The Abramoff probe: Is Hastert "in the mix"?

ABC's sources say yes. The speaker of the House says no.

Published May 25, 2006 1:04PM (EDT)

We wondered Wednesday whether there isn't an element of self-interest in congressional Republicans' outrage over the FBI's search of Rep. William Jefferson's House office. It turns out that such a concern -- at least for House Speaker Dennis Hastert -- may be a little more immediate than we had thought.

ABC News reported Wednesday night that Hastert is "very much in the mix" in the federal investigation into the dealings of disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. ABC's Brian Ross, relying on the word of federal law enforcement officials, says the investigation has "expanded to include" questions surrounding Hastert's decision to write a letter to the secretary of the interior that was helpful to some of Abramoff's tribal clients. As the Associated Press has reported previously, that letter, dated June 10, 2003, came just seven days after a fundraiser at Abramoff's restaurant brought in more than $20,000 for Hastert's PAC. All told, Hastert received more than $100,000 from Abramoff's firm and tribal clients between 2001 and 2004, the AP says.

Hastert is demanding that ABC retract its story, and the Justice Department issued an unusual statement Wednesday night - remember how the Bush administration doesn't comment on ongoing investigations? - in which it said: "Speaker Hastert is not under investigation by the Justice Department." ABC is standing by its story. In a post on an ABC blog Wednesday night, Ross said that a senior law enforcement official told him: "You guys wrote the story very carefully, but they are not reading it very carefully." What about the Justice Department's denial? ABC's sources say it probably means only that Hastert isn't an official "target" or "subject" of its Abramoff investigation yet.

Update: In an interview with UPI, an aide to Hastert suggests that the ABC story is retaliation -- a "brusback pitch" -- from someone in the Justice Department upset over Hastert's public comments about the Jefferson search.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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