Members Appear to Be Keeping Abramoff Cash

Posted December 3, 2004 at 6:07pm

At least nine of the 22 Members who received contributions from embattled Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff do not plan to give back their donations, despite a Senate investigation into the allegedly exorbitant fees he charged to represent American Indian tribes.

Abramoff, who is also the subject of federal grand jury inquiry, or his family contributed $76,000 to Republican Members and their political action committees in the past two-year cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Through June 30, no recipient of Abramoff’s recent largess has given back the funds — and of the nine Members whose offices returned calls for this story, each confirmed that their Member had no plans to return his money, though some added that their policy could change depending on future developments in his case.

Abramoff collected eye-popping sums in a three-year period from six American Indian tribes. With his associate, former House GOP leadership aide Michael Scanlon, Abramoff charged the tribes $84 million.

Since 1995, Abramoff has shelled out $300,000 in personal contributions, directing $70,000 of it to House Republican leadership.

Lawmakers who benefited from Abramoff’s generosity said that, no matter his behavior, the contributions he made were legal, so there is no good reason to give them back.

“I didn’t take it with any expectation of doing anything for him,” said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) who last year received $2,000 from Abramoff’s wife, Pam. “You usually don’t look back at your donors and make critiques.”

Foley added that he has standards. He said he would never take a check from the Ku Klux Klan, for example, and would not solicit any new money from Abramoff, whose behavior he called “embarrassing.”

But Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) said through a spokeswoman that he is keeping Abramoff’s $2,000 contribution because he still considers him a friend.

“He’s been a longtime supporter of the Congressman and known him for years and years,” spokeswoman Meghan Riding said of the lobbyist.

Cannon serves on the House Resources Committee, the only House panel with authority over Indian tribes. The leadership PAC of that committee’s chairman, Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), collected $5,000 from Abramoff. The lobbyist gave another $2,000 to Pombo’s campaign. Pombo did not return calls for comment.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) will not be returning any of the $7,000 Abramoff gave his campaign and PAC in the past two years, according to the Senator’s spokeswoman, Beth Day.

“He’ll take campaign contributions from anyone, as long as they are legal and there are no strings attached,” she said.

Abramoff’s partner, Scanlon, only contributed $1,000 of his own money during the last election cycle, to the Republican State Committee of Delaware. A spokesman for the state party committee did not return a call for comment.

By hanging on to Abramoff’s money, Members are taking a political risk, said Larry Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group.

“They’re saying they don’t have a problem with the contributor,” Noble said. “There’s always a chance that it will become a campaign issue. So if things get really ugly for Abramoff, some will decide it’s time to return the contributions.”

Several lawmakers reserved the right to do just that. Kyle Loveless, the campaign manager for Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), adamantly defended his boss’ right to keep the $1,000 check Abramoff cut him in early 2003. But he added that if Abramoff “is found guilty, we’ll assess it then,” and would consider returning the money or giving it to a charity.

A spokesman for Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who received $1,000, said the Senator “wouldn’t rule anything out down the road.” And a spokeswoman for Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Penn.) said the Congressman has no plans to return Abramoff’s $1,000 contribution but could re-evaluate that stance.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and his PAC have received a combined $39,500 from Abramoff since 1995. The PAC of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has received $2,500 from Abramoff in the same period. Their offices did not return calls for this story.

This is not the first time lawmakers have faced the question of what to do with contributions whose sources have been tainted by scandal. Indeed, given the surplus of corporate malfeasance cases since 2000, many Members are well versed in this quandary — and they do not appear to have reached any consensus on how to act.

On the one hand, lawmakers lined up to return checks from Enron and WorldCom when those companies melted down, leaving employees without their retirement savings and shareholders holding the bag.

In fact, Members coughed up more than $118,000 for the Enron Employee Transition Fund, while 18 lawmakers contributed more than $60,000 to the Ex-WorldCom Employee Assistance Fund.

But since those twin scandals temporarily reversed the flow of money into campaign coffers, lawmakers and their parties went on to hold checks from controversial sources.

The National Republican Congressional Committee did not refund a $10,000 soft-money contribution from the disgraced ex-CEO of Tyco International, Dennis Kozlowski, saying they had already spent the money. And the Democratic National Committee said the same thing when it decided to keep a $56,500 gift from Sam Waksal, the imprisoned former chief of biotech firm ImClone.