Friday, December 2, 2005

Doolittle has some 'splainin to do

From today's Sacramento Bee:

Editorial: As a scandal swirls
Rep. Doolittle has some explaining to do

When Republicans won a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994, giving them control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, they pledged to "restore accountability to Congress" and "to end its cycle of scandal and disgrace."

Unfortunately, at the same time they decided to launch their "K Street Project." Its aim was to end the bipartisan lobbying game in Washington and replace it with a Republican political machine. They have succeeded remarkably at that, but in the process have created a new cycle of scandal and disgrace. They have created all-too-cozy relations among lobbyists, members of Congress, their spouses and staffers. In some cases, these relationships have edged into outright corruption.

So much for the Revolution of 1994. The rhetoric of accountability has taken a back seat to the inevitable outcome of machine politics.

No one embodies the hollowness of the Republican reform rhetoric more than lobbyist Jack Abramoff, among those who led the charge for remaking K Street into a Republican lobbying powerhouse. GOP staffers rotated between Congress, Abramoff's lobbying operation and back to Congress. Abramoff cultivated close relationships with prominent members of Congress, most of them Republicans.

It was only a matter of time before these relationships attracted controversy.

Federal prosecutors began an investigation into allegations that Abramoff and his associate Michael Scanlon bilked six Indian tribes out of $82 million and exposed the problems with the new machine-style politics.

Scanlon, a former staffer for Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, has pleaded guilty to conspiring to corrupt public officials and defraud clients for providing "things of value to public officials in exchange for a series of public acts" - legalese for bribing public officials. Scanlon is cooperating with prosecutors, which may spell bad news for some members of Congress and those close to them.

Which brings things closer to home.

The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post have reported that investigators and prosecutors in the U.S. Justice Department's public integrity and fraud divisions are looking into Abramoff's dealings with four lawmakers. One of them is Rep. John Doolittle, a Republican from Rocklin. (The others are former House Majority Leader DeLay, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.)

Citing unnamed lawyers and others involved in the case, the Journal said investigators are looking into whether Abramoff and his partners made illegal payments to the lawmakers and aides in the form of campaign contributions, sports tickets, meals, travel and job offers in exchange for help for their clients.

The Post, again relying on unnamed lawyers and others involved in the case, also said investigators are looking at payments made by Abramoff and his colleagues to the wives of some lawmakers, including Doolittle's. Julie Doolittle owned a consulting firm hired by Abramoff and his firm to do fundraising for a charity he founded.

The Post said investigators also are looking at former Doolittle staffer Kevin Ring, who worked for Abramoff and was an intermediary in the hiring of Julie Doolittle's firm.

The sources are unnamed; their allegation that investigators are looking at four lawmakers' dealings with Abramoff may prove groundless. But it is beyond doubt that the Abramoff case is a serious matter.

The New York Times quotes congressional specialist Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution as saying that the Abramoff scandal has the potential to be the "biggest scandal in Congress in over a century." Mann says he's "never seen anything approaching Abramoff for cynicism and chutzpah in proposing quid pro quos to members of Congress."

And there is no doubt that Doolittle has been closely associated with Abramoff, a "close friend" of Doolittle's, according to the congressman's staff.

Doolittle used Abramoff's skybox at Washington's MCI center for a fundraising event. In the past five years, Abramoff, Ring and their clients have donated $140,000 to Doolittle's campaign and leadership political action committees.

The Associated Press has reported that Doolittle was among 33 lawmakers who signed a letter urging the Bush administration to reject a Louisiana Indian casino - even as they collected political contributions from competing tribes, Abramoff or his associates. The Associated Press reports that Doolittle received a total of $64,500 from Abramoff and casino-operating Indian tribes that were clients of Abramoff, both shortly before and after he signed the letter.

Doolittle's spokesperson says he signed the letter because he opposes any expansion of tribal gambling - a transparently contradictory position since he accepted contributions from casino-operating tribes seeking to squelch competition.

His spokesperson says it is "ludicrous and insulting" to suggest any other motive. Further, it is only "irresponsible speculation" that Doolittle may have "improper involvement" with Abramoff.

That statement misses the point, which is that Doolittle's involvement with Abramoff has been too extensive to be so airily dismissed.

Given the growing scope of the investigation into Abramoff's activities, many of Doolittle's constituents will surely expect a more convincing explanation for the contributions from Abramoff and casino-operating Indian tribes. They also will want a full explanation of the relationship between Julie Doolittle's consulting firm and Abramoff. And they will want to know what steps Doolittle has taken to avoid the further appearance of conflicts of interest arising from his association with Abramoff.

The Abramoff scandal is not going away. Neither will the need for Doolittle to offer full and convincing explanations. His constituents are waiting.

I'm a constituent and I have to say I'm not waiting for any excuses from Doolittle. He's out. Time for someone who will truly represent us in Congress. We're not waiting, dear Sac Bee editors -- we're watching & listening. We expect investigative journalism and justice.

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