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Lobbying Ties Cast Pall on Contest for GOP Post

The congressmen vying to succeed Tom DeLay as House majority leader have some similar links.

January 14, 2006|Janet Hook and Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — House Republicans, fearing a voter backlash over the influence-peddling and campaign finance investigations that knocked Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) from his leadership post, are hoping that whomever they choose as a replacement will help distance them from the scandals.

But they are running into a problem. The people competing to succeed DeLay have links to some of the same lobbyists and fundraising machinery that have put him, and the Republican Party, in political peril.

Anxiety over the scandals -- which center around a federal investigation of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his ties to lawmakers and some of their senior staffers -- has turned what is usually an insular race for the post of House majority leader into something much more: a test of how far Republicans are willing to go in clamping down on the lobbying and fundraising practices that have helped the party maintain its dominant position in Washington.

The leading candidate, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), has strong ties to some of corporate America's most powerful lobbyists and is married to a lobbyist for the parent company of Philip Morris USA and Kraft Foods Inc. His political action committee received $8,500 from Abramoff and his wife, although Blunt announced this month that he would donate that amount to charity.

Blunt's leading rival, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), played a key role in the party's effort to build stronger ties to the business and lobbying community.

On Friday, a third candidate entered the race, positioning himself as free of the lobbying ties that are so identified with Blunt and Boehner. "I believe that we need a clean break from the scandals of the recent past," Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) said in announcing his intention to vie for the leadership post.

But Shadegg, a fiscal conservative, has his own ties to clients and associates of Abramoff, who pleaded guilty this month to federal charges of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. Abramoff has agreed to cooperate with a Justice Department investigation into his ties to lawmakers and staffers, raising fears in Congress that more Capitol Hill figures could face charges.

The day before Shadegg entered the race, the Arizona Republic revealed that in December, he had given back or donated to charity more than $6,900 in campaign contributions from Abramoff's clients and associates; one of the contributions, the newspaper said, had been undisclosed for five years -- in violation of federal campaign finance rules.

Michael Steel, Shadegg's press secretary, confirmed the violation but said the failure to disclose the contribution was a clerical oversight. He argued that the lawmaker's ties to the lobbying world were far less extensive than those of the other two candidates.

One prominent lobbyist gave a similar assessment.

"I don't think he's got the same ... connections," R. Bruce Josten, a lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said of Shadegg.

Steel said Shadegg did not know Abramoff and had never accepted a contribution directly from him.

But he did accept contributions linked to Abramoff, including the use on three occasions of sports arena skyboxes leased in Abramoff's name for fundraisers. Shadegg also accepted a fundraising dinner paid for by Kevin Ring, an Abramoff partner, according to Shadegg's staff.

Republican strategists agreed Friday that Shadegg's entry into the race had changed the dynamic, making the question of ethics and lobbying reform more central. "It throws it wide open," said one Republican strategist close to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), speaking on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the race.

Republicans have scheduled their leadership election for Feb. 2, after members return from their winter break. At the moment, they are electing only a majority leader, the second-most senior post in the House and one that could position the winner to run for House speaker. Some members, however, are pushing for broader elections that would encompass five other leadership posts.

The position of Blunt and Boehner as front-runners is due in part to the quirky way congressional leaders are chosen: They are elected by their peers based not on ideology or even their public image, but largely because of personal ties, calculations of self-interest and accidents of geography.

Blunt and Boehner built their power bases through vast fundraising efforts and have links to Abramoff's associates and clients. Their ascent demonstrates how deeply DeLay's influence has reached into and reshaped the party: He has fostered an environment in which, in order to get ahead politically, lawmakers have had to aggressively raise money, contribute to other lawmakers and cultivate ties with the lobbyist and trade associations that line Washington's K Street corridor.

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