Different Republican, same corruption


    The man who wants to replace scandal-scarred Tom DeLay as majority leader in the House of Representatives shares the same connections to corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

    Blunt, R-Mo., wrote at
    least three letters helpful to Abramoff clients while collecting money
    from them. He swapped donations between his and DeLay’s political
    groups, ultimately enriching the Missouri political campaign of his son
    Matt.

    And Blunt’s wife and another son, Andrew, lobby for many of the same companies that donate to the lawmaker’s political efforts.

    With
    House Republicans worried about a budding corruption scandal tied to
    Abramoff’s favors to lawmakers, DeLay, R-Texas, announced Saturday he
    would not try to regain his majority leader’s post in upcoming party
    elections.

    DeLay was forced to step down last year under party
    rules, after he was charged with Texas felonies in a state money
    laundering investigation. Blunt has temporarily filled the position and
    now is competing to be DeLay’s permanent replacement.

    Blunt’s own
    connections to Abramoff or his clients could complicate GOP plans to
    distance its leadership from the corruption investigation before the
    fall elections for control of Congress.

    Abramoff pleaded guilty
    last week to felony charges and is cooperating with investigators whose
    bribery probe is now focusing on several members of Congress and their
    aides. As the Abramoff investigation has developed, many lawmakers have
    said they will donate to charity campaign contributions related to the
    disgraced lobbyist.

    The board of Blunt’s Rely On Your Beliefs
    Fund has voted to contribute to charity an amount equivalent to
    Abramoff’s personal contributions, $8,500, according to Blunt
    spokeswoman Burson Taylor.

    Blunt and DeLay and their aides
    frequently met with Abramoff’s lobbying team and even jointly signed a
    letter supportive of an Indian tribe client at the heart of the
    Abramoff criminal investigation, according to records published by The
    Associated Press over the past year.

    Blunt’s office says all of his dealings were proper.

    “Mr. Blunt has never been accused of engaging in any legislative activities on Jack Abramoff’s behalf,” Taylor said.

    Blunt’s
    main competitor for the House majority leader’s post is Rep. John
    Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House committee that oversees
    education and labor.

    Boehner in 1996 admitted he distributed a
    tobacco political action committee’s campaign checks on the House
    floor, but said at the time he would never do it again. He served in
    the House leadership in the 1990s, but lost his post after the party
    suffered losses in the 1998 elections.

    Thomas Mann, who studies
    congressional issues for the Brookings Institution think tank, said
    Republican leaders’ hardball tactics in getting legislation passed and
    their alliances with special interests during a decade of congressional
    rule are now being scrutinized by voters.

    “It’s been smash-mouth
    politics,” Mann said in an interview. “They’ve been tough and effective
    in enacting their polices and they’re paying a price right now for it.”

    Larry
    Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist and author, said
    Blunt’s name doesn’t have the same nationwide recognition as other GOP
    leaders, and one way he could shed any ethical questions would be to
    support lobbying reforms.

    Blunt, in a written statement, pledged to do just that.

    He
    said that if elected leader, he would “move swiftly to enact new
    lobbying reforms and enhanced penalties for those who break the public
    trust.”

    Texas prosecutors recently subpoenaed records of a series
    of financial transactions in 2000 between DeLay and Blunt that were
    highlighted in a recent AP story.

    DeLay raised more money than he
    needed to throw parties at the 2000 Republican National Convention and
    sent some of the excess to Blunt through a series of donations that
    benefited the causes of both men.

    After transfers between
    political organizations, some of the money went to the campaign of
    Blunt’s son, Matt, in his successful 2000 campaign for secretary of
    state. Now the Republican governor of Missouri, Matt Blunt eventually
    received more than $160,000 in 2000.

    Taylor, the Blunt
    spokeswoman, denied that DeLay raised excess money for the purpose of
    transferring it to Blunt. Rather, she said, the convention fundraising
    was a joint effort between DeLay and Blunt all along.

    She said
    Blunt’s Rely On Your Beliefs Fund contributes annually to the Missouri
    Republican Party, but doesn’t specify how the money should be spent.

    “It
    stands to reason that the party committee would contribute to a
    Republican candidate for statewide office, in this case, Matt Blunt,”
    Taylor said.

    Both DeLay and Blunt forged strong connections with
    corporate lobbyists, raising questions of whether the lobbyists
    influenced legislation in return for their contributions. DeLay was
    admonished in 2004 by the House ethics committee for creating the
    appearance of connecting energy industry donations with legislation.

    Blunt’s
    wife, Abigail Perlman, is a lobbyist for Kraft Foods, part of Altria,
    the company that also includes Philip Morris. The parent firm and its
    companies have contributed nearly $224,000 to Blunt’s political
    organizations since 2001, according to figures compiled by a campaign
    finance tracking firm, Political MoneyLine.

    Blunt’s supporters
    also included companies that have been clients of another of Blunt’s
    sons, Andrew. He lobbies the Missouri legislature.

    “He and Mr. Blunt have no contact on legislative issues,” Taylor said of the father-son relationship.

    She
    added, “Mrs. Blunt does not lobby the House of Representatives, and Mr.
    Blunt would recuse himself from voting or working on any issue that
    would impact Altria specifically.”

    Shortly after Blunt became the
    party whip in 2002, he tried to quietly insert a provision benefiting
    Philip Morris USA into the bill creating the Homeland Security
    Department.

    Taylor said the provision would have cracked down on
    the illegal sale of contraband cigarettes, a documented source of
    funding for terrorist organizations. Bipartisan legislation to achieve
    the same result has passed as part of the USA Patriot Act, she said.

    In
    his ties to Abramoff, Blunt was among nearly three dozen members of
    Congress, including leaders from both parties, who pressed the
    government to block a Louisiana Indian tribe from opening a casino. The
    lawmakers received donations from rival tribes and their lobbyist,
    Abramoff, around the same time.

    Blunt received a $1,000 donation
    from Abramoff and $2,000 from his lobbying firm around the time of a
    May 2003 letter he wrote to Interior Secretary Gale Norton on the
    casino matter. A month later he signed another letter on the issue
    along with DeLay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

    Taylor
    responded that Blunt “has a long history of opposition to Indian
    gaming. His district, which includes Branson, Missouri, is
    fundamentally opposed to the expansion of gaming, and he reflects that
    broad opinion.”

    She said Blunt signed the letters to Norton at the request of Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., not Abramoff.

    “It
    is also very important to note that Mr. Blunt does not accept campaign
    contributions from Indian gaming interests, so any ‘quid pro quo’
    argument is baseless here,” Taylor added.

    In spring 2000, an
    Abramoff client accused of running a sweatshop garment factory in the
    Northern Mariana Islands donated $3,000 to Blunt’s political
    organization. The company, Concorde Garment Manufacturing, paid a $9
    million penalty to the U.S. government in the 1990s for failing to pay
    workers overtime. The company was visited by DeLay.