Records suggest Abramoff-Pombo contacts |

Records suggest Abramoff-Pombo contacts

Erica Werner

WASHINGTON (AP) – California Rep. Richard Pombo has insisted he was never lobbied by Jack Abramoff. Records show the disgraced lobbyist billed a client for at least two contacts with Pombo a decade ago.

The lobbying records released by the Northern Mariana Islands show that Abramoff billed once for calls to Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee, and a second time for a discussion with him, while lobbying in 1996.

On more than two dozen other occasions from 1996 through 2001, Abramoff associates called or met with members of Pombo’s staff, including his chief of staff, the records indicate. As the contacts picked up, Pombo voted Abramoff’s way on a bill important to Abramoff’s clients.

Pombo spokesman Brian Kennedy disputed the reported contacts, saying direct lobbying by Abramoff “never happened” and the staff-level contacts were “greatly inflated.” Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in a congressional corruption investigation, is “an admitted felon” who can’t be trusted, Kennedy said.

“I think any of these billing records should be taken with a grain of salt if not dismissed entirely,” Kennedy said. He noted that e-mails have surfaced showing Abramoff instructed associates to inflate their billing hours.

Still, the records put in question Pombo’s campaign-trail assertions that he barely knew Abramoff and was never lobbied by him. Pombo is running against Democrat Jerry McNerney and is favored to win an eighth term representing California’s Central Valley.

The race is drawing attention from the national political parties and from environmental groups that oppose Pombo’s pro-industry policies as chairman of the Resources Committee, which writes environmental laws.

Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to tax evasion and wire fraud and is cooperating in a wide-ranging federal bribery investigation that has already led to guilty pleas from Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and several congressional aides. On Friday, an aide to presidential strategist Karl Rove resigned after a congressional report showed she had extensive contacts with Abramoff.

“I met the guy two or three times in my whole life – he never once lobbied me on anything,” Pombo said of Abramoff last week in a debate against McNerney, who’s made ethics an issue in the campaign. It’s a claim Pombo’s made repeatedly during the campaign.

The Northern Mariana Islands, a chain of 14 islands near Guam, became a U.S. commonwealth in 1986. Residents have nonvoting citizenship but the islands are exempt from many federal labor laws.

Democrats, complaining about reported abuses at low-paying garment factories, have sought to end those exemptions and increase the minimum wage, now $3.05 an hour. The Marianas government hired Abramoff to block such moves.

The island government released billing records and correspondence to The Associated Press and other organizations after Abramoff came under federal investigation last year for his work for Indian tribes.

The records, covering 1996 to 2001, indicate contacts beginning in March 1996 between officials at Abramoff’s then-law firm, Preston Gates, and Pombo’s staff.

One focus was legislation in the Resources Committee, of which Pombo was then a junior member, to give the Marianas a nonvoting delegate to Congress. Then-Marianas Gov. Froilan Tenorio was opposed. Abramoff and his associates lobbied the Hill, including a July 29, 1996, contact with Pombo’s office.

Three days later the bill was narrowly defeated in committee. Pombo voted no.

“I have great news!” Abramoff wrote to Tenorio on Aug. 1, 1996. The delegate bill “was DEFEATED at the markup which finished about an hour ago. … We were able to add four conservative Republicans to the block of Democrat opponents and defeat the bill by a vote of 13-12.”

Kennedy said Pombo’s opposition had nothing to do with Abramoff, whom he hadn’t yet met. Instead, Pombo believed the Mariana Islands were too politically unstable to merit congressional representation. He now believes the situation has improved and supports a delegate for the islands, Kennedy said.

On Sept. 10, 1996, Abramoff billed for a discussion with Pombo. Two days later he gave Pombo a $500 donation, the first of what would become $7,500 in campaign contributions. Pombo has since donated the money to charity. On Nov. 21, 1996, Abramoff reported putting in calls to Pombo and other lawmakers.

In December 1996, a Marianas newspaper reported that Pombo was among lawmakers who would be visiting the island later in the month. The trip was being arranged by Abramoff’s firm, but Pombo didn’t end up going; Kennedy said he never was confirmed on the trip. One of Pombo’s staffers, Todd Willens, did visit the islands with other congressional staffers on an Abramoff-planned trip the following year.

Pombo became Resources Committee chairman in 2003 when then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay, an Abramoff ally, helped jump him over more senior lawmakers.

Last year, a Mariana Islands audit became public that questioned the island’s payments to Abramoff. Democratic Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., called on Pombo to hold hearings in the Resources Committee on Abramoff’s conduct with the Marianas.

Pombo declined. Instead he and the Resources Committee’s top Democrat, Nick Rahall of West Virginia, sent a letter to the Justice Department asking for the Marianas allegations to become part of the Abramoff investigation.

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