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Scrutiny Widens on Politicians' Ties to Lobbyist Abramoff

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The money and influence scandal that surrounds indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff has so far pulled in just a few prominent Washington politicians, but that may be changing. As more of Abramoff's operations come to light, more members of Congress are facing questions about their own contacts with him, and those questions are beginning to be heard back in their home states and districts. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

The questions mostly go like this: Why did you help Jack Abramoff? How much campaign money did he give you, and is there any connection? Take the 2002 casino war between two Indian tribes in Louisiana, the Jena and the Coushatta. The Jena wanted the Interior Department to help them build a casino. The Coushatta already had a casino and didn't want the competition. Abramoff, working for the Coushatta, got 33 lawmakers to sign a letter to the secretary of the Interior opposing the new casino. The Associated Press found that every one of those lawmakers has received campaign contributions from Abramoff, his associates or his tribal clients before signing that letter, after signing or both. And now lawmakers find the issue starting to crop up in the hometown press. An Oklahoma paper wrote about Republican Congressman Ernest Istook. His spokesman, Matt Lambert, later told NPR that Istook never knew the casino-owning Coushattas were behind the letter he had signed.

Mr. MATT LAMBERT (Congressman Istook's Spokesman): Congressman Istook signed that letter to stop the expansion of gambling, and a year later he receives a thousand dollars from Jack Abramoff. You know, it's a stretch to put two and two together.

OVERBY: Here's a more precise accounting. Abramoff gave $1,000 to Istook's campaign committee but Istook also has a political action committee which got $25,000 from Abramoff's team. That's over a period of four years, from 2001 through 2004. Rich Gayland(ph) is a longtime Republican strategist who sees big trouble brewing on Capitol Hill.

Mr. RICH GAYLAND (Republican Strategist): The notion of campaign donations has always been, to use a Monty Python reference, kind of a wink, wink, nudge, nudge sort of thing. And now what we're finding is that there has been a lack of embarrassment about what these particular campaign donations are purchasing.

OVERBY: They may be no more than bribes, according to Abramoff's former business partner. When Michael Scanlon pleaded guilty last month to a conspiracy count, he said the campaign donations and other gifts were intended to purchase official acts from public officials. Letters, like the one signed by Istook and his colleagues, may turn out to be a minor matter in the Justice Department probe. But some of these lawmakers could face political problems. Among those already linked to Abramoff in their local press are senators Conrad Burns of Montana and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, plus, congressmen Robert Aderholt of Alabama, Dave Camp of Michigan and Charles Taylor of North Carolina. And those are just some of the Republicans. Some Democrats show up, too.

Senator BYRON DORGAN (Democrat, North Dakota): Somebody's been lying to us. Somebody sitting at this table's been lying to us.

OVERBY: That's Byron Dorgan, Democrat from North Dakota, at the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Dorgan is the committee's vice chair, sitting side by side with Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican, as they exposed Abramoff's operations. One subject that the hearings didn't delve into is Abramoff's dealings with Dorgan's own office. At one point, Dorgan and Abramoff both supported an Indian schools program. Documents showed that the senator was working on behalf of tribes in North Dakota, and, in fact, endorsed the program long before Abramoff came on the scene. Still, between 2001 and 2004, Abramoff's client list of Indian tribes generated at least $43,000 for Dorgan's political organization.

Dorgan isn't up for re-election next year, but many senators are, along with every member of the House. Republican Congressman Tom DeLay and Bob Ney are already in trouble, so far politically more than legally because of Abramoff. Just for starters, he took them both on overseas junkets. One of Washington's veteran political analysts, Bernadette Budde, at the Business Industry Political Action Committee, says Abramoff won't necessarily turn into a problem for all incumbents.

Ms. BERNADETTE BUDDE (Business Industry Political Action Committee): Just because somebody went to Scotland to golf doesn't mean every member of the legislature did. But we do think that legislators will have to explain their relationships and will have to explain, as they always do, the kind of campaign funds that they take.

OVERBY: But at the Cook Political Report, analyst Amy Walter cites the generally sorry state of Washington ethics.

Ms. AMY WALTER (Analyst, Cook Political Report): Every time another one of these scandals hits the front pages, it helps to cement that pessimism in voters' minds.

OVERBY: And new headlines could come later this week. Another of Abramoff's partners, Adam Kidan, is due in court in Florida. Like Michael Scanlon, Kidan seems ready to cut a deal, further boosting the pressure on Abramoff to tell what he knows. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.