Wednesday, June 08, 2005

New trouble for Hastings

Ten days ago, we sent a letter (with other groups) to Ethics Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) and ranking member Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV) demanding that they appoint an outside counsel in the Tom DeLay investigation.

Today's New York Times gives us more reason to believe that Hastings cannot oversee this investigation. Hastings, according to documents uncovered by Times' reporter Phil Shenon from the Northern Marianas Islands government, has close ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff's former law/lobbying firm, Preston Gates.

In fact, Abramoff had identified out Hastings as a key target of lobbying for the firm on behalf of the Northern Marianas when he served on the Natural Resources Committee. Hastings responded on cue:

The firm's billing records show that after lobbying contacts on behalf of the Northern Marianas in 1996, Mr. Hastings placed statements in The Congressional Record in opposition to the minimum-wage proposal; he praised the islands' government for "moving in the right direction toward self-sufficiency."

[Ed] Cassidy, [Hastings'] chief of staff, said Mr. Hastings was barred from commenting on whether he faced a conflict of interest on the ethics committee on issues involving Preston Gates, since the comments might be seen as a reference to an investigation before the panel.

But he described the relationship between the congressman and the law firm as routine, and insisted that there had never been any lobbying contact of any sort with Mr. Abramoff.

Cassidy, it should be noted, is Hastings' choice for Ethics Committee staff director, a move that the Democrats on the committee oppose because it has always been routine for the committee to have nonpartisan staff, not a political appointee.

Preston Gates' employees, Shenon discovers, contributed $14,000 to Hastings, with $1,000 coming from Abramoff.

The problem is, why do we accept as "routine" a close relationship between lobbyists and the people we elect to serve us? "Routine" in this context is just another word for "corrupting" in my book. And it seems to serve the GOP Congress well, as it did the Dems when they had control a decade ago. Who is not served well is the public.

Here's some more from the end of the news article:

The records show repeated lobbying contacts in June and July of 1996, when Preston Gates was eager to have Mr. Hastings take action in support of the Northern Marianas government in blocking the minimum-wage proposal.

According to the records, there was a flurry of contacts in the days before and after a June 26, 1996, subcommittee hearing, including a June 20 meeting with an aide to Mr. Hastings at which a Preston Gates lobbyist discussed proposed questions for the lawmaker to ask at the hearing.

A transcript of the hearing shows that in brief remarks, Mr. Hastings said he had a "particular interest" in hearing from witnesses about the Northern Marianas and then introduced a prepared statement into the record in which he praised the islands' government for "moving in the right direction toward self-sufficiency" and warned that the imposition of the minimum wage "could crush its fragile economy."

At the hearing, he also asked that an opinion article that had been published in The Washington Times in support the position of Northern Marianas government on labor issues be placed in The Congressional Record; the billing records show that the article's author was a paid consultant to Preston Gates.

Mr. Cassidy, the spokesman, said Mr. Hastings had no idea that the author was affiliated with Preston Gates, adding that the lawmaker "reads that paper every day, rain or shine, and doesn't typically call up the columnists to ask who paid their salaries that week."

I wonder if he read this newspaper article in the Galveston Daily News from Monday about the awful conditions on the Northern Marianas Island.


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