Sunday, May 28, 2006

Denny Hastert: Man of Principles

Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert represents the 14th District of Illinois in Congress, and as I noted here, he got his knickers in a knot when the F.B.I. obtained a warrant, and pursuant to that court order, searched the Congressional offices of a crooked congressman. He issued a joint press release with Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader, criticizing the search.

That same day, someone in the Justice Department leaked the fact that Speaker Hastert may be the target of an investigation. The speaker took umbrage with the suggestion that he might be a target of the FBI, and, the official spokesperson of the Justice Department denied that he was a target. Thereafter, Rep. Hastert seemed to modulate his response to the original leak.

Why, oh why, would anyone suggest that Dennis Hastert would be the subject of an investigation? Funny, you should ask.

Between 2001 and 2004, Coach Hastert received $100,000 from Jack Abramoff and his tribal clients. When Abramoff pled guilty, there was a rush to unload ill-gotten money from the high-flying lobbyist. Speaker Hastert pledged to give $70,000 to charity, all the while maintaining that the contributions were strictly legal.

What does a hundred grand buy these days?

Jack Abrahoff represented the Coushattas, an Indian tribe who owned a gambling casino near Shreveport, LA. The Jena Band of Choctaw Indians wanted to open a casino nearby. The Coushattas recognized that this could be bad for business, and so Jack Abramoff enlisted the assistance of Tom DeLay, Denny Hastert, Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, and Deputy Whip Eric I. Cantor of Virginia.

These influential Republican lawmakers sent a letter to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, informing her that the House leaders opposed the plan of the Jena Band. The intent of the letter was to protect the income from the Coushattas’ casino -- about $300 million a year.

V. Heather Sibbison, a lobbyist at the time for the Jena Band, said: “I do this for a living, and I have never seen a letter like that before. It was incredibly unusual for that group of people, who do not normally weigh in on Indian issues, to express such a strong opinion about a particular project not in any of their home states.”

Timing is everything. On June 3, 2003, Denny Hastert held a fundraiser at Jack Abramoff’s Signatures restaurant in our nation’s capital. He collected $21,500 for his Keep Our Majority PAC. On June 10, 2003, he signed the letter to Gale Norton, urging her to reject the Choctaw Indians’ request.

When Abramoff’s world crumbled, Hastert had an occasion to look at his own conduct with a critical eye. It was then that he discovered that he had failed for two years to disclose his use of Abramoff's restaurant the week before his letter or to reimburse for it as legally required. Being a manly man, Denny Hastert blamed others for a paperwork oversight and belatedly corrected it.

And that’s what federal prosecutors are investigating. The word “target” has legal significance, and, the Justice Department may be technically correct in saying that Hastert is not a target. Hastert's denials were intended to make you think he is out of the woods on this, but, to borrow phrase from Richard Nixon, “It would be wrong.”

“…and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

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