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Senior Dem Returns Lobbyist Funds

The top Democrat on the Senate committee investigating Jack Abramoff's Indian lobbying is returning $67,000 in donations in response to Associated Press reports that he collected tribal money around the time he took actions favorable to those of Abramoff clients.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said Tuesday that while he never met Abramoff and didn't take any actions at the lobbyist's behest, he nonetheless wants to return the money to avoid any appearances that tribal money was directed to him by the controversial lobbyist.

"Even though those contributions were legal and fully reported as required by law, I will not knowingly keep even one dollar in contributions if there is even a remote possibility that they could have been the result of any action Mr. Abramoff might have taken," the senator said.

Dorgan is the senior Democrat on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that has spent more than a year investigating alleged fraud in Abramoff's representation of Indian tribes, which were charged tens of millions of dollars in lobbying fees between 2001 and 2004.

AP reported in three stories over the last month that Dorgan did not disclose during the probe that he took actions favorable to Abramoff's tribal clients, often around the time he collected donations from Abramoff's firm or clients. For instance, Dorgan:

  • Used Abramoff's arena skybox in March 2001 to raise money, letting one of Abramoff's tribes foot the bill for using the box. The senator says he didn't know at the time that Abramoff leased the box. He's recently reimbursed that money.
  • Got Congress in the fall 2003 to press government regulators to decide, after decades of delay, whether the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts deserved federal recognition. Dorgan met with the tribe's representatives and collected at least $11,500 in political donations from the Abramoff partner representing the Mashpee around the time of the help.
  • Collected $20,000 from Abramoff's firm and tribes in the period around when he wrote a letter in 2002 urging the Senate Appropriations Committee to fund a school construction program that Abramoff's clients and other tribes wanted. The letter mentioned one of Abramoff's tribes.

    The Coushatta tribe of Louisiana told AP they were directed by Abramoff to make a $5,000 donation to Dorgan's leadership political action committee just a few weeks after the 2002 letter was sent. Dorgan specifically cited that report as the reason he was returning all the donations.

    "Because of that report, I have returned all contributions to my campaign committee and my leadership political action committee from tribes represented by Mr. Abramoff's law firm and from individuals employed by his law firm during the time he was at the firm," he said.

    The return of the money was first reported in Tuesday editions of The Forum in Fargo, N.D.

    The most recent reports on file with the Federal Election Commission show Dorgan's campaign had $660,920 in cash on hand as of Sept. 30 while his Great Plains Leadership Fund PAC had $43,909 on hand as of June 30.

    The office of Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., another lawmaker named in the AP stories, said Tuesday he has no plans to return the $150,000 he got from Abramoff sources because he already has spent the money.

    Meanwhile, a government watchdog group, Democracy 21, asked the Justice Department inspector general to monitor the criminal investigation into Abramoff's dealings with the Bush administration and Congress to make sure there is no meddling. "It is essential that ... any decisions about pursuing criminal prosecutions in this matter be free from any political interference," Democracy 21 said in its letter.

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