Bush, Others Dump Abramoff Donations
By DAVID ESPO, AP Special Correspondent
Wed Jan 4, 6:55 PM ET
WASHINGTON - President Bush and numerous lawmakers hastily jettisoned campaign donations linked to lobbyist Jack Abramoff on Wednesday as Republican Party officials pondered the impact of a spreading scandal on their 2006 election prospects.
"I wish it hadn't happened because it's not going to help us keep our majority," conceded Rep. Ralph Regula (news, bio, voting record), R-Ohio.
As Abramoff pleaded guilty to a second set of felony charges in as many days, this time in Florida, officials said Bush's 2004 re-election campaign intended to give up $6,000 in donations from the lobbyist, his wife and a client.
Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas - facing legal problems of his own - took similar steps, as did his leadership successor, Rep. Roy Blunt (news, bio, voting record) of Missouri, and Rep. Eric Cantor (news, bio, voting record) of Virginia, another member of the GOP leadership.
"While we firmly believe the contributions were legal at the time of receipt, the plea indicates that such contributions may not have been given in the spirit in which they were received," said Burson Taylor, a spokeswoman for Blunt.
In all, two dozen Republicans and six Democrats, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, have announced plans this week to return donations, mostly funds that came from Abramoff or Indian tribes he represented.
Rep. Bob Ney (news, bio, voting record), R-Ohio, who faces legal scrutiny for his links to the lobbyist, joined in the rush.
And a political action committee controlled by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said it planned to return $2,000 from the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.
The Republican rush to shed cash that once was eagerly sought underscored the potential political problem the party faces at the dawn of an election year.
"You can't have a corrupt lobbyist unless you have a corrupt member (of Congress) or a corrupt staff," former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in a lunchtime speech. "This was a team effort."
Gingrich, who battled ethics charges near the end of his tenure in Congress, also told reporters he thinks Republicans should elect a permanent replacement for DeLay. In addition to links with Abramoff, the Texan is battling campaign finance charges in his home state.
Regula, who came to Congress in 1973 and survived post-Watergate elections that crippled his party, said the implications of the Abramoff plea deals could be devastating for the GOP. "I was in the minority for 22 years and the majority for 11, and having tried it both ways, I definitely prefer the majority."
Frist issued a statement placing ethics issues on the Senate agenda for the year. He said he intends to "examine and act on any necessary changes to improve transparency and accountability for our body when it comes to lobbying.'
For their part, House Democrats have signaled they intend to make ethics an element in their drive to gain a majority in next fall's elections.
"It's more important for these Republicans to come clean with the American people about ... what (they) did for Jack Abramoff and his special interest friends in return for those campaign contributions," said Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman at the House Democratic campaign organization.
Federal prosecutors, armed with subpoena power and a newly cooperative witness, want answers to similar questions, according to the guilty plea that Abramoff entered on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Washington.
In a section of court papers headed "corruption of public officials," Abramoff acknowledged he had worked to provide "things of value to public officials in exchange for a series of official acts and influence."
Among others, the material refers to Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and his former chief of staff, Neil Volz, as well as to Tony Rudy, who was a top aide to DeLay at the time of the events described in the papers.
DeLay and Ney, who have both declared their innocence of wrongdoing, announced separately they would give to charity money they received as campaign donations from Abramoff or his clients.
Republicans scrambled to distance themselves from Abramoff on the day the lobbyist pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Miami to conspiracy and wire fraud stemming from his 2000 purchase of SunCruz, a gambling boat fleet.
Court papers say Ney placed a statement related to SunCruz, drafted by Abramoff's partner, Michael Scanlon, in the Congressional Record. The statement, the court papers say, was calculated to pressure the owner of SunCruz to sell on terms favorable to Abramoff.
People familiar with the investigation said federal investigators are interested in questioning Abramoff about his dealings with DeLay and Ney as well as other lawmakers and officials. Those include Rep. John Doolittle (news, bio, voting record), R-Calif., Rudy and Sen. Conrad Burns (news, bio, voting record), R-Mont., as well as former deputy Interior Secretary Stephen Griles and former top Bush administration contract officer David Safavian, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Abramoff's information is likely to be submitted to a federal grand jury.
The money being returned paled in comparison to the totals raised.
The president's campaign raised more than $300 million in all for the 2004 campaign.
Abramoff raised $100,000 or more, but a spokeswoman at the Republican National Committee said that would be kept apart from the $6,000 being given to the American Heart Association.
"At this point, there is nothing to indicate that contributions from those individual donors represents anything other than enthusiastic support for the BC-04 re-election campaign," said Tracey Schmitt.
Associated Press writers David Hammer, Nedra Pickler, Michael J. Sniffen and John Solomon in Washington and Mike Colias in Illinois contributed to this report.
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