Rep. Dana Rohrabacher offered a rare defense Monday of longtime friend and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty last week to influence peddling charges that have rocked Capitol Hill.
"The last thing I'm going to do is kick a friend when they're down," the nine-term congressman from Huntington Beach told The Times in an interview. He said the two met in the early 1980s, when Rohrabacher was a White House speechwriter and Abramoff was chairman of the College Republicans.
"I'm not excusing anything he did that was wrong or illegal," the congressman said. "It's just a sad commentary on democracy that when someone falls, there's this feeding frenzy and people are abandoned by those they thought were their friends."
Abramoff, once among the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, pleaded guilty last week to federal conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud. He also agreed to tell the FBI about alleged bribes to as many as 20 members of Congress and their aides.
About 130 members of Congress took contributions from Abramoff or his clients. Only one, U.S. Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), is alluded to in the plea agreement. The investigation also may have helped force Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who has been indicted in his home state on money-laundering charges, to lose his position as House majority leader.
"They're portraying Jack as a monster," Rohrabacher told Associated Press earlier Monday. "I see him more as a good person who's done bad things and has to be punished for doing bad things."
In the days that followed the plea, members of Congress expressed shock that Abramoff had admitted defrauding his clients. In e-mail exchanges obtained by investigators, he allegedly ridiculed Indian tribes for being gullible and making payments that went straight to him instead of to the purported recipients.
The connection between Rohrabacher and Abramoff has long been known. Rohrabacher said the two were young, idealistic conservatives who became and stayed friends long before Abramoff became a lobbyist and the congressman was elected in 1989.
Rohrabacher told The Times he had not been contacted by prosecutors in the probe and said Abramoff never tried to bribe him or ask him to vote a certain way on a bill.
Rohrabacher repeated a pledge, however, that he would return $3,000 in campaign cash he got from the lobbyist and would send back $4,500 that his campaign received from Indian tribes Abramoff represented, if the tribes wanted the money returned.
The congressman said he and Abramoff socialized over the years with their families and dined together frequently. Rohrabacher would eat at Abramoff's Washington restaurant, Signatures, or play host to the lobbyist in the congressional dining room. A House exemption allowed him to have the meals without reporting them, he said, because the two were friends before Rohrabacher was elected to Congress.
Abramoff also asked Rohrabacher and his wife, Rhonda, to a baby shower for about 15 former staffers and congressional spouses to celebrate the birth of the Rohrabachers' triplets in 2004. The event was casual -- between lunch and dinner -- and featured only hors d'oeuvres, he said.
"My friend let us use his place for a baby shower," Rohrabacher said in the interview. "Right now there are people looking with a microscope trying to find any infringement to blow up and make look like a scandal."
Rohrabacher also agreed to be listed as a personal reference when Abramoff sought a $60-million loan to buy a fleet of casino boats in Florida.
This is the second time in several months that a friend of Rohrabacher's has gotten into trouble. In September, a Hollywood producer pleaded not guilty to defrauding dozens of investors in a scam to produce a TV series about the Department of Homeland Security. Joseph Medawar was befriended by Rohrabacher and paid the congressman $23,000 in late 2003 to option a screenplay he had written.
Rohrabacher said Abramoff apparently cheated business partners and the government by shielding income and improperly funneling money to himself.
"I don't defend anything illegal he's done, and I didn't know that he was doing anything illegal," Rohrabacher said. To say that he cheated his clients is "not the case, from what I've seen so far," he said. "Jack always watched out for his clients."