WASHINGTON – Attorney General Alberto Gonzales brushed aside requests on Thursday that he remove himself from the investigation of Jack Abramoff and the lobbyist's ties to Bush administration officials and members of Congress.
Gonzales, who was White House counsel for four years before taking over at the Justice Department, said the inquiry is being run by career prosecutors who are not influenced by politics.
Thirty-one Senate Democrats said in a letter to Gonzales that he was too close to the president and top administration officials who have had dealings with Abramoff and immediately should step aside from the investigation.
Republicans responded that most of the Senate Democrats who are pressuring Gonzales have their own ties to Abramoff.
"Considering 28 of the 31 Democrats have received Abramoff-affiliated funds themselves, it appears their hypocrisy has exceeded even their partisanship," said Tracey Schmitt, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
One of the Democrats, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, said the attorney general "can avoid any appearance of impropriety by recusing himself. If there was ever a case that was both sensitive and rife with potential conflict — it is this one."
The investigation has led to the indictment of the administration's former top procurement official. Among those with whom Abramoff had dealings that are of interest to investigators is the former No. 2 official at the Interior Department.
"We've got career prosecutors involved in this investigation as we do in all investigations; these are folks that are not motivated by any political agenda," Gonzales said on FOX News Radio.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said Gonzales has followed all department guidelines and that there is "no reason for him to recuse himself from the investigation at this time."
In their letter, the Democrats noted that "FBI officials have said the Abramoff investigation 'involves systemic corruption within the highest levels of government.' In light of your previous service as White House Counsel and your close connection to many administration officials, the appearance of conflict looms large."
In Gonzales' defense, Vicki Toensing, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration, said "What evidence is there that Gonzales knows anybody connected to this?"
Democrats have tried to capitalize on the administration's near-total silence on the subject of Abramoff's White House contacts. That posture has been followed by the slow surfacing of information that has called the president's own statements into question.
"I had my picture taken with him, evidently," President Bush said of Abramoff on Jan. 26. "I've had my picture taken with a lot of people."
"I frankly don't even remember having my picture taken with the guy," Bush added. "I don't know him."
A few days later, Abramoff wrote to Washingtonian magazine that he had met briefly with the president nearly a dozen times and that Bush knew him well enough to make joking references to Abramoff's family.
Three former associates of Abramoff told The Associated Press this week that the lobbyist frequently told them he had strong ties to the White House through presidential confidant Karl Rove.
A photo emerged over the weekend showing Abramoff, Bush and Karl Rove, among others.
Lobbying invoices sent by Abramoff's firm to one client, the Northern Mariana Islands, show at least 200 contacts between Abramoff's lobbying team and the administration in Bush's first 10 months in office.
Abramoff raised at least $100,000 for Bush's 2004 re-election campaign to become a "pioneer," one of the honorary titles that Bush gave his top volunteer fundraisers. Benefits of pioneer status included invitations to White House Christmas parties and other gatherings featuring the president.