Friday, February 17, 2006

Thirty-one Senate Democrats yesterday asked Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to remove himself from the Justice Department’s investigation into influence peddling on Capitol Hill, citing a potential conflict over former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s ties with the Bush administration.

“FBI officials have said the Abramoff investigation ‘involves systemic corruption within the highest levels of government,’” the Democrats said in a letter to Mr. Gonzales. “In light of your previous service as White House Counsel and your close connection to many administration officials, the appearance of conflict looms large.”

One of the signers, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, first asked President Bush in a letter last week to turn over White House records in the case and name a special counsel.

He said Mr. Gonzales could “avoid any appearance of impropriety by recusing himself.”

“If there was ever a case that was both sensitive and rife with potential conflict — it is this one,” the letter said. “Public confidence can only be assured and the appearance of conflict can only be avoided if you recuse yourself from overseeing the investigation and the prosecution of this case.”

Justice Department (DOJ) spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said that the Abramoff probe is being conducted by career trial attorneys in the department’s criminal division and that Mr. Gonzales has “followed all DOJ guidelines which govern these decisions.” She said there is “no reason for him to recuse himself from the investigation at this time.”

The Abramoff trial attorneys are Mary K. Butler, M. Kendall Day, Guy D. Singer and Nathaniel B. Edmonds, all from the department’s criminal division, and Stephanie D. Evans, a trial attorney in the department’s tax division. Ms. Butler, who is listed as the lead attorney in the Abramoff plea agreement, is a well-respected career trial attorney and an 18-year department veteran.

Questions have been raised about Mr. Bush’s ties to Abramoff, who pleaded guilty Jan. 3 to federal charges of conspiracy, tax evasion and fraud in a scheme involving the “corruption of public officials.”

Over the weekend, a photo of Mr. Bush and Abramoff emerged along with an e-mail from Abramoff to Washingtonian magazine saying he met with the president nearly a dozen times.

“These meetings with the president and White House staff occurred while you were serving as White House counsel, in which capacity you were also the White House’s chief ethics advisor and enforcer,” the letter said.

Abramoff entered his guilty plea as part of a deal in which he agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department in its ongoing investigation of influence peddling on Capitol Hill.

The government said that from 1994 through 2004, Abramoff lobbied public officials in the federal government, principally members of Congress, where he sought to further the interests of his clients, mainly Indian tribes.

In court, Abramoff admitted that he and his business partner, Michael Scanlon, who also pleaded guilty in the case and agreed to cooperate in the probe, and others engaged in a pattern of corruptly providing things of value to public officials, including trips, campaign contributions, meals and entertainment to influence acts by the public officials to benefit Abramoff and his clients.

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