Dems tout special counsel for Abramoff scandal

Two Senate Democrats asked the U.S. attorney general Thursday to
appoint a special counsel to take over the investigation into
congressional corruption involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

letter came a day after the Justice Department announced the prosecutor
heading the investigation would step down from the Abramoff

Noel Hillman, chief of the department’s public
integrity section, was nominated by President Bush for a judgeship on
the U.S. District Court in New Jersey.

Hillman will step down as
chief of the public integrity unit next week, but remain in the Justice
Department’s criminal division until he is confirmed, a department
official said.

In a letter to the attorney general, Sens. Chuck
Schumer and Ken Salazar argued an independent prosecutor “would ensure
that the investigation and prosecution will proceed without fear or
favor and provide the public with full confidence that no one in this
country is above the law.”

The two Democrats said that so far,
the public integrity section of the Justice Department, which is in
charge of the probe, has “pursued this case appropriately.”

George Miller, D-Calif. issued a statement supporting the request made
by Schumer and Salazar. In addition to the points they raised, Miller
noted that on Wednesday Bush nominated Hillman to a federal judgeship.

“It looks like the White House has reached in and tampered with an ongoing investigation,” Miller said.

White House was poised to nominate Hillman last summer after a deal on
Bush’s judicial nominations paved the way for New Jersey’s Democratic
senators to weigh in on Hillman. White House spokeswoman Erin Healy
said the president makes all his nominations in a timely manner and was
ready to move forward.

Justice Department spokesman Brian
Roehrkasse said, “There is no legal or ethical reason why the attorney
general would need to recuse himself from this investigation as it
continues to move forward successfully with a career prosecution team.”

pleaded guilty this year to several felony charges, some involving his
dealings with members of Congress and their aides. His one-time
business partner, former congressional aide Michael Scanlon, pleaded
guilty last year in the same investigation.

Officials have said
numerous former congressional aides remain under scrutiny, as does Rep.
Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who recently stepped down provisionally as a committee
chairman in the House of Representatives.

Politicians of both
parties moved quickly to shed campaign donations from Abramoff or his
former clients in the aftermath of the lobbyists’ admissions of guilt.

scandal also has thrust congressional reform toward the top of the
legislative and political agenda in the opening days of an
election-year Congress. All 435 seats in the House and one-third of the
100 Senate seats are up for election in November.

Schumer and
Salazar sent their letter several days after Democrats pressed the
White House for information on contacts between Abramoff and President
Bush or other top officials. So far, the White House has refused to
release photographs of the president and the lobbyist together.

about it at a news conference Thursday, Bush said, “There’s thousands
of people that come through and get their pictures taken.

also mindful that we live in a world in which those pictures will be
used for pure political purposes,” he said, “and they’re not relevant
to the investigation.”

In their letter, Schumer and Salazar cited
news reports that in addition to the presidential photographs, Abramoff
organized at least one meeting with White House aides for his clients.

meetings with the president and the White House staff occurred while
you were serving as White House counsel,” they wrote Gonzales, who
became attorney general a year ago. “Given the possible ties between
Mr. Abramoff and senior government officials, we believe the
appointment of a special counsel is not only justified, but necessary.”

and Salazar wrote that the “highly political context” of the
allegations may “lead some to surmise that political influence may
compromise the investigation.”