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By DEB RIECHMANN
The latest casualty in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal was a key aide to presidential political strategist Karl Rove who once worked for the disgraced influence-peddler.
Susan Ralston stepped down Friday from her post as a special assistant to President Bush. A congressional report showed she had extensive contacts with Abramoff and had accepted tickets to sporting events and concerts from him.
Corruption and scandal are major issues going into the Nov. 7 elections. Ralston’s resignation followed accusations that her contacts with Abramoff showed he was closer to Rove and Bush than the White House has been willing to acknowledge.
"She recognized that a protracted discussion of these matters would be a distraction to the White House and she’s chosen to step down," deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino said.
A recent House Government Reform Committee report listed hundreds of contacts that Abramoff’s lobbying group had with the White House. Ralston had been administrative assistant to Abramoff and, after Bush took office, assumed the same post with Rove.
Ralston played an instrumental role in organizing and choosing presidential event sites.
Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the top Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, said he suspects the White House is trying to make Ralston a scapegoat.
"There is a lot that we don’t yet know about the assistance that Ms. Ralston provided Mr. Abramoff from inside the White House, but there are also many unanswered questions about the assistance that higher-ranking White House officials appeared to provide Mr. Abramoff," Waxman said.
"The vast majority of lobbying contacts and meals with White House officials documented in the report were with White House officials other than Ms. Ralston," Waxman said.
Abramoff has pleaded guilty to fraud and is now cooperating with prosecutors in an influence-peddling investigation that has enveloped Capitol Hill even as lawmakers, facing elections, struggle with the fallout from a scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley’s salacious messages to teenage male pages.
The latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that about half of likely voters consider corruption and scandal in Congress very or extremely important, and about two in three of those said they would vote for Democrats in House races.
The committee’s report — based largely on Abramoff’s billing records and e-mails — listed 485 lobbying contacts with White House officials over three years, including 10 with Rove. The report indicated that Abramoff and associates lobbied on behalf of more than 20 individuals for administration jobs but were successful only once.
According to e-mails, Abramoff and his team offered White House officials tickets to 19 sporting events and concerts. Ralston was the most frequent recipient. The report did not make clear whether Ralston or other White House officials paid for any of the tickets.
The federal gratuities statute makes it a crime to give anything of value to a public official for any official act performed by that official. Ethics rules prohibit federal employees from accepting gifts unless given because of personal friendship.