Dems widen probe of corrupt lobbyist

House Democrats are expanding their investigation into ties between jailed GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the White House and have contacted several Abramoff associates recently about testifying to Congress.

The contacts were disclosed Tuesday by a House Democratic aide and an attorney familiar with the matter who both spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is ongoing.

The aide declined to identify those the committee wants to talk to. Last month committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., indicated he intended to seek testimony from people who'd worked as lobbyists with Abramoff as well as from former and current White House and administration officials who might have knowledge of Abramoff's connections with the White House.

A committee spokeswoman declined comment. A message for a White House spokesman wasn't immediately returned.

The Government Reform Committee released a report last year saying that Abramoff and his associates had 485 lobbying contacts with White House officials between January 2001 and March 2004.

But Waxman, who became committee chairman in January after Democrats retook control of Congress, says important questions remain unanswered. These include whether White House officials paid for sports and concert tickets and meals they got from Abramoff and his associates, and whether they took official actions as a result, Waxman says.

Abramoff last year pleaded guilty to conspiracy and other charges and admitted defrauding his clients. A two-year investigation into his influence peddling has led to the conviction of a congressman along with 10 former House aides and Bush administration officials. One sitting congressman, GOP Rep. John Doolittle of California, remains under investigation.

Susan Ralston, a key aide to presidential political strategist Karl Rove who had worked for Abramoff, resigned last October after the Government Reform report showed she had extensive contacts with Abramoff.

Waxman wants Ralston to testify, but she is refusing to do so without a grant of immunity, according to a memo Waxman released last month after lawyers for his panel questioned her in private. Meanwhile Waxman wants to talk to others.

Abramoff associates named in his committee's report last year as having extensive contacts with the White House include Neil Volz and Tony Rudy, who have both pleaded guilty to federal charges; Kevin Ring, a one-time Doolittle aide who is under federal investigation; and Todd Boulanger and Shawn Vasell, both still lobbyists.

Boulanger declined comment. Neither Vasell nor Ring's attorneys immediately returned calls for comment.

Wyoming Sen. Craig Thomas dead at 74

Sen. Craig Thomas, a conservative Republican from Wyoming, has died after a fight with leukemia that was diagnosed last year just as he was elected for a third term. He was 74.

The senator's family said he died Monday evening at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. The family had said earlier in the day that his cancer had been resistant to a second round of chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukemia.

Thomas was hospitalized with pneumonia just before the 2006 election, but won with 70 percent of the vote, monitoring the election from his hospital bed.

Two days after the election, Thomas announced that he had just been diagnosed with leukemia.

President Bush called Thomas "a man of character and integrity known for his devotion to the values he shared with the people of Wyoming."

"He leaves a lasting legacy as a guardian of Wyoming's lands and resources and our country's National Parks," Bush said.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, will appoint a successor from one of three finalists chosen by the state Republican party.

Freudenthal called Thomas' death "a very big loss to the people of this state," saying "he carried the values that we treasure in Wyoming to Washington and had many successes."

Peggy Nighswonger, Wyoming's elections director, said the governor has five days to appoint one of the party's three nominees once he receives the names. That person will serve until the next general election in 2008.

"Wyoming had no greater advocate, taxpayers had no greater watchdog, and rural America had no greater defender than Craig Thomas," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday night.

Thomas was a low-key lawmaker who reliably represented the interests of his conservative state, often becoming involved in public lands issues. He worked in behind-the-scenes posts to oversee national parks.

"The Senate will not be the same," said Republican Mike Enzi, Wyoming's other senator.

The state's only member of the House, Republican Barbara Cubin, said Thomas was "a trusted colleague and a true friend."

Wyoming Democratic Party Chairman John Millin said Thomas brought "dignity and thoughtfulness" to the political process, and Wyoming GOP Chairman Fred Parady called Thomas a "true champion."

Thomas entered Congress in a special election in 1989 to replace Dick Cheney when the future vice president was named defense secretary by the first President Bush. Thomas won that race with 52 percent of the vote.

In 1994, Thomas won his first Senate race by beating former Gov. Mike Sullivan and was re-elected with 74 percent of the vote in 2000.

Thomas had previously served five years in the Wyoming Legislature.

He was born in Cody, Wyo., and was raised on a ranch. He graduated from the University of Wyoming with a degree in agriculture, then served four years in the U.S. Marines.

He is survived by his wife, Susan, and four children.

CSI: Washington

A Washington watchdog group is inviting you to engage in some "CSI" work, which, in this case, means "Campaign Spending Investigation."

The Center for Responsive Politics is asking the public to help them figure out which Capitol Hill lawmakers are pulling the strings behind the scenes of about 30 "mystery" fundraising political action committees.

Under current rules, these politicians do not have to disclose their control of their so-called "leadership PACs," which they use as vehicles to give themselves campaign cash or reward fellow legislators with donations — often as a way to curry future favor for their own political ambitions.

So the watchdogs hope you can help them unmask who's behind these "mystery PACs," which include Penguin PAC (which gave $35,000 to Democratic lawmakers last year), Serving America's Citizens PAC (source of $31,000 to Republicans), and Dam PAC ($21,000 to Republicans).

The full list is at www.opensecrets.org. Send your findings, along with documentation, to MysteryPACs(at)crp.org.


Looks like Walter Reed Army Medical Center won't be closing anytime soon. Doomed by the 2005 base-closing commission, the landmark facility was given what could be a decade-long stay when Congress slipped in a provision in the Iraq war funding bill last week postponing its closure until new facilities are built and fully equipped at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center in nearby Maryland and Fort Belvoir over the Potomac in Virginia.

Given the pace of planning for those projects — and the significant local opposition due to traffic and sprawl concerns — the premier hospital for the war wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan should remain in business long after its 2011 shutdown date.


Sharpen your elbows for pitched combat over the armrests this summer, which the Air Transport Association forecasts will see a record 209 million passengers taking to the skies on vacations from June through August. That would be a 3 percent jump over the same time last year.


Good and bad news on the highways: Preliminary stats from the U.S. Transportation department show there was a slight drop in overall road deaths nationally last year: 43,330 in 2006 compared to 43,443 in 2005. Injuries dropped 6 percent; pedestrian fatalities fell slightly, from 4,881 to 4,768; deaths from large truck crashes were down nearly 4 percent. But alcohol-related deaths climbed more than 2 percent.


Fifty years ago, some veterinary schools told female applicants that they needn't bother trying to get in because women simply weren't welcome. Now, for the first time, female veterinarians outnumber men. According to a peak at the upcoming June 15 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, current classes are about 75 percent women and four vet schools have female deans.


Chinese officials kicked more than 800,000 vehicles off the roads in and around Beijing during a three-day summit on Africa last fall, causing an immediate drop of as much as 40 percent in pollutants in the notoriously foul air of the sprawling metropolis. Most experts think China will do the same during the summer Olympic Games next year as a way to boost the city's image and ease the strain on athletes.


The Medal of Honor will soon be awarded for the first time to a member of a Sioux Indian tribe, though posthumously. Last week, President Bush signed off on bestowing the military's highest award on Woodrow Wilson Keeble, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux tribe in the Dakotas. During the Korean War, he saved the lives of his fellow soldiers, refusing to be treated for his severe wounds until he had single-handedly destroyed four enemy positions. Keeble died in 1982.


We may have a sexually transmitted disease to thank for a treatment for the deadly avian flu virus. Biopharmaceutical company Hemispherx Biopharma announced this week that a low dose of its antiviral drug Alferon-LDO — approved in the United States for treating genital warts — showed dramatic promise in reducing cases of flu-caused pneumonia and also holds possibility for preventing the disease.

(Reach Lisa Hoffman at hoffmanl(at)shns.com. For more news go to scrippsnews.com)

 

Rep. Jefferson indicted for bribery

Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., was indicted Monday on federal charges of racketeering, soliciting bribes and money-laundering in a long-running bribery investigation into business deals he tried to broker in Africa.

The indictment handed up in federal court in Alexandria., Va., Monday is 94 pages long and lists 16 alleged violations of federal law that could keep Jefferson in prison for up to 235 years, according to a Justice Department official who has seen the document.

Among the charges listed in the indictment, said the official, are racketeering, soliciting bribes, wire fraud, money-laundering, obstruction of justice, conspiracy and violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case.

Jefferson is accused of soliciting bribes for himself and his family, and also for bribing a Nigerian official.

Almost two years ago, in August 2005, investigators raided Jefferson's home in Louisiana and found $90,000 in cash stuffed into a box in his freezer.

Jefferson, 63, whose Louisiana district includes New Orleans, has said little about the case publicly but has maintained his innocence. He was re-elected last year despite the looming investigation.

Jefferson, in Louisiana on Monday, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Two of Jefferson's associates have already struck plea bargains with prosecutors and have been sentenced.

Brett Pfeffer, a former congressional aide, admitted soliciting bribes on Jefferson's behalf and was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Another Jefferson associate, Louisville, Ky., telecommunications executive Vernon Jackson, pleaded guilty to paying between $400,000 and $1 million in bribes to Jefferson in exchange for his assistance securing business deals in Nigeria and other African nations. Jackson was sentenced to more than seven years in prison.

Both Pfeffer and Jackson agreed to cooperate in the case against Jefferson in exchanges for their pleas.

The impact of the case has stretched across continents and even roiled presidential politics in Nigeria. According to court records, Jefferson told associates that he needed cash to pay bribes to the country's vice president, Atiku Abubakar.

Abubakar denied the allegations, which figured prominently in that country's presidential elections in April. Abubakar ran for the presidency and finished third.

Court records indicate that Jefferson was videotape taking a $100,000 cash bribe from an FBI informant. Most of that money later turned up in a freezer in Jefferson's home.

In May 2006, the FBI raided Jefferson's congressional office, the first such raid on a sitting congressman's Capitol office. That move sparked a constitutional debate over whether the executive branch stepped over its boundary.

The legality of the raid is still being argued on appeal. House leaders objected to the search saying it was an unconstitutional intrusion on the lawmaking process. The FBI said the raid was necessary because Jefferson and his legal team had failed to respond to requests for documents.

Some but not all the documents seized in the raid have been turned over Justice Department prosecutors.

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Associated Press writer Cain Burdeau in New Orleans contributed to this report.

Kiss and tell and cash in

Hustler magazine is looking for some scandalous sex in Washington again — and willing to pay for it.

"Have you had a sexual encounter with a current member of the United States Congress or a high-ranking government official?" read a full-page advertisement taken out by Larry Flynt's pornographic magazine in Sunday's Washington Post.

It offered $1 million for documented evidence of illicit intimate relations with a congressman, senator or other prominent officeholder. A toll-free number and e-mail address were provided.

The last time Flynt made such an offer was in October 1998 during the drive to impeach President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

In the following months, the pornographic publishing mogul threatened to expose one or tow members of the Republican Congress pushing for the impeachment, according to media reports at the time.

That long-awaited expose, published months after Clinton's trial, dropped no bombshells, according to a 1999 Slate.com article, but Flynt's efforts played a role in the resignation of House-speaker designate Bob Livingston of Louisiana.

Flynt's target this time, if he has one, was not immediately known.

Democrats hide pork barrel from public

After promising unprecedented openness regarding Congress' pork barrel practices, House Democrats are moving in the opposite direction as they draw up spending bills for the upcoming budget year.

Democrats are sidestepping rules approved their first day in power in January to clearly identify "earmarks" — lawmakers' requests for specific projects and contracts for their states.

Rather than including specific pet projects, grants and contracts in legislation as it is being written, Democrats are following an order by the House Appropriations Committee chairman to keep the bills free of such earmarks until it is too late for critics to effectively challenge them.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., says those requests for dams, community grants and research contracts for favored universities or hospitals will be added to spending measures in the fall. That is when House and Senate negotiators assemble final bills.

Such requests total billions of dollars.

As a result, most lawmakers will not get a chance to oppose specific projects as wasteful or questionable when the spending bills for various agencies get their first votes in the full House in June.

The House-Senate compromise bills due for final action in September cannot be amended and are subject to only one hour of debate, precluding challenges to individual projects.

Obey insists he is reluctantly taking the step because Appropriations Committee members and staff have not had enough time to fully review the 36,000 earmark requests that have flooded the committee.

What Obey is doing runs counter to new rules that Democrats promised would make such spending decisions more open.

Capitol sex blogger files for bankruptcy

Jessica Cutler, the former Senate aide whose online sex diary landed her a book deal and a Playboy photo spread but got her kicked off Capitol Hill, has filed for bankruptcy.

Cutler, an aide to then-Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, created the "Washingtonienne" blog in 2004 and began posting racy details about her sex life with six men, including a Senate colleague and "a few generous older gentlemen" who she said paid many of her living expenses.

When the blog was discovered, Cutler was fired. She moved to New York, wrote a novel based on the scandal, posed naked and started a new Web site that describes her as "a published author who jumps out of cakes for money."

Under the occupation heading of her Web site, it reads: "I'm freelancing."

Cutler has spent much of her time fending off a lawsuit by ex-boyfriend and fellow DeWine staffer Robert Steinbuch, who contends Cutler's blog publicly humiliated him. He is seeking more than $20 million in damages.

In court documents filed in the case Thursday, Cutler says she can't even pay her American Express bill, legal fees and student loans. She submitted to the judge a copy of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition filed in New York dated Wednesday.

Reached by e-mail Friday, Cutler would not answer questions about what happened to the money she earned from her book — a deal her publisher said in 2004 was worth well into the six figures — or from her Playboy shoot.

The lawsuit is being watched by online privacy groups and bloggers because the case could help establish whether people who keep online diaries are obligated to protect the privacy of the people they interact with offline.

By law, Cutler's bankruptcy filing puts the lawsuit against her on hold. It was already mired in contentious pretrial arguments with each side demanding personal information from the other and Steinbuch saying he didn't want to give a videotaped deposition for fear Cutler would put it on the Internet.

A message seeking comment was left at the office of Steinbuch's attorney in Florida.

There was no immediate response.

Hillary’s double standard on use of plane

Senator and Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton trotted out the vague and loose rules of the Senate and Federal Election Commission Wednesday as a rationalization for accepting rides on a private jet from a fatcat contributor.

"Whatever I've done, I complied with Senate rules at the time. That's the way every senator operates," Clinton claimed in an interview with Associated Press reporter Kathleen Hennessey.

Clinton, however, refused to discuss whether the rules are too lax.

"Those were the rules. You'll have to ask somebody else whether that's good policy," she said.

Her actions, however, stand in sharp contrast to her stated positions on Senators taking such trips or on the overt influence of corporate money on politics.

Election reform advocates say the rules regulating use of private planes allow for widespread abuse and that payments from candidates, usually the equivalent of first class air fare, does not begin to cover the actual cost of use of such planes.

Writes Hennessey:

Clinton's travel, along with and consulting fees paid to her husband, the former president, have come to light recently in a lawsuit against Vinod Gupta, a Clinton contributor and chief executive of the data company, InfoUSA Inc.

The lawsuit by company shareholders accuses Gupta of excessively spending millions of dollars, including $900,000 worth of travel on the Clintons.

Sen. Clinton, who complained about corporate America's largesse and skyrocketing executive pay during campaign events Wednesday, said she did not believe her message was undermined by her acceptance of the private flights. In line with Senate rules then in effect, Clinton's campaign has said she reimbursed Gupta at the cost of a first-class flight, typically a significant discount off the expense of a private jet.

The Senate earlier this year voted to change the rules to require senators, their staff and candidates for federal office to pay the charter rate for flights on corporate jets. All the presidential candidates serving in the Senate, including Clinton, voted for the change.

Clinton struck several populist notes Wednesday in a speech at a union hall and at a town hall appearance at a North Las Vegas high school with large number of minority and low-income students.

The senator told members of the Culinary Workers Union, a group that represents casino and hotel workers, that it should be made easier for unions to organize and that private equity firms should honor union contracts after buyouts. Both issues are important to the union, whose endorsement is considered key to winning Nevada's Jan. 19 caucus.

The senator made light of her own personal wealth.

"I know a lot of rich people. My husband and I never had any money … now all (of a) … sudden we're rich," Clinton said. "I have nothing against rich people. … but what made America great is the American middle class."

Clinton declined to comment on two unreleased biographies that, according to press accounts, describe the former first lady's road to her candidacy in unflattering terms. She said she wasn't familiar with the books.

Clinton acknowledged an assertion reportedly contained in one of the books: that she did not read a National Intelligence Estimate before voting to authorize the president to go to war in Iraq.

"I don't believe that I did or that vast majority of my colleagues did because we were briefed repeatedly about everything that was in it," she said.

Democrats did the right thing

To those who see the world through a partisan prism, last week's congressional vote to continue funding American troops in Iraq looks like a loss for Democrats. On the contrary: Those Democrats who refused to legislate an American military defeat — despite intense pressure from a well-financed, well-organized campaign on the left — deserve great credit.

No serious person doubts that America is at war with Islamist movements that seek the West's destruction. Among those movements, none is more threatening than al Qaeda. And al Qaeda's most active and lethal combatants are in Iraq.

Recently, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's second in command, sent a letter to Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, the leader of al Qaeda forces in Iraq. In it, Zawahiri reassures Muhajer that a great and historic victory is close at hand, that soon America will be driven out of Iraq. Among the tactics that both Zawahiri and Muhajer believe are proving effective: murdering innocent women and children to fuel sectarian strife.

Let's stipulate that had President Bush not toppled Saddam Hussein, most of these al Qaeda terrorists would not be in Iraq, they would be somewhere else. The fact remains: They are in Iraq now. They are there because they regard Iraq — an oil rich capital of the Arab world — as the most important theater in what they say is a global power struggle.

They believe they are eroding our will to fight them in Iraq. And perhaps they are. But if they can achieve that goal in Iraq, is there any reason to think they won't be able to achieve it in other parts of the world as well?

Iran's rulers also are America's enemies. After nearly 30 years it should be obvious that "Death to America!" is not just a catchy slogan: It is a long-term goal. And it is a goal toward which they believe they are progressing because we have done nothing over the past three decades to shake their confidence — not when they seized our embassy and took our diplomats hostage, not when they assigned Hezbollah to slaughter our Marines in Beirut, not when they killed our soldiers at Khobar Towers.

And as they move toward acquiring nuclear weapons, aid and abet those killing our troops in Iraq, and take visiting American scholars hostage, we do next to nothing. To them, it looks like the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the Iranian Islamist revolution, was spot on when he stated: "America cannot do a damn thing."

The history of warfare is marked by innovations: the saddle and stirrup, the long bow, gunpowder, the cannon, mechanized cavalry, aircraft and missiles among them.

America's enemies are now testing an equally revolutionary innovation. They are attempting to discover whether it is possible to defeat a superpower with little except suicide-bombers, roadside explosives detonated by cell phones, and a ferocious will to power. They use these weapons to kill whomever they can: infidels or Muslims, combatants or non-combatants, men, women and children alike.

One might have thought that such indiscriminate slaughter would evoke outrage and defiance within the international community. But the international community is selective about what evokes its outrage: reports (later proved to be false) of American guards at Guantanamo mishandling Korans? Absolutely. Beheadings and illustrated al Qaeda instruction books on torture? That gets a yawn.

Congress has authorized four months of funding for Gen. David Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq. By September, he will need to show that he is making headway with his new strategy of bringing in reinforcements and moving troops out of big bases and into the mean streets of Baghdad and al Qaeda-infested Anbar Province. While he does that, Ryan Crocker, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, must push as hard as he can to get Iraq's leaders to make risky compromises and assume heavy responsibilities.

Was it a mistake to invade Iraq? A majority of Americans now think it was. Some charge that Bush misled us; some believe he was misled. Others believe that Bush underestimated our enemies, and overestimated the abilities of his intelligence gatherers and analysts, Pentagon planners and State Department nation-builders.

That issue will be debated for generations. Right now, the more pressing question is this: How do we prevail in Iraq, understanding that failure would be a body blow to America's security and vital interests? The answer, at least in part, is by giving Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker the support they require — not signaling to al Qaeda and Iran that they are only a few more suicide-bombings away from a great and historic victory.

(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)

Kyl’s immigration hot seat

Hard-liners in the immigration debate stood behind Sen. Jon Kyl for his tough stance on immigration last year, while undocumented immigrants thrashed a pinata bearing his image.

Now the Arizona Republican's surprise support for a bipartisan Senate bill seeking to legalize some 12 million illegal immigrants and create a guest-worker program has bewildered friends and foes alike in the desert state.

The measure, which would tie tough border security and workplace enforcement measures to a guest-worker program and a plan to offer the millions of illegal immigrants a path to legal status, is under fire from the right and the left.

Conservatives argue that it will give amnesty to people who broke U.S. laws, while unions say the temporary worker program will create an underclass of cheaper laborers.

In Kyl's home state, some Republicans are furious at what they see as treachery from an ally who opposed a Senate immigration bill last year, but helped broker the present deal with liberal Democrat Sen. Edward Kennedy and the White House.

"He has betrayed the people who voted for him. It is absolutely a sellout of America," Arizona state lawmaker Russell Pearce said in a telephone interview.

The sharp about-face by Kyl also wrong-footed immigrants' rights activists in the border state, a few of whom had once thrashed a pinata bearing a picture of the senator in frustration at his former pro-enforcement stance.

"I was dumbfounded by his change of heart … and I truly apologize for the incident with the pinata," said Elias Bermudez, the director of the Immigrants Without Borders activist group in Phoenix. "We are very proud of his stance."

BREAKING THE LOGJAM

Kyl said last week he intends to spend the Memorial Day recess talking with the editorial boards of Arizona's top newspapers and to constituents to hear their concerns and answer questions about the deal.

Meanwhile, analysts and activists in the state have been puzzling over his about-face and what it might mean for both Kyl and the Republicans in Arizona, where presidential contender Sen. John McCain also supports immigration reform.

"One possible explanation, and it's a commendable one, is that regardless of the political fallout (Kyl) is pushing a bill that he honestly believes in," said Bruce Merrill, a political analyst at Arizona State University.

"He's not up for re-election so he's somewhat insulated so he's taken a kind of McCainish position saying 'I'm doing the right thing for the state, regardless of politics,"' he added.

There are signs that the fierce initial opposition to Kyl's stance may be turning. The senator said last week that the number of calls to his office from angry constituents was tailing off, while messages of support had doubled.

Whereas many hard-liners in the state continue to feel stung by what they see as Kyl's betrayal, other local activists believe the pragmatism and leadership he has shown in the tough fight over immigration may bring him kudos in months ahead.

"He's a very sophisticated politician, and he knew what he was getting into," said Dick White, the vice president of the Valley Interfaith Project, which supports the bill.

The upside for Kyl "is being seen as someone who is central to resolving a broken system and breaking a logjam … after way too long."