- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Local news media ambushed Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid last week during his “culture of corruption” tour of five Republican red states in the West and Midwest.

Attempting to exploit the lobbying scandal in the Republican Congress, which Democrats believe will help them make gains in next year’s midterm elections, Mr. Reid rode into the West with both guns blazing, charging the GOP was solely to blame for the influence-peddling practices now target of a Justice Department grand jury investigation.

Mr. Reid’s campaign tour to raise money for Democratic candidates was one of a series of trips the Nevada Democrat plans this year in a bid to make political inroads in Republican-held territory. But instead of focusing on the GOP’s troubles, Mr. Reid was surprised by hostile questions from local reporters about money he received from Indian tribes and their ties to wheeler-dealer Jack Abramoff who lobbied for them.

The episode didn’t get any national attention in Washington where the story seems fixed on Republican misdeeds, though lawmakers in both parties have filled campaign war chests with Abramoff-related money from casino-rich Indian tribes.

The first ambush came at a press conference in Phoenix where Mr. Reid was whooping up his “culture of corruption” war cry against Republicans and insisting not one Democrat got money from Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to tax evasion and fraud. But skeptical local reporters were ready with questions about how much Mr. Reid himself took from the tribes Abramoff worked for and to whom he often gave lists of senators they should support with their money.

One reporter, according to a transcript of the news conference, wanted to know about the thousands of dollars Mr. Reid took from the tribes and, unlike many of his Democratic colleagues, has refused to give back.

Thrown on the defensive, Mr. Reid insisted again: “Not a single penny of the money from Jack Abramoff… went to a Democrat. Now he has lots of clients. But the fact of the matter is that any money that I’ve received has come from [tribes] who have given me money over a period of time, and Jack Abramoff’s fingerprints [are] not anywhere,” Mr. Reid said.

That sounded a little fishy to the assembled reporters, leading another to ask, “You’re saying Abramoff’s clients gave money to you and other Democrats, not Abramoff?”

“I’m not saying Abramoff clients. I’m saying I have received money from Indian tribes over many, many years. Some of whom he picked up as clients later on,” Mr. Reid answered shakily. Note his use of the word “some.” This line of questioning continued for some time, but you get the idea.

It was no longer a Republican scandal, as Mr. Reid tried to redefine it, but had turned into an institutional scandal that involved him, too.

In fact, despite his slippery denials, Mr. Reid was given at least $30,500 from three Indian tribes for whom Abramoff lobbied in this election cycle, according to a recent reassessment of Abramoff-connected tribal political contributions provided to me by the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracked the scandal’s money trail.

Moreover, other public interest groups report Mr. Reid received about $61,000 between 2001 and 2004 from tribes Abramoff represented. He has refused to return any of the money because he said he did nothing illegal.

But Mr. Reid’s troubles didn’t end in Phoenix. The questions or accusations seemed to follow him throughout his tour. In appearances in Omaha and Sioux City, Neb., Salt Lake City, and other stops, he was forced to answer similar questions about Abramoff’s connections or was greeted by local Republican officials who charged Mr. Reid and his party were part and parcel of the scandal.

In Salt Lake City he denied a report in The Washington Times he was one of several targets in the Justice Department investigation, but he could not escape the Abramoff connection many newspapers reported.

“Although Reid received money from Native American tribes represented by Abramoff, the Senate leader said that not only has he never met the fallen lobbyist, ‘he’s not given me a penny,’ ” reported the Deseret Morning News.

But Utah Republican Chairman Joe Cannon was unconvinced. “One of the biggest beneficiaries of Jack Abramoff is Harry Reid,” he said. And so it went throughout much of Mr. Reid’s red state trip which served as a warning bell that people outside the Washington Beltway weren’t buying his story this is just a Republican scandal.

“Reid and other members of Congress should expect that when they take their show on the road this election season, they’ll get questions about whether they got money from [Abramoff] or not,” said Massie Ritsch, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics.

The scandal that was supposed to throw out the Republican Congress has suddenly turned decidedly bipartisan.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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