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Howell-ing At The Abramoff Scandal

Readers of The Washington Post aren't happy with its ombudsman, Deborah Howell, after her weekend column praising the paper's investigative reporting on Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. It seems they're so unhappy that they may have overloaded The Post's blog. Here's what Opinions Editor Hal Straus writes on
"Some of the comments posted to this blog's entries aren't appearing on the site. We're working with our blog software vendor to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.

The problem may be related to the large number of comments (more than 700 so far) received over the weekend concerning Deborah Howell's Sunday, Jan. 15 column on The Post's coverage of the Jack Abramoff story.

We may also have unintentionally caused or made the problem worse by trying to remove a few comments -- about a dozen -- that failed to make a substantive point and were simply personal attacks on Howell and others.

We apologize for the problem and will post updates here."

Reading through the comments, it seems that most are upset over Howell's assertion that Democrats "have gotten Abramoff campaign money." We've been through this before, and it's worth revisiting.

The root of the problem here is semantics and spin. Republicans would very much like the Abramoff investigation to snare a few Democrats so they could say this is a bipartisan issue. Democrats would like nothing more than for this to become seen as a Republican scandal heading into a crucial midterm election year. What can be said at the moment is not quite so clear.

There is no doubt that Republicans are much more tied into Abramoff than Democrats. Whether that is simply because they control Congress and are thus more likely to be targets of graft and favor-trading or were more directly involved in schemes to bilk millions from Indian tribes is not yet known. But the relationships between Abramoff and members of Congress are certainly there to, in the end, make this a Republican scandal.

But seeing the circumstantial evidence is not enough to make that judgment yet, and here's where I think it gets tricky. It is a fact that Jack Abramoff personally only donated money to Republicans. But it isn't his personal contributions that have the lobbyist in such hot water, it's the vast amounts of money given to politicians and causes by clients Abramoff represented – and what they may have received in return – that is at the root of this scandal. And Democrats are among those who received money from those clients.

The Abramoff investigation is ongoing and he is expected to fully cooperate with prosecutors, but at the moment, all we have to go on is some of the facts, not all the intentions behind those facts. Democrats and their supporters make all sorts of arguments designed to demonstrate that the money they took was not an attempt by Abramoff to buy influence (something that is hard to buy when Democrats are returning or giving away that money). But we don't know that, at least not yet.

In the end, presumably, we'll know the reasons behind who took money from Abramoff's clients and be able to reasonably say whether this is a Republican scandal or not. Chances are that it will be if for no other reason than even a bipartisan scandal will focus more on the party in power. But reporters must report what they know, not what they think they know and until the picture becomes clearer, all this posturing and spinning is just that. And until we know, even media watchdogs like Deborah Howell will find it impossible to please everyone.