Ehrlich vows to return funds

Politicians promise to give back, donate Abramoff money

January 05, 2006|By ANDREW A. GREEN AND GWYNETH K. SHAW | ANDREW A. GREEN AND GWYNETH K. SHAW,SUN REPORTERS

A day after Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to federal fraud and tax evasion charges, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said he would return the $16,000 in campaign contributions he received from the lobbyist and his wife.

The Maryland Republican Party also returned $4,020 it received from the Abramoffs, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski announced plans to donate to charity money she received from Indian tribes that were Abramoff clients.

But the other Maryland Democrat who received money from Abramoff clients, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, planned last night to keep the money, according to his spokesman.

Politicians nationwide - including House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Rep. Tom DeLay - have said they will return Abramoff-related donations or give them to charity. The Bush 2004 campaign said yesterday that it would return $6,000 from the Abramoffs and a client, the Associated Press reported.

In Maryland, the state Democratic and Republican leaders spent the day calling on members of each other's parties to return donations linked to the lobbyist.

"Now that Jack Abramoff has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, tax evasion and fraud, the only ethical course of action for Governor Ehrlich is to return Abramoff's money," Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman said in an e-mail yesterday afternoon.

An hour later, the Maryland Republican Party sent an e-mail saying it was returning its donations, and added, "The Maryland Republican Party expects the Maryland Democratic Party to demand that U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski (at least $1,000) and U.S. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (at least $7,000) take the same appropriate action as the state Republican Party and return the Abramoff-related money they received as well."

Bo Harmon, the political director for Ehrlich's re-election campaign, said in an e-mail in the afternoon that "Governor Ehrlich stated today his intent to donate Mr. and Mrs. Abramoff's contributions to charity. However, a further review indicates state law does not allow such a donation. Accordingly, the contribution will be returned to Mr. and Mrs. Abramoff."

In recent weeks, Ehrlich had declined to answer reporters' questions about whether he would return money from the lobbyist during the past two election cycles. On Tuesday, the day Abramoff pleaded guilty to federal charges, the governor said he would consider the matter.

Mikulski's campaign fund got $5,000 in contributions from the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians of California; the Saginaw Chippewa of Michigan; the Mississippi Band of the Choctaw; and the Tigua tribe of Texas. All four were clients of the lobbyist.

Melissa Schwartz, a Mikulski aide, said there is no evidence that Abramoff steered the donations to the senator, adding that she never intervened in legislation on behalf of any of the tribes.

"Senator Mikulski did receive small, legitimate campaign contributions from Indian tribes," Schwartz said. "She did not receive any money from or through Jack Abramoff."

Nevertheless, Mikulski will give all the money to the American Indian College Fund, Schwartz said.

Hoyer received $17,500 from three tribes associated with the powerful lobbyist between 2000 and early 2005, according to Federal Election Commission records and the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks the influence of money in politics.

The Agua Caliente Indians and the Saginaw Chippewa of Michigan gave a total of $6,500 to Hoyer's campaign account. Those two tribes, and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, gave $11,000 to AMERIPAC, Hoyer's political action committee.

Aides to Hoyer have said that they have no knowledge that the contributions were directed by Abramoff, and that the congressman never acted on their behalf.

Maryland GOP spokeswoman Audra Miller said it was surprising that Hoyer would keep the money considering the strong stand his state party took in demanding such donations to Republicans be returned.

"His own state party chairman is painting a broad stroke with any Abramoff money as tainted," she said. "It sounds like Steny Hoyer and his state party have some issues to discuss."

Derek Walker, the acting executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, applauded Ehrlich's decision to return the Abramoff money but called on him to provide a better explanation for the connection between his deputy chief of staff, Edward B. Miller, and the lobbyist.

Miller founded a company called Grassroots Interactive in May 2003 that, according to Abramoff's plea agreement, played a central role in the lobbyist's fraud schemes during the time Miller owned it. Miller sold the company just after coming to work for the Ehrlich administration.

Miller and his lawyer have declined to comment on his role with the company, and the Ehrlich administration has never provided an explanation for it other than to say that the governor retains confidence in his aide.

andy.green@baltsun.com gwyneth.shaw@baltsun.com

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