Blunt vows to reform after ties to Abramoff scandal


Published: Thursday, January 12, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 12, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
WASHINGTON - Rep. Roy Blunt has ties to corporate lobbyists and convicted influence peddler Jack Abramoff that rival Rep. Tom DeLay's, yet says he wants to be a reformer if given the chance to succeed DeLay as House majority leader.
Blunt, R-Mo., has transferred donations between his political organizations and DeLay's, eventually benefiting Blunt's son, Matt, the current Missouri governor. Roy Blunt also wrote at least three letters helpful to Abramoff's clients while collecting money from them.
Blunt's wife, Abigail Perlman, and a second son, Andrew, lobby for many of the same companies that donate to the lawmaker's political efforts.
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist and author, said Blunt's name doesn't have the same nationwide recognition as DeLay's, and "his one chance of success is to undergo an amazing transformation into a reformer."
Blunt said that is exactly what he has in mind.
In a statement, he promised to "move swiftly to enact new lobbying reforms and enhanced penalties" to require disclosure of more information about lobbyists' activities and set new restrictions on privately financed travel by lawmakers.
DeLay, R-Texas, announced Saturday that he would not try to regain his post in upcoming party elections. The move came amid House Republicans' concern about a corruption scandal tied to Abramoff's favors to lawmakers.
DeLay was forced to step down last year under party rules after he was charged in his home state with felonies in a money laundering investigation. Blunt has temporarily filled the position and now is competing to be DeLay's permanent replacement.
Blunt's connections to Abramoff or his clients could complicate the GOP's plans to distance its leadership from the corruption investigation before the fall elections that will determine control of Congress.
Abramoff pleaded guilty last week to felony charges. He is cooperating with investigators whose bribery probe is focusing on several members of Congress and their aides.
Many lawmakers have said they will give to charity campaign contributions tied to Abramoff.
The board of Blunt's Rely On Your Beliefs Fund has voted to contribute to charity an amount equivalent to Abramoff's personal contributions, $8,500, according to Blunt's spokeswoman, Burson Taylor.
Blunt and DeLay and their aides frequently met with Abramoff's lobbying team and even jointly signed a letter supportive of an American Indian tribe cl=ient at the heart of the Abramoff criminal investigation, according to records published by The Associated Press over the past year.
Blunt's office says all of his dealings were proper.
"Mr. Blunt has never been accused of engaging in any legislative activities on Jack Abramoff's behalf," Taylor said.
Blunt's main competitor for the House majority leader's post is Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House committee that oversees education and labor.
Boehner in 1996 admitted he distributed a tobacco political action committee's campaign checks on the House floor, but said at the time he would never do it again. He served in the House leadership in the 1990s, but lost his post after the party suffered losses in the 1998 elections.
Texas prosecutors also recently subpoenaed records of a series of financial transactions in 2000 between DeLay and Blunt.
DeLay raised more money than he needed to throw parties at the Republican National Convention in 2000 and sent some of the excess to Blunt through a series of donations that benefited the causes of both men.
After transfers between political organizations, some of the money went to Matt Blunt's successful campaign in 2000 for Missouri secretary of state. He eventually received more than $160,000 in 2000.
Taylor, Roy Blunt's spokeswoman, denied that DeLay raised excess money for the purpose of transferring it to Blunt. Rather, she said, the convention fundraising was a joint effort between DeLay and Blunt all along.
She said Blunt's Rely On Your Beliefs Fund contributes annually to the Missouri Republican Party, but does not specify how the money should be spent.
"It stands to reason that the party committee would contribute to a Republican candidate for statewide office - in this case, Matt Blunt," Taylor said.
Both DeLay and Roy Blunt forged strong connections with corporate lobbyists, raising questions of whether the lobbyists influenced legislation in return for their contributions. DeLay was admonished in 2004 by the House ethics committee for creating the appearance of connecting energy industry donations with legislation.
Blunt's wife is a lobbyist for Kraft Foods, part of Altria, the company that also includes Philip Morris. The parent company and its related businesses have contributed nearly $224,000 to Blunt's political organizations since 2001, according to figures compiled by a campaign finance tracking firm, Political MoneyLine.
Blunt's supporters also included companies that have been clients of Andrew Blunt, who lobbies the Missouri Legislature.
"He and Mr. Blunt have no contact on legislative issues," Taylor said of the father-son relationship.
She added, "Mrs. Blunt does not lobby the House of Representatives, and Mr. Blunt would recuse himself from voting or working on any issue that would impact Altria specifically."
Shortly after Blunt was elected party whip in 2002, he tried to insert a provision benefiting Philip Morris USA into the bill creating the Homeland Security Department.
Taylor said the provision would have cracked down on the illegal sale of contraband cigarettes, a documented source of funding for terrorist organizations. Bipartisan legislation to achieve the same result has passed as part of the USA Patriot Act, she said.
In his ties to Abramoff, Roy Blunt was among nearly three dozen members of Congress, including leaders from both parties, who pressed the government to block a Louisiana Indian tribe from opening a casino. The lawmakers received donations from rival tribes and their lobbyist, Abramoff, around the same time.
Blunt received a $1,000 donation from Abramoff and $2,000 from his lobbying firm around the time of a May 2003 letter he wrote to Interior Secretary Gale Norton on the casino matter. A month later he signed another letter on the issue along with DeLay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Taylor said Blunt "has a long history of opposition to Indian gaming. His district, which includes Branson, Mo., is fundamentally opposed to the expansion of gaming, and he reflects that broad opinion."
She said Blunt signed the letters to Norton at the request of Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La.
"It is also very important to note that Mr. Blunt does not accept campaign contributions from Indian gaming interests, so any 'quid pro quo' argument is baseless here," Taylor added.
In spring 2000, an Abramoff client accused of running a sweatshop garment factory in the Northern Mariana Islands donated $3,000 to Blunt's political organization. The company, Concorde Garment Manufacturing, paid a $9 million penalty to the U.S. government in the 1990s for failing to pay workers overtime. The company was visited by DeLay.

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