Waxman Chases Abramoff Leads

Posted September 12, 2007 at 6:41pm

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is poised to dive back into the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal in coming weeks, according to several sources who say Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has issued letters to a range of Abramoff associates seeking information about his contacts with the White House.

The committee’s activity coincides with a number of Abramoff-related legal developments that are likely to keep the disgraced former lobbyist’s name in the news this fall.

In May, Waxman’s staff deposed Susan Ralston — former assistant to White House political adviser Karl Rove, who announced his resignation in August — about her contacts with Abramoff while she was in the White House. Ralston requested immunity before answering, and Waxman told his committee colleagues in a May 22 briefing memo that before considering immunity, “we should seek to obtain information about the relationship between Mr. Abramoff and the White House from other sources.”

According to sources familiar with the investigation, the committee sent out a flurry of letters over the summer to figures in the Abramoff affair — including people who had worked with him at Greenberg Traurig — asking them to meet with the committee to discuss the lobbyist’s contacts with the White House. Sources said Waxman had few takers, in part because the Justice Department is continuing its investigation of the Abramoff matter, and there is little incentive for anyone involved to volunteer to talk to the Oversight Committee at this point.

Waxman also requested e-mails and other documents from the White House relating to Abramoff, which are expected to be delivered to the committee in the next few days, though Waxman’s staff declined to provide details of what he is seeking. The result of that document production is likely to determine the next steps for the Oversight Committee, said sources familiar with the investigation.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department investigation into Abramoff’s dealings with lawmakers rolls on.

Former Interior Department official J. Steven Griles, who was sentenced to 10 months in prison for lying to Congress about his relationship with Abramoff, has been ordered to report to a Virginia prison on Friday.

Italia Federici, a Republican activist who pleaded guilty in June to lying to Congress about her role as a go-between for Abramoff and Griles, has yet to be sentenced and has promised to cooperate with the investigation.

Another Abramoff co-conspirator, Neil Volz, former chief of staff to Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), was sentenced Wednesday to two years probation and fined $2,000 for his role as a conduit for favors between Abramoff and Ney.

In a pre-sentencing memorandum to the court, Volz wrote, “I am proud of my decision to cooperate with federal prosecutors and investigators. … The investigation is far from over, and I look forward to continuing to help.”

The prosecution supported Volz’s light sentence, pointing out that “Volz has spent and continues to spend countless hours providing information about other matters under investigation by the Department of Justice, as well as insight into how staff members and lobbyists conduct business before Congress and the executive branch.”

Will Heaton, who followed Volz as Ney’s chief of staff, pleaded guilty to participating in the Congressman’s exchange of legislative favors for bribes from Abramoff and was sentenced in August to two years probation and a $5,000 fine.

Former House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee staffer Mark Zachares pleaded guilty in May to accepting cash and other gifts in exchange for using his position to help Abramoff and his clients. Zachares has not yet been sentenced; he is scheduled for a status hearing Nov. 2. His attorney said that Zachares “is complying with his plea agreement,” which requires him to cooperate with the Justice Department investigation.

David Safavian, a former General Services Administration official who was convicted of lying to investigators about his assistance to Abramoff and sentenced to 18 months in prison, remains free while he appeals his conviction. His wife, Jennifer Safavian, is the chief investigative counsel for Republicans on the Oversight Committee, but she has been recused from all matters involving Abramoff, committee sources said.

GOP Reps. John Doolittle (Calif.) and Tom Feeney (Fla.) remain under scrutiny for their involvement with Abramoff, though neither has been charged with any wrongdoing. Three Doolittle staffers have testified before a grand jury in recent weeks.