WASHINGTON -- FBI agents conducted raids in two states yesterday as part of an investigation into whether Rep. Curt Weldon used his influence to steer business to a lobbying firm owned by his daughter and a one-time campaign aide, Justice Department officials and others familiar with the investigation said.
Federal investigators are trying to determine whether the Pennsylvania Republican helped secure almost $1 million in contracts for a firm known as Solutions North America, run by his daughter, Karen, and a prominent Philadelphia-area Republican, Charles P. Sexton Jr., who once served as the 10-term congressman's campaign finance chief.
The raids are another political setback for the Republican Party as it struggles to maintain control of Congress. Weldon, who represents a suburban Philadelphia district, is locked in a closely contested campaign with a retired Navy vice admiral.
News of the probe comes as the FBI is looking into salacious e-mails to House pages from Florida Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned his seat.
The FBI searched four locations yesterday in Pennsylvania, including the homes and office of Karen Weldon and Sexton. Also searched was the Jacksonville, Fla., headquarters of Itera International Energy Corp., the U.S. arm of a diversified Russian-based oil and gas firm.
The FBI also searched the law office of a Philadelphia attorney, John Gallagher, a longtime Weldon friend and supporter who did legal work for the consulting firm, said people familiar with the probe who requested anonymity because of the continuing investigation. The FBI did not raid Weldon's home or office.
Speaking to reporters in Pennsylvania yesterday, Weldon called the investigation politically motivated. "I've never helped my daughter get anything. My kids are qualified on their own," he said.
An attorney for Weldon questioned the timing of the disclosure of the probe, which appears to stem from an investigation of Weldon that ran in the Los Angeles Times. "I think it is very suspicious that 2 1/2 years after the Los Angeles Times broke the story that the FBI is now getting around to looking at it three weeks before the election," said William B. Canfield.
Canfield said the House ethics committee reviewed the case and the matter was resolved "in a way that was satisfactory to everyone."
In 2004, The Times disclosed that Solutions North America won contracts from companies or individuals that Weldon tried to help. The beneficiaries included two struggling Russian firms and a Serbian family linked to accused war criminal Slobodan Milosevic.
An FBI spokeswoman, Debra Weierman, confirmed yesterday that agents had conducted six searches as part of an investigation but declined further comment.
Legal experts said that an agreement between a member of Congress to take official action in exchange for cash or other benefits - even if the gifts are not received by the lawmaker - could constitute bribery. But such allegations are difficult to prove and require evidence of a "quid pro quo."
Weldon is a leading voice in Washington on the affairs of former Eastern bloc nations. He is also vice chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee and has been able to spread federal contracts over his district and region.
But his hold on his seat is precarious. The district voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections. He is also facing a stiff challenge from Navy veteran Joe Sestak, who has tried to tie his opponent to the failures of the Bush administration, including the war in Iraq.
The latest independent poll had the race in a statistical dead heat.
Sexton, reached on his cell phone yesterday, declined comment.
In an interview with the Times on Saturday, Sexton said he had not heard of any investigation. "The allegations are preposterous that there was any wrongdoing on the part of Mr. Weldon and his daughter or me," he said.
Karen Weldon was 29 when she and Sexton, then 67, formed an international consulting business together. She had previously spent six years working for Boeing Co. in what she described as "learning and training programs."
Their first client was Itera International.
Richard B. Schmitt and Chuck Neubauer write for the Los Angeles Times.