His onetime friendship with super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff has come back to haunt Rep. John T. Doolittle of Northern California, a member of the House Republican leadership, as the Justice Department continues its probe into Abramoff’s dealings with lawmakers.
Doolittle’s name surfaced in the probe when the Washington Post reported late last year that the eight-term congressman from Roseville -- a Mormon and staunch opponent of casino gambling -- used Abramoff’s luxury sports box in a Washington arena to host a fundraiser and then failed to report its value, as required by law.
The Post pointed to Doolittle’s use of Abramoff’s skybox as an example of how the lobbyist used such perks to cultivate connections with influential lawmakers as he sought to further the interests of Native American clients who owned casinos. Doolittle subsequently paid back Abramoff’s firm for the use of the skybox and reported it on federal disclosure records.
But with Abramoff and his associates the subject of a widening federal investigation into alleged influence-peddling, Doolittle’s name surfaced again Friday. A Wall Street Journal article, citing several unnamed sources close to the probe, listed him as one of four lawmakers and more than a dozen former and current Capitol Hill staff members whose links to Abramoff are being looked into.
The other lawmakers were said to be former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio).
The Justice Department declined to comment on the report Friday.
Laura Blackann, a spokeswoman for Doolittle, denied that he had done anything wrong.
“Any suggestion that [Doolittle] may have had some improper involvement in matters recently disclosed about Mr. Abramoff and others comes as a complete surprise and is simply ridiculous,” Blackann said in a statement. “Anyone who knows John Doolittle personally is well-aware of his character and high standard of ethics.”
In an interview, Blackann said that the Justice Department had not contacted Doolittle or subpoenaed any documents from him.
It did, however, subpoena documents from Doolittle’s wife, Julia Doolittle, who hosted a fundraising event for an Abramoff charity, the Capital Athletic Foundation.
A Senate investigation -- separate from the Justice Department probe -- has been looking into allegations that Abramoff and his business partner, Michael Scanlon, bilked tribal clients of money that sometimes was used to fund Abramoff’s charitable interests through the Capital Athletic Foundation and other organizations.
Neither Julia Doolittle nor her attorney could be reached for comment Friday.
The Senate Indian Affairs Committee has said that Abramoff and Scanlon collected about $82 million from the tribes over a four-year period, during which the pair sought to bolster the gaming interests of their clients and thwart the efforts of rival tribes to open casinos.
The lobbyists contributed heavily to lawmakers from both political parties, but particularly to powerful Republicans. Abramoff also hired former key Republican staffers -- among them Kevin Ring, who worked on Doolittle’s staff before joining Abramoff at the firm of Greenberg Traurig.
Ring was mentioned in testimony this month before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee by Fred Baggett, a senior manager of Greenberg Traurig. Baggett told the panel that the firm fired Abramoff, Ring and two other lobbyists after an internal investigation found that Abramoff and the other lobbyists had violated the firm’s rules in their dealings with the tribes.
Ring did not respond to e-mails and phone messages on Friday seeking comment.
Scanlon, a former aide to DeLay, pleaded guilty to a single charge of bribery last week in federal court. It was revealed at the time that he had been cooperating with federal investigators for six months.
That revelation reverberated on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers and congressional staff members for months have speculated about who among them might be implicated -- and perhaps indicted -- in the Abramoff investigation.
In his plea, Scanlon said an unnamed lawmaker -- identified by others as Ney -- agreed to introduce legislation in March 2002 to allow a Scanlon tribal client, the Tiguas, to reopen their casino. Six days later, Abramoff asked the tribe to send the lawmaker’s political committees three checks totaling $32,000, according to Senate hearings.
Ney has denied any wrongdoing. He has said through his press secretary that he was misled by Abramoff.
DeLay and Burns also have denied any wrongdoing.
Doolittle has served in the House since 1990, after 10 years in the California state Senate.