As the chairman of the Republican National Committee attempts to distance himself and his party from the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal, a new government report suggests that the GOP leader used his previous White House post to aid the disgraced lobbyist.
Since allegations first surfaced in 2004 that Abramoff had bilked Indian tribes out of millions of dollars and bribed lawmakers and government officials, many prominent Republicans, including President Bush, have maintained that they barely knew the well-connected lobbyist. Earlier this year, RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman described Abramoff as “someone who we don’t know a lot about.” But a new report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, which investigated Abramoff’s role in the removal of an interim U.S. attorney in Guam, indicates that Mehlman, Bush’s former White House political director and campaign manager, helped ensure that the lobbyist had a direct pipeline of information from the administration.
The 41-page report, released June 30, found that — “at the behest of Ken Mehlman” — a former Bush aide named Leonard Rodriguez kept Abramoff abreast of issues related to Guam, one of several American territories where the once-powerful lobbyist conducted business.
According to the report, Rodriguez said that Mehlman “recommended or suggested that I reach out to make Jack aware” of developments in the American territory. At the time, Rodriguez, who recently became political director of New York Governor George Pataki’s 2008 presidential campaign’s political action committee, was the White House’s point man on the appointment of Guam’s new U.S. attorney.
The new report — which concluded that Abramoff had no hand in the removal of Guam’s previous top prosecutor, after the official called for an investigation into the lobbyist’s conduct — comes as Mehlman heads his party’s effort to maintain control of Congress in November’s midterm elections. Some Democratic activists are predicting that information linking Mehlman and Abramoff could undermine the RNC chairman’s attempts to both offset the effects of multiple scandals and reverse his party’s flagging political prospects. It could hamper Mehlman’s ability to stump for embattled Republican lawmakers who have been directly linked to Abramoff, they said.
“Ken Mehlman is clearly not in a position to give cover to other Republicans who are tainted by the scandal,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, a partisan group.
“You don’t lie about relationships,” Forman told the Forward. “When you start lying, people are going to scrutinize you and ask questions.”
Democrats are also seizing on the new information as a rallying cry to call on the Bush administration to disclose fully its ties to Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to five felony counts in Washington and in Florida.
“The report that Ken Mehlman may have used his White House position to channel inside information to Jack Abramoff is an important window into the Republican culture of corruption in Washington,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Damien LaVera said. “Now that this report has come to light,” the DNC spokesman added, “Mehlman needs to come clean about his and the White House’s relationship with Abramoff.”
Republicans are defending Mehlman, saying that the Justice Department report’s reference to his directive to pass on information to Abramoff does not necessarily make the case that the two men knew each other well. A spokeswoman for the RNC, Tracey Schmitt, told The Associated Press that Mehlman often received and passed on such information in his White House role.
The RNC did not return repeated calls from the Forward for comment.
In an interview this past January with journalist A.L. Bardach, published in the liberal political news blog the Huffington Post, Mehlman said that he had little previous exposure to Abramoff. “Well, Abramoff is someone who we don’t know a lot about,” Mehlman said in the interview. “We know what we read in the paper.”
Journalist David Margolick painted a different picture in his April Vanity Fair story on Abramoff and his anger over former Republican allies who now say that they barely knew him. In the Abramoff tell-all, Margolick asserts that Mehlman and Abramoff enjoyed a cozy relationship, with Mehlman doing political favors for Abramoff that included blocking former Clinton State Department official Allen Stayman from keeping his job. According to the story, the two also had a Sabbath dinner together (Mehlman’s representative said in the article that the RNC chairman did not recall the meal). In a phone interview with the Forward, Margolick said that he saw “folksy, chatty” e-mails that had been exchanged between Abramoff and Mehlman.
In recent months, as Mehlman has sought to shore up support for his party, he has made appearances on political talk shows and campaigned for Republican lawmakers in key battleground states. If Republicans lose six Senate seats and 15 House seats in the November midterm elections, it would tip the scales toward a Democratic majority in Congress, which has been under Republican control for more than a decade. At least five incumbent Republican senators are facing tough races, with Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Conrad Burns of Montana widely viewed as some of the most vulnerable.
In late March, Mehlman touched down in Ohio to stump for DeWine.
Mehlman recently appeared at Montana’s state Republican convention to stump for Burns, who has been plagued by reports of his ties to Abramoff and is struggling to fend off a hefty challenge from Democrat Jon Tester.
Burns has been pummeled over the past year by a series of Democratic attack ads highlighting the three-term senator’s reported close ties with Abramoff. While Burns denies any wrongdoing in connection with Abramoff, he voluntarily returned $150,000 in campaign donations from the former lobbyist. Local press reports state that, during a news conference, Mehlman brushed aside questions about the senator’s ties to Abramoff, instead focusing on the issues that divide Burns and Tester, who leads the Republican senator in early polls.
Earlier that same week, during an appearance on the late-night political talk show “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” Mehlman found himself addressing Republican misdeeds. Asked by Stewart why Republicans no longer were “the straight talkers, the adults,” Mehlman replied, “I think greed, cynicism, all of those things caused us to do it.”