WASHINGTON — The top aide to White House strategist Karl Rove quit Friday, a week after congressional investigators portrayed her as a key link between senior officials and the now-disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- brokering deals for his clients as she accepted premium tickets to sporting events and concerts.
Susan Ralston had worked as Rove's executive assistant, functioning as a gatekeeper of sorts for President Bush's most trusted political advisor. She was an aide to Abramoff before she joined the White House and became what the lobbyist called his "implant" there.
As Rove's top staffer and a special assistant to the president, Ralston becomes the closest aide to Bush to leave in a scandal that has so far enveloped lobbyists, lawmakers, Capitol Hill aides and an administration procurement official while, until now, sparing the inner sanctum of the White House.
Her departure comes as Republican leaders on Capitol Hill combat allegations that they did not adequately respond to inappropriate behavior toward House pages by Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). It is the latest GOP setback in a midterm election year increasingly defined by scandal. Republicans are hoping to retain majorities in the House and Senate for the final two years of Bush's presidency.
Ralston "did not want to be a distraction to the White House at this important time," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, adding that Ralston "played a very valuable role in advancing the president's agenda." Perino said Ralston would leave within the next couple of weeks.
The report issued last week by the House Governmental Reform Committee quoted e-mails from Ralston in which, among other things, she helped lobby Rove about political endorsements in tiny U.S. protectorates represented by Abramoff and arranged for Rove to sit as Abramoff's guest in a private box for first-round games in the NCAA basketball tournament.
The bipartisan investigation documented more than 400 lobbying contacts between Abramoff's team and the White House between January 2001 and March 2004, including dozens with Rove's office and nine with the top strategist himself. The report was based on thousands of pages of billing records and e-mails obtained from Abramoff's firm.
The committee did not subpoena information from the White House, making it difficult to conclude in many cases whether Abramoff's requests were granted and whether the lobbyist, as White House officials have argued, was exaggerating his influence.
The report suggests Ralston accepted premium tickets to nine events, including professional basketball, hockey and baseball games as well as a performance by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli for which ticket prices, according to a newspaper account at the time, ranged from $88 to $333.
Ethics rules forbid officials from taking gifts worth more than $20 from people doing business with the government, but the committee investigation did not determine whether Ralston and other officials paid for tickets in every case or listed them on disclosure forms. E-mails suggested Rove paid $50 apiece for NCAA basketball tickets.
Perino said Friday that the White House review of the 91-page report was "complete" and that "we expect nothing further to come of the report" beyond Ralston's departure.
Democrats were not satisfied, charging that the White House was making Ralston a "scapegoat" to avoid answering more serious questions. The committee's senior Democrat, Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, issued a statement Friday noting that Ralston's 69 contacts with Abramoff and his team reflected less than 15% of all of the contacts with White House officials, and saying that the actions of senior aides such as former political director Ken Mehlman deserved more scrutiny.
Last week's report included e-mails suggesting that Mehlman, now chairman of the Republican National Committee, was offered tickets to a rock concert and helped an Indian tribe represented by Abramoff secure $16 million for a jail despite resistance from Justice Department officials.
"The vast majority of lobbying contacts and meals with White House officials documented in the report were with White House officials other than Ms. Ralston," Waxman said. "It is ludicrous for the White House to say it considers the review of the committee report 'complete' when it has not provided answers to any of the most important questions involving Mr. Mehlman and other senior White House officials."
In an interview Friday, Mehlman said he did not recall any specifics from his dealings with the Abramoff team.
"I can tell you that as political director I was always very careful to make sure everything I did was above board and consistent with the rules," he said.