- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday returned $16,000 in contributions he had received from discredited lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a campaign official said.

“He decided it was best to go above and beyond any requirements to avoid even the perception of impropriety,” said Ehrlich campaign manager Bo Harmon, adding that the governor “has never had any relationship whatsoever with Mr. Abramoff.”

Yesterday, Abramoff pleaded guilty to wire fraud and conspiracy charges in a $23 million scheme to buy gambling boats in Miami. On Tuesday, he pleaded guilty to mail fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy charges and agreed to cooperate with a probe of influence peddling among members of Congress.

Abramoff and his wife, Pamela, each gave $4,000 to Mr. Ehrlich in October 2001, as well as in November 2003, according to state campaign-finance reports.

Maryland Democratic Party officials called on Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, to return the contributions after the once-powerful lobbyist pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday. Abramoff also admitted to buying influence on Capitol Hill with campaign contributions and lavish junkets.

Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman, who accused the governor of having a close relationship with Abramoff, said Mr. Ehrlich did the right thing.

“Good for him,” Mr. Lierman said. “It’s about time.”

However, he defended Maryland Democrats, who, as of yesterday afternoon, were not returning contributions linked to Abramoff.

Ehrlich spokesman Greg Massoni criticized Mr. Lierman’s stance.

“I would hope he would want the contributions returned from everyone on both sides of the aisle,” Mr. Massoni said. “Let’s be fair about this.”

Indian tribes or other Abramoff clients reportedly gave $5,000 to U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and $17,000 to House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, both Maryland Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions.

“The Indian tribes are not guilty of a crime,” Mr. Lierman said. “There is nothing wrong with the money from Indian tribes.”

Last night, Mikulski spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said the senator decided to donate the $5,000 to a charity for American Indians.

The contributions included $7,000 to Mr. Hoyer and $1,000 to Miss Mikulski from the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, which Abramoff represented and manipulated in his scheme to fraudulently enrich himself.

Mr. Hoyer could not be reached for comment.

President Bush yesterday pledged to give contributions from Abramoff, his wife and the Michigan tribe to the American Heart Association.

Several elected officials have returned Abramoff contributions, including Democratic Sens. Max Baucus of Montana and Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, and Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Rep. Jeb Bradley of New Hampshire.

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