The Justice Department pulled the personal financial records of at least nine Members of Congress and at least seven former staffers last summer and fall, many of whom have been identified publicly as having links to ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
In a stretch running from June to October, a pair of aides at Justice examined the financial disclosure forms of Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), John Doolittle (R-Calif.) and Bob Ney (R-Ohio), as well as ex-staffers for three of those lawmakers, according to House and Senate records.
While Justice officials declined to comment, many of the financial searches appear to be connected to the continuing two-year probe of Abramoff’s dealings on Capitol Hill and with the Bush administration. In addition, the agency looked over the financial records of several lawmakers who have had no public connection to the investigation: Reps. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), as well as Del. Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa).
Aides to most of those lawmakers denied their bosses had any connection to the Abramoff probe, suggesting Justice must have been pulling their records for some other, unrelated reasons.
Abramoff pleaded guilty on Jan. 3 to orchestrating a bribery conspiracy that involved showering gifts, trips, campaign contributions and employment of relatives on Members of Congress and their staff in exchange for performing “official acts.”
Ney and his staff have been identified as those involved in the court documents related to Abramoff’s plea agreement, as has Tony Rudy, whom Abramoff accused of taking $50,000 in payments to his wife’s consulting firm in exchange for his efforts while DeLay’s deputy chief of staff in 2000 to help the lobbyist.
Both Ney’s and DeLay’s offices said Friday that they were not aware of Justice’s search of their financial records and reiterated their innocence in all dealings with Abramoff, vowing to cooperate with Justice’s multi-agency task force investigating the matter.
“We fully expect them to do an extremely thorough investigation and naturally public records like these will be something they'll want to review,” said DeLay spokesman Michael Connolly. “We have every expectation that when it’s completed they will find he has done nothing wrong.”
“We would have been happy to have saved them the trouble and sent those forms to them ourselves,” said Brian Walsh, Ney’s spokesman. “Congressman Ney has said from day one that he would assist in any way that he can and would welcome the opportunity to clear his name and set the record straight.”
Aides to Burns, who has repeatedly asked Justice and the Senate Ethics Committee to conduct an inquiry, welcomed the probe of his financial records by Justice staffers.
“This is good news for us, if the process has started,” said Jason Klindt, the campaign spokesman for Burns, who is facing a tough re-election battle this fall. “The sooner it’s reviewed, the sooner we can have his good name cleared.”
In addition, DOJ officials examined the records of two former top staffers to Burns: Will Brooke, who was Burns’ chief of staff from 2001 to 2003, when he went to work for Abramoff at Greenberg Traurig just before the scandal broke; and Shawn Vasell, who worked for Abramoff at two firms and subsequently worked for Burns as his state director before returning to Abramoff’s fold at Greenberg Traurig in 2003.
The agency also appeared to be interested in the finances of another former Burns staffer, Ryan Thomas, who was one of the Senator’s top aides on the Interior appropriations subcommittee. On Oct. 25, when a DOJ staffer examined the records of Burns, Brooke and Vasell, he also looked at the financial disclosure forms of someone named Ryan Thompson.
This may have been an error, since Thompson works for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has had no public connection to the Abramoff scandal to date. It’s possible the DOJ staffer meant to examine the files of Thomas.
Thomas and Brooke were flown by Abramoff to the January 2001 Super Bowl in Florida, where, in addition to attending the game, they were ferried to Abramoff’s Sun Cruz casino, which has been at the heart of a separate but related investigation by federal prosecutors in the Sunshine State.
Searching the financial disclosure forms of these lawmakers and ex-staffers is likely part of Justice’s efforts to match up actual “things of value,” as they are known in legal terms, with so-called “official acts.” While campaign contributions can be a part of an indictment against lawmakers and staff, Justice has usually shied away from bringing corruption cases unless they can show that politicians were actually receiving things of cash value for their own personal use.
Also on that Super Bowl trip was Tim Berry, who was a DeLay floor aide when the Texan was House Majority Whip. Berry went on to become chief of staff before leaving the office last year to lobby for Time Warner.
In addition to DeLay’s financial records, Justice perused Berry’s finances from 1999 through 2004, according to records on file at the House Legislative Resources Center. On the same day Justice pulled Berry’s files, the aide also explored Rudy’s finances for 1999 and 2000.
According to Abramoff’s plea agreement, in those two years the lobbyist funneled $50,000 to Lisa Rudy through one of the many nonprofit groups he exerted control over, while during the same period Tony Rudy worked to kill a pair of provisions that Abramoff’s clients needed tabled.
For DeLay, the Justice Department only explored one year’s worth of his financial disclosure forms, 2000, according to House records. That was the year in which DeLay went to Scotland with Abramoff, where they golfed the legendary Old Course at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews. Two years later, Abramoff returned to St. Andrews on a controversial trip with Ney and David Safavian, a former White House official now under federal indictment for allegedly lying to investigators regarding the 2002 Scotland trip.
In addition, 2000 was one of the years that DeLay’s wife, Christine, was on the payroll at the firm Alexander Strategy Group, which was run by DeLay’s former chief of staff, Ed Buckham, a close ally of Abramoff’s.
The financial reviews by Justice were done in the Cannon Building and the Hart Senate Office building. Federal law requires that, in addition to making the financial disclosure forms publicly available, the records centers in the House and Senate also publicly reveal the names of all individuals who examine those files.
Another lawmaker who has undergone Justice scrutiny is Doolittle, whose finances were examined for 2001 and 2002. In those years, Doolittle’s wife, Julie, operated at least three different consulting and event-planning firms, according to the records. One of those, Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions, received payments from an Abramoff charity, Capitol Athletic Foundation.
Justice was also interested in the finances of Doolittle’s former chief of staff, David Lopez, examining his filings from 1999 through 2004.
The agency pulled the files of Safavian for 2000 and 2001, when he was a staffer on Capitol Hill. He later went to work for the General Services Administration, where he is accused of trying to help Abramoff lease the Old Post Office Pavilion for his clients at the time of the Scotland trip.
Justice probed the filings of Bob Brooks, the former chief of staff to Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.). McCrery helped lead opposition earlier this decade to a tribal casino in the Bayou State, which Abramoff viewed as a competitor to one of his clients.
Most peculiar among Justice’s financial dragnet in 2005 were the examinations of the records for lawmakers seemingly not involved in the Abramoff case.
The records of Pomeroy and Sweeney were pulled on the same August day by the same DOJ staffer who looked at the records of Ney, Rudy, Berry and Lopez.
Pomeroy, who returned almost $7,000 in contributions linked to Abramoff clients earlier this year, denied having anything to do with the scandal and said the records probe must have been unrelated.
“We don’t have any idea why they were looking at us,” said Stephanie Craig, Pomeroy’s spokeswoman.
McDermott, who received no Abramoff-linked donations, also suggested that it was an unrelated matter.
“Jim has no involvement at all,” said Mike DeCesare, McDermott’s spokesman. “There’s absolutely no connection.”
Sweeney’s office declined to comment. Requests for comment from Ros-Lehtinen and Doolittle were not returned by press time Friday.
Brooke, Vasell and Brooks also did not return calls on Friday seeking comment.