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PAYING THE TAB
Congressman who defended DeLay says three fundraisers with Abramoff associates went unreported

By John Byrne | RAW STORY Editor

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A stalwart congressional supporter of embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) has confirmed to RAW STORY that in-kind donations for several fundraisers held at skyboxes believed maintained by fallen lobbyist Jack Abramoff were not reported until this year.

The congressman, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS), amended his campaign finance filings in February and April, listing three in-kind donations from the Greenberg Traurig political action committee, a fund managed by Abramoff’s former firm. The events dated from 2001, 2002 and 2003.

Tiahrt press secretary Chuck Knapp called the amendments “a campaign staff oversight.”

Greenberg Traurig spokeswoman Jill Perry expressed surprise that the congressman had declared in-kind donations from the firm’s committee. She denied the PAC held skybox fundraising events at the Washington, D.C. MCI Center.

Tiahrt’s office declined to identify who held the fundraiser, saying only that those they had worked with had left the firm.

The confusion over who held the fundraisers adds a new twist to an already tangled story concerning a powerful lobbyist now under investigation by four separate entities—including a Senate committee and the FBI—regarding his lobbying work. Previous newspaper reports assert that Abramoff billed tribal clients through a company he set up called Sports Suites LLC.

Knapp repeatedly indicated that the congressman and his staff believed they had been working with Greenberg’s PAC. Perry denied the charge.

“Our PAC didn’t manage those skyboxes,” Perry said.

In lieu of stories tying GOP leader DeLay to a lobbying scandal, congressional staff have checked their books to ensure all events have been correctly reported.

Tiahrt joins a dozen or so members who have acknowledged events or trips footed by lobbyists. Knapp said Abramoff wasn’t at the skybox fundraisers.

“If he walked into my House right now, I wouldn’t know it was him,” Knapp said. “The congressman doesn’t know him, didn’t have a relationship with him.”

Abramoff's legal spokesman, Andrew Blum, said only that Abramoff doesn't recall every event.

The Kansas congressman was among 20 Republican members who voted recently not to reverse ethics rules some saw as protecting DeLay, and has publicly declared that DeLay did nothing wrong. The House voted to rescind them late last month, 406-20.

“Tom DeLay did nothing wrong,” Tiahrt told reporters in April. “There’s no evidence of any breaking of the House rules. What this is, is a political smear campaign made by an organization, a political party that is devoid of ideas.”

Knapp told RAW STORY that the congressman’s staff likely would not have caught the omissions had attention not come to Abramoff’s activities.

“We wouldn’t have realized our mistake,” he said. “We found an error that we probably wouldn’t have gone looking for had there not been attention to that particular PAC.”

“We definitely try to have our filings accurate. I think we’ve had 57 amendments since the congressman has been in office,” Knapp said. “We’ve filed an event with [Greenberg’s PAC] in the past – it’s not like we were trying to hide anything or deceive anyone; it was just a bookkeeping error.”

The fundraiser Tiahrt reported in regular filings was in February of 2004. Abramoff left Greenberg in March of that year.

Melanie Sloan, executive director for the progressive ethics group Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, chided Tiahrt and said his conduct merits an ethics investigation.

“Those kind of errors are inexcusable,” Sloan said. “They’re breaking a law.”

Sloan took particular issue with Tiahrt’s office saying they probably would not have caught the missed payment had scrutiny not come to the lobbyist’s activities.

“We should be expecting better of this out of our members of Congress, and I hope that Tiahrt’s constituents demand a better answer and more accountability,” she continued. “The combination of those comments along with the failure to file properly and in a timely fashion suggest that Mr. Tiahrt’s conduct merits an ethics investigation.”

“I’d like to know what other laws he doesn’t feel like following?” she added. “Exactly who does he think these laws are intended for?”

Knapp took umbrage with Sloan’s assessment.

“They would be terribly distorting what we said and did if they charged that we maliciously did not intend to file,” he said. “We filed for that organization before. Anyone objectively looking at this would come to the conclusion that this was clerical oversight.”

Asked whether he shared the assessment by some Republicans that Sloan was unfairly singling out Republicans, Knapp said, “I’m not going to judge whether or not they’re objective; I’ll let others do that.”

Judicial Watch, a more conservative-leaning group, noted that Tiahrt was among several members who appear to have violated House rules.

“Tiahrt is not alone,” said Judicial Watch Director of Investigations Chris Farrell. “Basically they can’t follow the rules, so they either file late or change the standard.”

Farrell said he felt the real problem was a rules change made in 1997 which prohibited anyone but other members of Congress from filing ethics complaints.

“The real scandal of the House ethics rules dates back to 1997 when they changed the rules to make sure the great unwashed masses (the American public) could not file complaints against a sitting congressman on their own,” Farrell said. “Frankly, there’s great reluctance on the part of House members not to pull the trigger on other House members.”

Farrell said Tiahrt’s case “illuminates how members routinely flaunt the existing regulations, and only when it’s scrutinized do they hardly comply with the rules that they’re blowing off on a day to day basis.”

Farrell sees a solution to the current ethics crisis in greater disclosure.

“The sure solution to these sorts of mini-scandals, or these sorts of mini-ethical dilemmas is sunlight,” he remarked. “That’s what fixes it nine times out of ten.”

Knapp said Tiahrt’s campaign missed the in-kind donations because they never received anything from Abramoff’s associates.

“Part of the problem with his organization—unlike almost any other organization we deal with, they didn’t send us the information,” he said. “When we’re putting together our reports, we will get something from an organization. We could never get that from Greenberg.”

“When we were trying to file these amended reports, we tried to contact them,” he added. "We probably overestimated just to be safe.”

Tiahrt’s office wouldn't say who they worked with at Abramoff’s former firm, but did say that some lobbyists employed at the firm who worked with Abramoff—including Kevin Ring, Todd Boulanger, and Jim Hirni—sounded familiar.

In February, Tiahrt’s campaign reported two $1,500 in-kind donations for the use of an MCI Center skybox in March 2002 and February 2003. Last month, the campaign also disclosed a $940 in-kind contribution for tickets and catering in an amended filing for July 31, 2001.

Tiahrt’s office also noted a $1,000 contribution from Greenberg’s PAC on Feb. 1, 2002, two days before an 2002 event paid for this February.

Article originally published May 10, 2005.

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