WASHINGTON – A key aide to presidential political strategist Karl Rove resigned Friday after a congressional report showed she had extensive contacts with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and accepted tickets to sporting events and concerts from him.
Susan Ralston, a special assistant to President Bush who used to work for Abramoff, submitted her resignation less than five weeks before congressional elections in which corruption and scandal are emerging as major issues.
Critics have pointed to Ralston as evidence that Rove — and thus Bush — are possibly closer to Abramoff than the White House has acknowledged.
Ralston's association with Abramoff was highlighted in a recent House Government Reform Committee report that listed hundreds of contacts the lobbying group had with the White House. The Bush administration insider, who is in her 30s, had been Abramoff's administrative assistant and, after Bush took office, assumed the same post with Rove.
"She recognized that a protracted discussion of these matters would be a distraction to the White House and she's chosen to step down," deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino said in announcing Ralston's resignation. "We support her decision and consider the matter closed."
Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the top Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, said he suspects the White House is trying to make Ralston a scapegoat.
"There is a lot that we don't yet know about the assistance that Ms. Ralston provided Mr. Abramoff from inside the White House, but there are also many unanswered questions about the assistance that higher-ranking White House officials appeared to provide Mr. Abramoff," Waxman said.
"The vast majority of lobbying contacts and meals with White House officials documented in the report were with White House officials other than Ms. Ralston," Waxman said.
Abramoff has pleaded guilty to fraud and now is now cooperating with prosecutors in an influence peddling investigation that has enveloped Capitol Hill even as lawmakers, facing Nov. 7 elections, struggle with the fallout from a scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley's salacious messages to teenage male pages.
The latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that about half of likely voters consider corruption and scandal in Congress very or extremely important, and about two in three of those said they would vote for Democrats in House races.
Perino said Ralston, a political appointee who has played an instrumental role in organizing and choosing presidential event sites, was respected by her White House colleagues and will be missed.
The committee's report — based largely on Abramoff's billing records and e-mails — listed 485 lobbying contacts with White House officials over three years, including 10 with Rove. The report indicated that Abramoff and associates lobbied on behalf of more than 20 individuals for administration jobs and only was successful once.
According to e-mails, Abramoff and his team offered White House officials tickets to 19 sporting events and concerts, and Ralston was the most frequent recipient.
She received tickets to nine events from 2001 to 2004: four Capitals hockey games, one Baltimore Orioles baseball game, two Wizards basketball games, and Bruce Springsteen and Andrea Bocelli concerts, the report said.
The report did not make clear whether Ralston or other White House officials paid for any of the tickets. In one case, Ralston wrote to Abramoff saying Rove "has to pay" for the tickets he received to an NCAA basketball playoff game. The White House said Rove paid for the tickets.
In another instance, Ralston wrote an e-mail saying she was "willing to pay" for Capitals tickets, but Abramoff replied: "No problem, and you don't have to pay."
After an Aug. 23, 2003, Orioles game that Ralston attended, she e-mailed Abramoff: "Thanks for the tix to the game last night. Our guests had a terrific time. (W)e had fun and appreciate your generosity."
The federal gratuities statute makes it a crime to give anything of value to a public official for any official act performed by that official. Officials under scrutiny for accepting gifts often defend themselves by saying they did so out of friendship. Ethics rules prohibit federal employees from accepting gifts unless given because of personal friendship.
E-mails reviewed by the committee also indicate that Abramoff and Ralston discussed business plans more than once.
In February 2002, for example, Ralston, Abramoff, and Abramoff partner Ben Waldman had an e-mail exchange about a business opportunity involving leasing an aircraft.
In November 2002, Ralston e-mailed about the possibility of forming a defense or homeland security-oriented company, acknowledging, "I . . . lack the experience to run the day-to-day operations of a defense company."
She added that "it would take a significant amount of money for me to be lured away (from the White House) so unless you're really serious and can make it worth my while, let's wait until 2005."
Abramoff responded, "I am not in a position to offer you serious money for this right now."