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.

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

    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.”

    Rep.
    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.

    The
    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.”

    Abramoff
    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.

    The
    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.

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

    “I’m
    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.

    “These
    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.”

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