John Doolittle Would Like to Get His Life Back
Ex-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who spent 17 months in prison, now hosts his own radio show. Even Jack Abramoff, living in a halfway house in Baltimore, has landed a job at a pizza joint.
But former Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) is still perusing the help wanted ads.
Doolittle and his wife, Julie, came under investigation more than five years ago as part of the Abramoff lobbying and political corruption scandal, which sent Ney and Abramoff to jail and spoiled dozens of Congressional and K Street careers. The Doolittles, who have not been charged with a crime, say they now are trying to launch a post-political life and get past the federal probe that has isolated them from relatives and friends and made them pariahs in Washington.
John Doolittle, 59, figures he has three main options, and all would take him back into the realm of politics. He could join a lobbying firm, run an association or join a corporation’s government relations team.
“I’d like to do anything that makes a meaningful contribution and helps me support the family,” the nine-term former Member said during an interview last week in his Oakton, Va., home.
It’s the same home that the FBI searched three years ago — an event that John and Julie Doolittle say ended their professional careers.
But even as they attempt a rebirth, the Doolittles remain figures in an upcoming trial of Kevin Ring, the ex-Congressman’s former legislative director who later became a lobbyist for Abramoff’s team.
Long before the search, a cloud of suspicion and intrigue already had enshrouded the Doolittles. Not only were they friendly with Abramoff and his family, but Julie Doolittle counted Abramoff as a $5,000-a-month client for her bookkeeping and fundraising event planning business, Sierra Dominion Financial Resources Inc.
On Thanksgiving Day 2005, John Doolittle, who was planting tulips in his small yard, got word from his then-press secretary, Laura Blackann, that a Wall Street Journal reporter was prepared to name him, Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) as the four lawmakers the Justice Department was focused on in the Abramoff probe.
Nearly five years later, John Doolittle is still working to clear his name. He recently announced that the Justice Department informed him that the case against him is closed. The former Member believes — and outside legal experts agree — that the statute of limitations on his case has likely run out as well.
But that doesn’t mean anyone wants to hire John Doolittle.
Until this spring, Doolittle had a consulting, but not lobbying, contract with the Charter Schools Development Corp. When that ended, he started looking seriously for a job.
He met with Lorraine Lavet, a headhunter from Korn/Ferry International, who specializes in recruiting senior-level executives for trade associations and nonprofit organizations.
According to Doolittle, the conversation went like this: “She said, I’ve Googled your name; there are some serious allegations here. Unless or until you have an answer [to these allegations] I just can’t help you.'”
That exchange, which Lavet confirmed, was his impetus to plead with his attorney to ask the Justice Department where the investigation stood. His attorneys at Williams Mullen had cautioned not to pester Justice and “wake the sleeping dog.”
“I have to have a job, and I cannot get one until I know my status,” he said he told his lawyer. Just after Memorial Day, Doolittle said his lawyer received a call from a Justice Department official, who said the investigation had been closed.
The DOJ has not confirmed that his case is closed, but FBI spokesman Bill Carter said the Justice Department rarely issues letters to former targets letting them know they are no longer under investigation. That typically only happens when the former target is running for public office and the issue comes up on the campaign trail, Carter said.
“To me, that’s outrageous,” Doolittle said. “They were more than happy to put our names out there and leaking the search, but they are unwilling to say it’s ended? It’s not right to do to people.”
This is John Doolittle’s most recent frustration with the Justice Department.
“I really feel they designed these things to run you out of money, ruin your reputation in the press and isolate you and then get you to plead,” he said, adding that he hasn’t ruled out a lawsuit against the government. “I used to be pro-prosecution, but I realize how vulnerable people are. It was a strange experience to be on the other end of this.”
Julie Doolittle, too, says her perspective of the criminal justice system is forever changed.
“I was a victim of a rape with a gun,” she said, referring to a 1978 assault in California. “The police department worked day and night to solve it. I had always admired them. I sent notes to their wives. I looked up to our legal system.”
When federal investigators first contacted her, the Congressman’s wife says, she was willing to help. She says she was told she was not a target. FBI agents even came to the Oakton home in June 2004. “We talked at the table here,” she said, waving a hand toward her dining set.
Three years later, the scene was very different. On Friday, April 13, 2007, the day of the search, Julie Doolittle says she was working on organizing the closets. She made herself a sandwich. She had no idea what was coming.
“All of these dark cars had pulled up and people got out in suits,” she recalled. “I saw badges and paper.”
She says she was sequestered in the kitchen where the sandwich sat, uneaten.
“It was surreal, like you’re just having a nightmare,” said her husband, who was in California preparing to give a luncheon speech. He never made it to that lunch.
Investigators went through the house.
“That’s when I broke down, when they took my computer,” she said, fighting back tears. “I said, That’s my livelihood.'”
To an outsider, the tidy home looked much the same after the search. But things were ever so slightly off-kilter: Dresser drawers had fallen out of their tracks.
“It was a very strange feeling,” recalled their daughter, Courtney Doolittle, who was 15 at the time, and has recently graduated from high school.
Julie Doolittle, 56, says that some of her items, including personal journals, have not yet been returned. Lindsay Godwin, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Washington field office, said she couldn’t comment on the Doolittles’ possessions, but in general the government returns seized items at the conclusion of a trial or when they are deemed to no longer be useful.
“You always have a right to a speedy trial,” Godwin said. “An investigation is not always like that. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer.”
Julie Doolittle says she has not inquired about the status of the government’s investigation into her. She believes it’s over, as do her husband’s attorneys, but she hasn’t asked the Justice Department to clarify.
And she may still be a figure in Ring’s upcoming trial on corruption charges.
“I was the hook to get John indicted,” she said. “They thought we had to be guilty because we were right in the center of all that’s going on.”
“They basically were using her as bait to get me to plead guilty,” the former Congressman said.
The government wanted him to plead to helping Abramoff — and Ring — clients in exchange for his wife’s $5,000-a-month retainer, John Doolittle said.
Ring, too, was under pressure to plead to conspiring with his former boss. “If Kevin had been a man of lesser integrity,” Doolittle said, things would have turned out differently.
“I never did a legislative thing for Jack Abramoff that I didn’t believe in,” he added. True, he opposes gambling and sided with Abramoff’s pro-gambling American Indian clients, but that’s because he wanted to help the tribes, he said.
“People will plead guilty just to avoid all we’ve been through,” Doolittle said. “We knew we were innocent, and we knew we were going to fight it.”
It was a gamble, but they say they have no regrets.
The Doolittles say they were isolated from nearly everyone but each other.
“Kevin [Ring] and I were always good friends, but we couldn’t be talking to him,” John Doolittle said. One of his wife’s brothers, a CPA who had done some financial work for them, was off-limits as well.
Other Republicans on Capitol Hill “said they supported us but had to stay away,” Julie Doolittle said.
Many of Doolittle’s Congressional aides had to hire lawyers, and they were cut off from one another.
The Congressman, a Mormon, says his faith carried him through. “It was the biggest part,” he said. “It gave us the strength to hold our heads up.”
And there has been an upside to the professional downfall.
“For Courtney’s whole senior year, we’ve been able to have dinners together,” John Doolittle said.
“We’ve had a lot of family time,” Julie Doolittle added. “We really depend on each other.”