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New House GOP Leader Brings His Own Political Machine

Over the years, new House Majority Leader John Boehner has built a political empire with similarities to the fundraising machine of the man he's replacing, Rep. Tom DeLay.

The Ohio congressman, who won an upset victory for the House GOP's No. 2 post, has distributed roughly $2.9 million to Republicans from his political action committee since 1979, according to the campaign finance Web site Political Money Line. Some of the recipients this week returned the favor in voting for him.

Boehner (pronounced BAY-nur) is an avid golfer with a perpetual tan, and, like DeLay, he has played host at many fundraising golf outings. Some of his staff members, following the career path of those who worked for DeLay, have become Washington lobbyists.

Boehner, 56, was characterized as an agent for change by Republican supporters who elected him over Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri. But like DeLay and Blunt, Boehner has connections to indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

He accepted at least $30,000 in political donations from Abramoff's tribal clients between the 2000 election cycle and 2004.

In addition, billing records from the Northern Mariana Islands, a former Abramoff client, show at least 11 contacts between members of Abramoff's Marianas lobbying team and Boehner's office — one with Boehner himself.

The contacts took place between February 1996 and August 2001. One of the lobbyists was David Safavian, who later became the Bush administration's chief procurement official and recently was indicted on charges of obstructing investigations of his ties to Abramoff. Safavian was the first administration official indicted in the Abramoff scandal.

Boehner spokesman Don Seymour Jr. said his boss had no relationship with Abramoff, never took money from him, and recalled meeting him only once -- a "brief, incidental conversation at a widely attended event" about five years ago.

Seymour said the actions that led to the indictment of Safavian took place years after his reported contacts with Boehner's staff.

The spokesman added that if the contacts in the billing records took place, they "were most likely mundane conversations that took place between midlevel Boehner staff members and junior members of Abramoff's lobbying team."

The Mariana records are at odds with the assertion that the contacts were all with midlevel staff members. Two contacts in 1996, according to the records, were with Barry Jackson -- a top Boehner aide who served as the congressman's chief of staff.

The congressman told reporters Friday that he has good relations with lobbyists and that there's nothing wrong with that.

"I can tell you that everything I've ever done is aboveboard, ethical, and every action I've taken during my entire political career has been in the best interest of my constituents and the American people," he said.

"We first need to remember that those involved in the Abramoff scandal — several members on both sides of the aisle that have been involved in problems — violated federal law and House rules. And I think we've got to focus in on punishing those that violate the rules," he said.

Boehner, elected to the House in 1990, began his career as a reformer. Taking office amid the House Bank scandal, he joined six other freshmen in demanding the identities of the more than 300 House members who intentionally wrote penalty-free overdrafts at the now-defunct House members' bank. Democratic leaders, then in the majority, wanted to identify only the worst abusers of the system.

Only a few years later, Boehner was caught handing out tobacco industry money on the House floor. He apologized, then went on building his political empire.

It is fueled in part by special interests, some of them benefiting from his legislative clout as chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce. Among the beneficiaries: private student lenders and for-profit colleges.

Boehner took in about $630,000 in contributions to his campaign and $850,000 to his PAC last year. His campaign received much of its PAC money from financial institutions, insurers and retail businesses, all of them in sync with Boehner's legislative goals.

Boehner has traveled extensively courtesy of special interests. He has taken more than three dozen privately financed trips since 2000 to overseas destinations such as Rome, Venice, Paris and Edinburgh, and to domestic resort spots including Boca Raton, Fla., and Pebble Beach, Calif., the latter known for its championship golf and spectacular Pacific Ocean views.

Each year in Ohio, he sponsors the Boehner Birdie Hunt, which has incorporated as many as four different golf courses on the same day.

"As John's playing partner or whatever you choose ... you become an integral part of the 'driving' force behind John's campaign and political efforts," a past fundraising appeal on his campaign Web site says.

Business groups that have assisted Boehner's fundraising praise his legislative work.

"I want to commend you for your leadership," a National Federation of Independent Business official wrote Boehner in 2004, thanking him for his support of legislation to revise the nation's workplace safety law and aid small businesses in fighting what they called burdensome regulations.

NFIB's PAC gave $10,000 to Boehner's campaign last year.

The student lender Sallie Mae's employees together are the top overall donors to Boehner's PAC since 1989, giving at least $120,000, an analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics campaign finance watchdog group found.

Boehner's daughter, Tricia, works for General Revenue Corp., a loan-collection company owned by Sallie Mae. She was there for two years before Sallie Mae purchased the company.

The liquor industry has given Boehner's campaign and PAC at least $200,000 since 1989. The lawmaker, in House floor remarks, has praised the industry's efforts to fight underage drinking and drunken driving.

Boehner's support for the insurance industry included a staple of the GOP platform: limiting lawsuits against the health care industry.

"We don't need a trial lawyers' bill of rights," Boehner has said.

Insurers have given Boehner's campaign and PAC close to $1 million since 1989.