Ethics Panel Chief Also Tied to Abramoff

The lawmaker who will head a House inquiry into trips that lobbyist Jack Abramoff (search) arranged for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) has his own links to the lobbyist.

At one point, Abramoff touted Rep. Doc Hastings' (search) relationship with his firm in a pitch to a prospective client.

As chairman of the House ethics committee, Hastings, R-Wash., could play a big role in determining DeLay's future. DeLay has asked the panel to review his travels, which include trips arranged by Abramoff when the lobbyist worked for the Seattle-based Preston Gates (search) firm.

Abramoff cited close connections to Hastings in a 1995 letter to the Northern Mariana Islands government in which he urged the government to hire his firm. At the time, Hastings served on a House subcommittee that oversaw the Marianas and was considering Democratic proposals to impose minimum wage, immigration and other U.S. laws on the Pacific commonwealth, which opposed them.

In Abramoff's sales pitch, he wrote that lobbying colleague and former Washington state Democratic Rep. Lloyd Meeds "has an excellent relationship" with Hastings and several other members of the House Subcommittee on Native American and Insular Affairs.

The Marianas hired Abramoff's firm and paid it millions in the 1990s for lobbying efforts run by Abramoff, including work to counter allegations that Marianas clothing factory workers faced "sweatshop" conditions. At Abramoff's urging, the island government played host to many congressional aides and lawmakers, including DeLay, who visited at Christmastime in 1997.

Hastings' office and the Marianas team Abramoff headed had at least three dozen contacts in 1996 and 1997, including at least two conversations between Abramoff and Hastings, according to firm invoices and correspondence the island government gave The Associated Press under an open records request. That two-year period was a crucial one for Abramoff as he tried to show the Marianas that Preston Gates' six-figure monthly billings were worth the money.

Ed Cassidy, Hastings' chief of staff, said Hastings never talked to Abramoff, but his staffers spoke frequently with Preston Gates lobbyists because they came from a home-state firm and often represented clients from Hastings' district.

"Neither Chairman Hastings, nor I, or any member of our staff, has ever met, spoken to or traveled with Abramoff, or taken any action at his request," Cassidy said.

In a June 1996 report to the islands' government, Abramoff's lobbying team claimed a successful push to get Hastings to attend a hearing on oversight of the Marianas as one of its achievements for the month.

The day before the hearing, a member of Abramoff's Marianas lobbying team talked to Hastings about his participation at the hearing, including possible questions, and suggested opening remarks for the lawmaker to make, the billing documents indicate.

At the June 26, 1996, hearing, Hastings submitted a statement calling the Marianas an "economic success story." He urged Congress to continue a hands-off approach, in part by rejecting imposition of a minimum wage.

"Those workers' jobs and livelihoods were being threatened by the Clinton administration and Representative Hastings served on the subcommittee that could help them, so of course he was willing to hear their side of the story and help publicize their plight," Cassidy said.

The day after the hearing, Hastings received $500 from the Preston Gates political action committee. The money was given as part of a campaign fundraiser that Hastings had, by coincidence, held the evening of the hearing day, Cassidy said.

The donation was included in at least $8,300 given to Hastings' campaign by employees of Abramoff's lobbying firms -- first Preston Gates and then Greenberg Traurig. Abramoff gave Hastings' campaign $1,000 between September 1996 and November 1997, donations Cassidy called "inconsequential."

Hastings' appointment to head the House ethics committee came after the previous chairman, Republican Rep. Joel Hefley of Colorado, took issue with some of DeLay's activities and GOP House leaders removed him from the panel. Last month, two Republican committee members who had given to DeLay's legal defense stepped aside from the DeLay investigation, acknowledging their donations could lead people to question their objectivity.