The era of Abramoff appears to be nearing conclusion in Washington. Bob Ney is serving time behind bars; Tom DeLay forced to resign; Sen. Conrad Burns and Reps. Richard Pombo and J.D. Hayworth defeated in the 2006 elections; numerous lobbyists and officials now have prison records. Today, under pressure from Republican leaders, Rep. John Doolittle will drop out of his race for reelection in his northeastern California district. Rep. Doolittle was one of the few remaining members of Congress suspected of making illegal deals with the convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and is under investigation by the FBI. Let’s recap Doolittle’s history as an Abramoff apparatchik with a little help from Congresspedia.
Doolittle’s story starts in the hey day of the Republican majority, when pundits praised Karl Rove as the "architect" of a permanent conservative ruling party and Majority Leader Tom DeLay sat at his table in the Abramoff-owned restaurant Signatures, puffing cigars and declaring that he was the government. The best part about this era wasn’t the bills that were passed or the investigations undertaken but the lobbyist-provided perks including the sky box seats at the MCI Center (now Verizon Center) and FedEx Field. Who wouldn’t want to watch the pre-Arenas Washington Wizards get pounded by the Sacramento Kings while chowing down on crab puffs and rissoto balls? John Doolittle wasn’t going to miss that:
John Doolittle, a Mormon, is an "ardent opponent of casino gambling," yet he held a fundraiser at a Wizards-Kings basketball game in a skybox paid for by lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s tribal casino clients. According to the Washington Post, Doolittle was "particularly close to Abramoff" and later referred to him as one of his "closest friends."
Doolittle failed to report the skybox fundraiser in his FEC filings. His spokesperson, Laura Blackman, claims "It was an in-kind contribution, and it was an oversight that it wasn’t reported, but we are taking steps to correct that."
Doolittle didn’t just partake of the Abramoff sky boxes, he also accepted campaign contributions and did favors for Abramoff’s lobbying buddies, including casinos and gambling interests:
In addition to giving Doolittle access to his skyboxes, Abramoff personally donated $4,000 to Doolittle’s congressional campaigns from 1999 until his 2006 conviction. Doolittle wrote a total of three letters to the Interior Department favorable to Abramoff’s tribal clients. In June 2003, he wrote to Interior Secretary Gale Norton "criticizing the Bush administration’s response to a tribal government dispute involving the Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa." And in October of 2003, "Doolittle appealed in a letter to the secretary for quicker action for a Massachusetts tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag, that was seeking federal recognition." He was also one of 26 lawmakers who wrote to Norton "urging her to reject an Indian casino opposed by Abramoff’s tribal clients." Prior to signing the letter, Doolittle received a $1,000 contribution from Abramoff. Two months later, Doolittle received another $16,000 in contributions from Abramoff’s tribal clients and "[b]y year’s end, Doolittle also had used Abramoff’s Washington, D.C. restaurant to cater a campaign event and received an additional $15,000 from tribes.
Doolittle also helped out Abramoff’s lobbying interests in the Northern Marianas Islands who were working to keep the Congress from shutting down their slave labor garment factories:
In addition to securing money for the the islands, Doolittle met several times with Marianas officials, particuarly Ben Fitial, a close Abramoff associate who rose from Speaker of the House to be Governor of the Marianas. Doolittle visited the islands in February 1999 as part of a congressional delegation. On two occasions, in April of 2000 and April of 2001, he met with Fitial in Washington D.C. Finally, in August 2001, he endorsed Fitial in his run for governor, citing his ability to "get things done" and "[persuade] the Congress."
But what really seemed to get the Justice Department’s attention was an odd arrangement between Abramoff and Doolittle’s wife, Julie Doolittle. Julie Doolittle worked as a fundraiser for her husband’s campaign committee and leadership PAC. Unlike most fundraiser’s she had an odd arrangement: she took a 15% commission on every contribution made to her husband’s reelection efforts. From 2001 to 2006, she had made $215,000 off of her husband’s campaign contributions. But it was her other clients, for which she held the same 15% commission arrangement, that raised the eyebrows of Justice and the FBI. These clients were Jack Abramoff’s lobbying firm, Greenberg Traurig, Abramoff’s restaurant Signatures, and the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, a front operation that was headed by a DeLay crony. Congresspedia has the run down of what transpired next:
The Justice Department became interested in Doolittle and his ties to Abramoff. In 2005, a spokesman for Doolittle, Laura Blackann stated, "The congressman has not been subpoenaed or questioned by the Justice Department." However, his wife Julie’s firm, Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions, received a subpoena in 2004 from the grand jury investigating Abramoff.
On April 17, 2006, it was reported that Doolittle had hired a lawyer to answer questions about his relationship with Abramoff. The lawyer, David G. Barger, worked as an associate of independent counsel Ken Starr in the Whitewater investigation.
In October 2006, it was revealed that Doolittle had paid the lawyer over $38,000 to speak with the Justice Department during 2006. Despite this, Doolittle still maintained that he was not the target of any investigation.
On June 25, 2007, it was revealed that Doolittle’s former chief of staff David Lopez, under subpoena, provided documents pertaining to campaign finance records to federal prosecutors investigating the congressman and his wife. Conversations between Lopez’s lawyers and the Justice Department had been ongoing since the fall of 2006, but the former aide stated that he had still not been in direct contact with the department.
In "recent days" prior to April 17, 2007, the FBI raided Doolittle’s Northern Virginia home, which also is the house where Doolittle’s wife, Julie Doolittle, ran the fundraising company, Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions Inc.
Doolittle was forced to resign his committee seats and has faced ceaseless pressure to retire from Congress. He appears to have finally ceded to that pressure. For more on John Doolittle’s congressional career and controversies see his extensive Congresspedia page.
The Jack Abramoff plaque no longer hangs on a sky box door in the Verizon Center, his restaurant is now closed, and the people whom he worked with to game the system in Washington are almost all gone. Despite all this, Abramoff’s Borsalino still hangs over Washington and will until future Abramoff’s can’t hide in dark fixing the system against the will of the people.