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June 21, 2005
Abramoff Got OK From House Lawyers On Trips -- Including An FEC Commissioner

In another setback for the efforts to "get" Tom DeLay by attacking lobbyist Jack Abramoff, his firm has produced documentation from Congress itself that advised Abramoff that his actions were legal. House lawyers advised Preston, Gates, & Ellis in 1996 that it could pay for trips taken by Representatives as long as clients eventually reimbursed the firm:

A law firm under scrutiny for its role in arranging overseas trips for members of Congress says House ethics lawyers advised the firm several years ago that it could pay for some Congressional travel, an assertion that may bolster the argument of Representative Tom DeLay that he did nothing wrong in accepting lavish trips organized by the firm's star lobbyist.

Internal memorandums and e-mail messages from the Seattle firm, Preston Gates & Ellis, say that the firm contacted two lawyers on the House ethics committee in 1996, when it began organizing large numbers of trips, and was told House rules probably allowed lobbyists to pay for a lawmaker's travel, as long as a client reimbursed the firm.

The memorandums and e-mail messages report that the ethics committee specifically addressed trips that the firm's chief lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, arranged for Mr. DeLay and other lawmakers to the Northern Mariana Islands, an American commonwealth in the Pacific that was among Mr. Abramoff's clients.

In 1997, a year after the firm's contact with the ethics committee, Mr. Abramoff arranged trips for Mr. DeLay to the Marianas and to Russia.

The implications for the ethics case against DeLay could be significant. It shows that Abramoff went out of his way to check the validity of his interpretation, and that Congress through its lawyers endorsed it. If Congress' attorneys misrepresented the law or the rules, then the onus falls on their legal staff and not Abramoff -- and therefore, not on DeLay or the other hundreds of Representatives that this probe has highlighted.

Interestingly, one of the lawyers that offered PGE that advice in 1996 was Ellen L. Weintraub. Her work on the Ethics Committee may be a bit obscure, but not her current position as an FEC commissioner. Weintraub, CQ readers will recall, favors the regulation of Internet speech to enforce the McCain-Feingold BCRA, one of the worst incumbent-protection and free-speech restrictions ever passed into law. Her concern over money in politics appears to be a recent conversion, as she appeared to have little problem in approving the lobbying firms' ability to channel money for these expensive trips. Asked about the advice now, Weintraub says she has no recollection of the conversation, but claims that lobbyist reimbursement wasn't controversial back in 1996.

Just when it seems that the misguided attempt by Nancy Pelosi to torpedo Tom DeLay has backfired to its maximum extent, something else pops up to create even more questions. We'd certainly like to know why Weintraub felt that enabling lobbyists to pour money into the pockets of incumbents did not trigger any controversy in her mind, but that the possibility that people might use the Internet to fund their opponents in 2005 causes her such angst.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 21, 2005 7:08 AM

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