LETTER FROM WASHINGTON | DANA WILKIE
The blame game


January 16, 2006

There's a conversation going on atop Capitol Hill that reminds one of the tattling that goes on between two youngsters, both of whom are culpable for some naughtiness or other.

The only difference being that children can't yet grasp the concept of hypocrisy, while one expects those in Congress can.

We refer to the discussion revolving around who is linked to Jack Abramoff, the corrupt lobbyist who recently pleaded guilty to charges of mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion in connection with his lobbying activities, as well as conspiracy and wire fraud in a 2000 business deal in which he and a partner bought the SunCruz Casinos fleet of gambling ships.

Abramoff has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors trying to find out whether he bought specific actions from members of Congress, their aides or members of the administration of President Bush by doling out large campaign contributions and gifts.

But from the looks of a recent GOP news release, one would never know that Abramoff was primarily a lobbyist for Republican clients and causes. The National Republican Senatorial Committee created a Web site detailing the Senate Democrats' connections to Abramoff, then noted in its release that "nearly 90 percent of Senate Democrats have taken Abramoff-related money."

This smells of desperation – a way to turn the Abramoff affair into a bipartisan scandal, as if the former lobbyist was not tight with high-stepping Republicans such as Tom DeLay of Texas, who stepped down as House majority leader after being charged in his home state with felony conspiracy to launder campaign money.

To be fair, Democrats really must contend with their own collective blind spot. You can't talk to any Democrat these days without hearing about the Republican Party's "culture of corruption" – the Democrats' way to capitalize on scandals that have clouded Republicans such as DeLay, former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of Rancho Santa Fe and Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio.

So let's be clear: Rubbing shoulders with a corrupt lobbyist is an equal opportunity pastime. We can point to plenty of California Republicans and Democrats who've taken money from Abramoff or those linked to him.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors the link between money, politics and lawmaking, more than 40 Californians on Capitol Hill have taken campaign gifts from Abramoff, the tribes that hired him, or SunCruz Casinos. They include Democratic heavyweights such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, as well as Republican ones such as Rep. Jerry Lewis of Redlands.

THE RIPPLE EFFECT

The word is that the Abramoff probe could expand to fell more lawmakers, which could explain why many on the Hill now are scrambling to distance themselves from Abramoff, his clients and their money as quickly as possible. Some lawmakers are returning Abramoff-linked money, or giving it to charity. California Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, will return her $1,000 donation from the Abramoff-linked Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe. Boxer also will donate to charity $2,000 that came from a political action committee run by Abramoff's lobbying firm, said Boxer press secretary Natalie Ravitz.

Others, like San Diego-area Rep. Susan Davis and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats, prefer to point out that they took their campaign gifts during years that the contributors were not paying Abramoff to lobby for them on the Hill.

Davis received a $1,000 contribution from the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in March 2000. Abramoff's lobbying firm didn't acquire the tribe as a client until 2002.

"Susan's never met Jack Abramoff and has never received a campaign contribution from him," said Davis spokesman Aaron Hunter. "Susan has never even been to lunch with a lobbyist."

As for Feinstein, she also took a $1,000 contribution from an Indian tribe that Abramoff once represented, but only after the tribe had severed ties with the lobbyist.

"She had a relationship with the tribe for a number of years," said Kam Kuwata, Feinstein's campaign manager.

We suppose that's another way of saying: "We're keeping the money."

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

»Next Story»