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Committee Asks Justice Dept. To Broaden Inquiry of Lobbyist

By Philip Shenon
THE NEW YORK TIMES


WASHINGTON

Criminal investigators at the Justice Department have been asked by a House committee to consider broadening their corruption investigation of a Washington lobbyist whose ties to Tom DeLay, the House Republican leader, and other prominent lawmakers are the subject of inquiries throughout the government, congressional officials disclosed Tuesday.

The request about the investigation of the lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, was made in a letter last week to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales from the Republican chairman and the senior Democrat of the House Resources Committee.

That letter, dated June 30, cited a flurry of accusations of wrongdoing involving Abramoff’s multimillion-dollar lobbying on behalf of the Northern Mariana Islands, a small American commonwealth in the Pacific, and said that “any allegations of criminal matters of this sort are best addressed to the Department of Justice.”

The Justice Department has refused to discuss details of its investigation of Abramoff, which began more than a year ago. Congressional officials who are trying to monitor the investigation say that it has focused until now on accusations that Abramoff defrauded American Indian tribes who paid him millions of dollars in lobbying fees on behalf of their gambling operations.

The Resources Committee request could suggest new scrutiny for DeLay, because he worked closely with Abramoff for years to block Washington from imposing the federal minimum wage on large clothing factories in the Northern Marianas. Human rights groups have long criticized the factories, which employ mostly migrant Asian workers.

On a trip to the islands with Abramoff in 1997, DeLay told a meeting of local officials that the lobbyist was among “my closest and dearest friends” and promised to continue to defend the islands’ interests in Congress. Abramoff’s billing records show that he frequently met with DeLay and his top aides to discuss the Northern Marianas. In a 2001 e-mail message to the islands’ general counsel, Abramoff described DeLay as “our biggest supporter on Capitol Hill.”

DeLay is facing other ethics accusations involving ties to Abramoff and has asked the House ethics committee to review the propriety of lavish overseas trips that Abramoff organized for DeLay, his wife and his aides to Britain and Russia.

The letter, from Richard W. Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the Resources Committee, and Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia, the panel’s ranking Democrat, is the first known request by a Congressional committee for prosecutors to review accusations of criminal conduct in the lobbying activities of Abramoff, who was one of the most powerful and best-paid Republican lobbyists in Washington.