WASHINGTON — Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Roseville) gave up his coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday, a day after reports surfaced that the FBI had searched his northern Virginia home.
Doolittle and his wife, who runs a political consulting firm, have come under scrutiny for their ties to imprisoned former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is cooperating in a corruption investigation.
"I understand how the most recent circumstances may lead some to question my tenure on the appropriations committee," Doolittle wrote in a letter to House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), seeking a temporary leave from one of the most powerful panels on Capitol Hill.
Several federal law enforcement sources said that any raid on a congressman's home would have to have been approved at the highest levels.
Kenneth Gross, a Washington lawyer and ethics expert, speculated that Doolittle did "not want to stay in a high-profile position while he is giving his undivided attention to the criminal investigation."
Doolittle made the decision after meeting privately Thursday with Boehner.
A GOP aide, who asked not to be identified because the issue is sensitive, said that the party's leaders, after losing control of Congress in a campaign that highlighted ethical lapses by Republicans, wanted to show they were responding swiftly to any possible scandal.
In a statement, Boehner said: "John recognizes that if we are to succeed in restoring trust between the American people and their elected leaders, this action is necessary." Boehner also praised Doolittle for "having the courage to do the right thing."
Doolittle's attorney has said that the search of the congressman's Oakton, Va., home last Friday focused on his wife's firm. The company did extensive work for Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Julie Doolittle's company, Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions Inc., received about $67,000 from 2002 to 2004 from Abramoff's firm.
The search occurred the same day that Kevin Ring, a former Doolittle aide who went to work for Abramoff, resigned from his lobbying job with the Barnes & Thornburg law firm.
Ring is the second former congressional aide and Abramoff lobbyist to resign from that firm. Neil Volz, who was chief of staff to former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), went to work for Abramoff and then Barnes & Thornburg. He resigned in January 2006 and pleaded guilty to corruption in May 2006, implicating Ney. Ney is serving a 30-month sentence.
Doolittle has denied any wrongdoing. During last year's campaign, he came under attack for his ties to Abramoff and for paying his wife a 15% commission on campaign contributions she raised for him. She earned $90,000 at one event, when President Bush spoke at a major fundraiser for the congressman last fall.
Doolittle called Abramoff a friend, accepted campaign money from him and used his skybox at a Washington sports arena.
Recently, Doolittle's earmarks as a member of the Appropriations Committee have received attention from ethics watchdogs. Taxpayers for Common Sense identified $37 million that Doolittle inserted into defense spending bills to provide funds for a firm associated with Brent R. Wilkes.
Wilkes is the Pentagon contractor who allegedly gave gifts to former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), who pleaded guilty to bribery and tax evasion. Wilkes has denied wrongdoing and has asked that charges against him be dismissed.
The search of Doolittle's home and his decision to step down from the Appropriations Committee were the latest blows to the nine-term lawmaker. Doolittle, 56, narrowly won reelection last year with less than 50% of the vote, and lost a GOP leadership position in the Democratic takeover of Congress.
Doolittle is certain to be targeted by Democrats for defeat in next year's election, and he could also draw a strong Republican challenger.
His district, considered a safe one for Republicans, extends from the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento to the Oregon state line.
Doolittle declined to comment beyond his letter, other than to say he plans to remain in Congress and seek reelection next year.
"I would guess it's going to be a tight race in 2008," he said.
Times staff writers Tom Hamburger and Richard B. Schmitt in Washington and Rone Tempest in Sacramento contributed to this report.