Hastert accuses Justice Dept. of ‘intimidation’ tactics

House Speaker Dennis Hastert accused the Justice Department Thursday of trying to intimidate him in retaliation for criticizing the FBI’s weekend raid on a congressman’s office, escalating a searing battle between the executive and legislative branches of government.

“This is one of the leaks that come out to try to, you know, intimidate people,” Hastert said on WGN radio Thursday morning. “We’re just not going to be intimidated on it.”

Asked later Thursday whether he thought he Justice Department retaliated against him with the leak, Hastert replied: “All I’m saying is, here are the dots. People can connect any dots they want to.”

“I thought it was an interesting sequence of events,” he added.

The Illinois Republican, in his interview with the Chicago radio station, was responding to an ABC News report that quoted an unnamed law enforcement source as saying that he was “in the mix” of the Justice Department’s investigation into influence peddling by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

“We are not going to dignify or speculate about the motives of anonymous sources providing inaccurate information,” said Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.

Within minutes of that report late Wednesday, the department issued the first of two denials that it was investigating Hastert. The speaker demanded a retraction from ABC News, which stood by its story. Hastert on Thursday threatened to sue the network and reporters and executives for libel and defamation.

“We will take any and all actions necessary to rectify the harm ABC has caused and to hold those at ABC responsible for their conduct,” wrote Hastert’s counsels, J. Randolph Evans and Stefan C. Passantino. The letter was addressed to network President David Westin and reporter Brian Ross.

“Our response to the letter is our reporting on the story,” said ABC News Vice President Jeffrey Schneider.

Correspondent Brian Ross stood by his report, saying he has checked with his sources who say the story accurately represents the facts “as they know them.”

“There’s enough there for them (the FBI) to take a look at the speaker” and other members of Congress, Ross said in an interview.

Hastert aimed his broadsides at the Justice Department amid a swirl of recriminations on Capitol Hill, including warnings by some lawmakers of a voter backlash against members of Congress “trying to protect their own.”

Hastert’s aides, at the same time, were in talks with the White House about the possible transfer of material seized by the FBI during its weekend raid of the office of Rep. William Jefferson, perhaps to the House ethics committee, according to several Republican officials.

A federal law enforcement official said no computers were taken during the search. Instead, “mirror images” were made of the contents of some computers in Jefferson’s office, the official said on condition of anonymity because the items taken during the search remain under court seal

The goals of any transfer, they said, would be to deny the documents both to prosecutors and to Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat ensnared in a bribery investigation, until the legal issues surrounding the weekend search of his office are resolved. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the confidential nature of the discussions.

Historians said it was the first such search of a congressman’s quarters in the more than two centuries since the first Congress convened.

The White House continued to try to keep its distance publicly, saying it acknowledged “the constitutional concerns” expressed.

The House Judiciary Committee chairman, GOP Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, announced a hearing next week, “Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?”

The Associated Press reported last November that Hastert for two years did not disclose his use of Abramoff’s restaurant for a fundraiser just two weeks before he asked the Interior Department in a letter to reject a Louisiana Indian tribe’s application for a casino license.

At the time, Abramoff was representing another tribe that opposed the casino. Hastert, who collected a total of $100,000 from Abramoff’s and his tribal clients, blamed a paperwork oversight, filed the required disclosure and paid for the use of the restaurant.


AP Special Correspondent David Espo contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Associated Press