Watchdog Seeks DOJ Probe of Ex-Taylor Aide

Posted March 10, 2004 at 6:27pm

An ethics watchdog group Wednesday asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Rep. Charles Taylor’s (R-N.C.) former top aide violated the illegal gratuities statute when he sought a $60,000 lobbying contract while he was still on the House payroll.

In a letter to the head of the department’s criminal division, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington requested that the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section initiate a probe into the now-abandoned lobbying deal between Roger France and a North Carolina economic development agency, AdvantageWest.

France initiated contract discussions more than two months before he announced he was leaving Taylor’s staff. In articles earlier this month, Roll Call reported that France helped to shepherd legislation and a $750,000 appropriations earmark that benefited AdvantageWest shortly before he sought the lobbying contract from a group that has never used an outside lobbyist.

Meanwhile, records at the Federal Election Commission show that France filed papers March 5 to create the Mountain Leadership PAC, a leadership political action committee, apparently on behalf of Taylor. He lists himself as treasurer with an address located at the Livingston Group, where France is now employed.

The PAC’s bank account is listed as being held at the Blue Ridge Savings Bank, the Asheville, N.C.-based thrift controlled and managed by Taylor, who serves as the bank’s chairman. Taylor’s campaign account also uses the Blue Ridge thrift, FEC records show.

Taylor, one of the House’s wealthiest lawmakers, has not previously used a leadership PAC. He chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Interior Department and related agencies.

Federal law imposes a one-year “cooling off period” that is designed to restrict communication about official business between Members and former staffers.

Under the statute, a covered former employee may not, for a period of one year after leaving office, “knowingly communicate with or appear before his or her former employing office or committee, with the intent to influence, on behalf of any other person, the official actions or decisions of a Member, officer or employee in such office or on such committee,” according to an advisory memo issued by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

France did not respond to questions about the new leadership PAC.

In the letter to Justice, Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor and Hill staffer who serves as CREW’s director, said there appears to be a link between the lobbying contract wanted by France and the legislation that was sought by AdvantageWest.

“Clearly, this series of events raises the question of whether AdvantageWest gave and Mr. France received something of benefit in return for an official act, i.e. an illegal gratuity,” Sloan wrote.

“Given these facts, it would be appropriate for the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section to open an investigation into whether AdvantageWest offered an illegal gratuity to Mr. France and/or whether Mr. France solicited or accepted such a gratuity,” Sloan wrote.