Fla., were searched on Monday.
Itera spokesman Steve Koegler declined to answer questions yesterday, but released a statement saying that the government had expressed interest Monday in "any records or information Itera might have with respect to Itera's business relationship with Solutions Worldwide." The name of the firm that Karen Weldon operates with one of her father's close political supporters, Charles Sexton, is Solutions North America Inc.
"Itera and all of its employees have cooperated and will continue to cooperate with the government's request," the statement added.
According to a statement Karen Weldon filed with the Justice Department's foreign agent registration office, Itera agreed in September 2002 to pay her firm a $170,000 startup fee and $300,000 more in monthly retainer fees, in exchange for "such consulting services" as the company might request.
That was the same month that her father attended a lavish dinner for the company at the Library of Congress, at which Itera's director, Igor Makarov, announced the start of a U.S.-Russian student exchange program, based in Weldon's district. Members of Congress were to nominate participants in the program.
That year, Weldon complained to the U.S. Trade and Development Agency about its cancellation of a grant to Itera to explore a gas field in Siberia.
In filings with the Senate clerk, Weldon has reported that Itera paid for a trip he took to New York in September 2002 and a one-day trip to Jacksonville in January 2003. He also reported that a nonprofit group directed by Itera officials financed his two-day visit to Jacksonville in November 2002.
Weldon, who has long advocated closer U.S.-Russian trade ties, listed another client of his daughter's firm, Saratov Aviation, as the financial sponsor of a three-day trip to Moscow in January 2003, the same month as a visit he took to Belgrade.
Weldon's chief of staff went to Belgrade in November 2003, initially listing the Karic family as his financial sponsor in a filing the next month with the Senate clerk. Two months later, after reporters for the Los Angeles Times questioned him about the trip, he amended the filing to state that he had reimbursed the company for his travel expenses.
Some watchdog organizations previously noted Weldon's support for companies that had little to do with his constituents in Delaware County and that paid fees to the firm operated by his daughter and Sexton, or to a close friend of Weldon's, lobbyist Cecilia Grimes.
"There seems to be a pattern of Congressman Weldon's activities overlapping with his private and personal interests," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which monitored the efforts of Weldon and other lawmakers on behalf of companies that had contracts with their associates. "You can explain away one or two cases, but here you really have to question what's going on here and is it really in the interest of the U.S. taxpayers."
Weldon gave testimonials on behalf of a company, Advanced Ceramics Research, in two separate hearings of the House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces, which he chairs. Weldon had invited the Arizona company's CEO to testify in 2004 and 2005 about what he characterized as its "very interesting work in developing state of the art composites that have increased performance while significantly reducing component cost."
The congressman lauded the company's work, noting its ability to produce "modern composites that lead to lighter weight, lower cost and tougher systems."
Advanced Ceramics Research paid Grimes $60,000 as its registered lobbyist in 2003 and 2004. An affiliate of Advanced Ceramics paid her an additional $40,000 during that time, according to her lobbying registration documents.
Efforts to reach Grimes at two phone numbers listed for her on lobbying registration forms were unsuccessful.
Weldon also supported an Italian defense contractor, Oto Melara, in a formal letter and testimony to the Armed Services Committee that recommended the Navy consider using the company's guns on its ships. Oto Melara has paid Grimes's firm $60,000 since she registered to lobby for it in June 2005, according to her lobbying reports .
Research director Lucy Shackelford and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.