- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Things don’t seem to be turning out the way pessimistic Democrats hoped.

The economy shows increasing strength and staying power. The latest evidence is the best nonauto retail sales data in six years. Congress is reauthorizing the antiterrorism Patriot Act over the objections of Senate Democrats, and is now working to make some of the Bush tax cuts permanent. And in a year when most political prognosticators say Republicans will suffer losses in the Senate, Democratic seats in New Jersey, Minnesota and Maryland have become surprisingly vulnerable.

Abroad, movement toward a permanently democratic Iraq is heading inexorably toward higher ground. There are near-weekly reports of military successes by Iraqi security forces against al Qaeda terrorists. The likelihood of some drawdown of U.S. troops later this year is improving.

At home, one prominent Democratic campaign issue — that Republicans are responsible for a “culture of corruption” — has been undermined by one of their own leaders.

It turns out Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who has been running around the country preaching the “culture of corruption” message, is up to his eyeballs in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

For several weeks, Mr. Reid has been leading a fierce offensive on this issue, while insisting no Democrat received any money in return for legislative favors in the widening scandal under Justice Department investigation.

But new details reported last week by the Associated Press reveal Mr. Reid’s fervent, repeated denials of any connection with Abramoff or his lobbying firm were not entirely true.

We now know Mr. Reid wrote at least four letters to assist Indian tribes that hired the since-convicted lobbyist, that the senator’s staff had many contacts with the lobbying firm on behalf of their boss, and that Mr. Reid accepted nearly $68,000 in donations from Abramoff’s associates and his Indian clients — often right after he wrote the requested letters.

During a recent campaign trip through Republican red states in the West and Midwest, Mr. Reid insisted to reporters who peppered him with questions about his involvement that “any money I received had no fingerprints of Jack Abramoff on it.”

The emerging evidence shows Abramoff’s fingerprints were all over Mr. Reid’s association with him and the donations Abramoff’s casino-owning Indian clients and his associates gave to the senator. The lists of senators the tribes followed in making out their political contributions were given to them by Abramoff. They included many Democrats.

When I asked several ethics and campaign finance attorneys what they thought of the latest disclosures, they said Mr. Reid and the Democrats have some explaining to do.

Lawrence Noble, executive director and general counsel at the Center for Responsive Politics (a nonpartisan group tracking the scandal’s money trail), said: “This puts Reid in a very awkward position. Reid has to be willing to answer the same questions everyone else has been asking of the Republicans.”

One question Mr. Reid needs to answer: “Is there any connection between the contributions he received and the action he took, including the letters that he wrote” for Abramoff’s Indian clients, Mr. Noble said.

“When the public sees any member of Congress taking action that close to a campaign contribution, they are going to be very skeptical,” Mr. Noble told me. Other ethics attorneys said Mr. Reid’s problems go beyond the deep legal implications of the disclosures to the Democrats’ destroyed credibility. Mr. Reid has been caught in the web of his own denials.

“The problem for Reid is not that he necessarily did anything illegal or unethical,” said Jan Baran, a Republican campaign-finance attorney. “The problem is that he has not been straightforward about all his dealings with Abramoff’s firm.”

Attorney Cleta Mitchell, who advises Republican clients on such ethical matters, thinks Mr. Reid hoisted himself with his own petard. “His definition of corruption is having done things for Abramoff’s clients and receiving money from them, but he’s also been a recipient of contributions from Abramoff’s clients after having done things to help them,” she said.

This is the glass house Mr. Reid and the Democrats built in the lobbying scandal they believe will help return them to political power. But the latest disclosures of Mr. Reid’s own culpability were the rock that brought it crashing down around them.

The 2006 midterm election year is off to a very bad start for Mr. Reid and his party, and my sense is it won’t get any better for them in the months to come.

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


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