WASHINGTON – Rep. John Doolittle's associations with some notorious scoundrels have him uniquely tied to both congressional bribery scandals that have sent other Republican lawmakers to jail.
Justice Department investigators are focusing on the California Republican's dealings with jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff, including $5,000 monthly checks from Abramoff to Doolittle's wife.
Then there's $37 million in federal funds Doolittle secured for a defense contractor accused of bribing now imprisoned ex-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Brent Wilkes, a benefactor of both Cunningham and Doolittle, is awaiting trial in San Diego on charges of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering.
There's no indication prosecutors are investigating Doolittle in connection with Wilkes or Cunningham, and the nine-term lawmaker may be guilty of nothing more than a poor choice of friends. But his favors for and from Abramoff leave him the only sitting member of Congress still under investigation in a scandal that netted a dozen convictions, including a guilty plea from now imprisoned former Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio.
"I'm the only one of the congressmen mentioned that hasn't retired or left and therefore the focus seems to be on me," Doolittle, 56, said recently on a talk radio show in Sacramento. "If you really want to get a congressman, I'm the one that's left."
In April the FBI raided the Doolittles' Oakton, Va., house with a search warrant for Julie Doolittle's home bookkeeping and fundraising business, which had done work for Abramoff. The congressman denied wrongdoing and blamed his woes on Justice Department leaks and politics. But he was forced to relinquish his seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, where Cunningham was once one of his colleagues and where both did favors for Wilkes.
After The Associated Press reported last week that his former chief of staff had complied with a document subpoena and another former aide planned to talk voluntarily to prosecutors, Doolittle said he welcomed a widening of the probe.
"To have this dragged out for over three years is ridiculous. They've had three years to get to the bottom of this. At least they've started," he said.
"I've always believed that the truth vindicates us," Doolittle said. "I am glad they are going to delve more into it."
Abramoff is cooperating with the government's continuing investigation after admitting to taking millions of dollars from Indian tribe clients he derided as "morons" and "troglodytes."
This was the man who charmed Doolittle as "funny, engaging, creative ... a hard-charging conservative Republican" when the two met after Republicans retook the House majority in 1994.
Doolittle himself had arrived on Capitol Hill as a brash young conservative several years before, joining the "Gang of Seven" freshman Republicans who broke open a House banking scandal. He ran for a second term in 1992 on the slogan "Taking on Congress," and complained that "the system ... has lulled people into unethical conduct."
Even some one-time allies wonder now if that's the effect it's had on him.
"Unfortunately, with him being in elected office for so long, he's bound to have gotten away from his district and what started out as his core principles," said Glenn Buberl, Doolittle's legislative director during his first years in Washington.
After narrowly winning re-election last November in one of California's most conservative districts, Doolittle started paying more attention to folks back home and holding town hall meetings more frequently.
Doolittle says he doesn't recall Abramoff ever asking him to do anything, but he involved himself repeatedly in issues that helped Abramoff's clients and had nothing to do with his Northern California district. Kevin Ring, a former Doolittle aide who later became Abramoff's lobbying associate, often was the intermediary.
Doolittle interceded with the Interior Department on behalf of Indian tribes Abramoff represented, helped Abramoff get a lobbying contract to represent the Northern Mariana Islands by endorsing a friendly commonwealth politician, then opposed Democratic moves to impose wage and labor laws there.
Meanwhile Doolittle accepted $14,000 in campaign donations from Abramoff and tens of thousands more from his clients. While other politicians rushed to get rid of Abramoff's money once the lobbyist came under suspicion, Doolittle never did, arguing he'd done nothing wrong in taking it.
Julie Doolittle also benefited. Although Ring discussed finding work for her in a 2000 e-mail to Abramoff, the Doolittles say she never expected to sign up Abramoff as a client.
John Doolittle has said his wife approached the lobbyist five years ago because his was the first name on an alphabetical list she'd drawn up of people she could network with. Instead of suggesting possible clients, Abramoff offered her work himself, Doolittle said.
Abramoff's lobbying firm paid Julie Doolittle a near-monthly retainer beginning in September 2002, mostly to work on a fundraiser. The event was canceled in March 2003, but the payments, usually $5,000 a month, continued through February 2004 and ultimately totaled $66,690.
Doolittle's aides have said her work wasn't limited to the fundraiser and there was more bookkeeping and some work for a restaurant Abramoff owned.
Julie Doolittle also did much of her husband's campaign fundraising before he canceled the arrangement at the beginning of this year amid criticism. He paid her 15 percent of every donation she brought in, instead of the industry practice of paying fundraisers a flat fee. Federal records show that she was paid more than $100,000 raising money for his 2006 re-election campaign.