WASHINGTON—The Justice Department is investigating whether Republican Rep. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania traded his political influence for lucrative lobbying and consulting contracts for his daughter, according to sources with direct knowledge of the inquiry.
The FBI, which opened an investigation in recent months, has formally referred the matter to the department's Public Integrity Section for additional scrutiny. At issue are Weldon's efforts between 2002 and 2004 to aid two Russian companies and two Serbian brothers with ties to strongman Slobodan Milosevic, a federal law enforcement official said.
The Russian companies and a Serbian foundation run by the brothers' family each hired a firm co-owned by Weldon's daughter, Karen, for fees totaling nearly $1 million a year, public records show.
Karen Weldon was 28 and lacked consulting experience when she and Charles Sexton, a Weldon ally and longtime Republican leader in Delaware County, Pa., created the firm of Solutions North America Inc. in 2002. Both are registered with the Justice Department as representatives of foreign clients.
Word of the inquiry, which has been closely held within the Justice Department and the FBI, comes from two individuals with specific knowledge of the existence of the investigation. They both declined to be identified because of the confidentiality of criminal investigations.
Spokesmen for the FBI and the Justice Department declined to confirm or deny that an inquiry is under way.
William Canfield, a lawyer who represented Weldon when a Los Angeles Times report prompted the House ethics committee to briefly explore the issue two years ago, said the congressman is unaware of a Justice Department investigation and is confident that none exists.
"Is there is an inquiry going on in the Justice Department?" Canfield asked. "The answer is no. . . Curt knows nothing about this, his chief of staff knows nothing about it and I know nothing about it. I think we would have heard about it."
Canfield said Weldon, a 10-term House member who's vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and active in U.S. foreign affairs, dismissed the report as "crazy" while campaigning for reelection in a tight contest in Philadelphia's southwestern suburbs.
But McClatchy Newspapers' sources said the FBI only over the last few months obtained evidence suggesting that the congressman may have broken the law. One of the sources, a federal law enforcement official, said that Weldon had not yet been told about the inquiry.
The official said that the FBI recently sought the assistance of federal prosecutors in pressuring an unidentified person to provide evidence about the 59-year-old congressman. The attempt to "squeeze" this individual appeared to be an early step, the two sources said.
It is uncertain whether the current investigation will blossom into a full-blown inquiry that will result in criminal charges being filed. It is possible at this stage of the investigation that nothing will come of it. But the FBI typically does not seek the involvement of the Justice Department unless it finds substance to the evidence it has gathered.
Weldon, his daughter and Sexton all declined to respond to requests for an interview.
Joseph Fioravanti, a Media, Pa., lawyer representing Karen Weldon, sent a letter to McClatchy Newspapers declaring that "there is no investigation" and charging that a reporter was "harassing" and "baiting" her by leaving phone messages requesting comment.
Disclosure of the inquiry three weeks before the congressional elections presents a new headache for Republicans, who are already reeling from a series of scandals as they fight to retain House and Senate majorities.
In late September, Republican Congressman Mark Foley of Florida resigned after emails disclosed inappropriate messages to young male congressional pages. On Friday, Ohio Republican Rep. Robert Ney pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges relating to a corruption probe. Last month, Ney announced he wouldn't seek reelection. Two other Republicans, Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California and Tom DeLay of Texas, also have quit amid scandal.
In the Pennsylvania race, a recent poll showed that Weldon, who is vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of its Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, is locked in a statistical dead heat with his Democratic challenger, retired Vice Adm. Joe Sestak.
On Oct. 4, First Lady Laura Bush tried to give Weldon a boost, praising him at a fundraiser in Springfield, Pa., for supporting President Bush's tax cuts, backing legislation to conserve natural resources and being "a champion" of U.S. troops.
Weldon, the ninth child in a blue-collar family, worked as a firefighter and schoolteacher before turning to politics and becoming active in foreign policy issues. He has made more than 30 trips to Russia to push for closer relations with the United States.
Weldon is founder and chairman of the congressional U.S.-Former Soviet Union Energy Caucus and founder and co-chairman of an inter-parliamentary exchange with Russia, pressing for a partnership that will contribute to "peace and stability in the world." He also has met with senior officials in Libya and even in North Korea.
In 2004, The Los Angeles Times published a lengthy report that described the meteoric rise of Solutions North America, the consulting firm set up by Karen Weldon and Sexton.
The Times tracked Weldon's parallel efforts on behalf of the firm's three foreign clients, quoting Weldon and his top aide as denying any impropriety.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a Democratic-leaning watchdog group, responded to the report by calling on the House ethics committee and Attorney General John Ashcroft to open investigations.
When the ethics panel did not act, Weldon insisted that the committee look into the allegations to clear his name. Canfield said he wound up sending a thick stack of documents to support Weldon's arguments that he did not discuss his daughter's clients with her and that his assistance to the three foreign interests was unrelated to Solutions' contracts.
Canfield said the panel conducted an informal inquiry and apparently dismissed the matter because he's heard nothing in more than two years. A spokesman for the committee, which rarely talks about its inquiries, did not respond to a request for comment.
What caused Karen Weldon to set up a lobbying firm is unclear. The Times reported that Philadelphia lawyer John Gallagher, who has worked with Representative Weldon on building relations with Russia, took credit for delivering Sexton and Weldon their first client: the Moscow-based Itera energy group.
According to the Times, Justice Department filings, congressional records and interviews by McClatchy Newspapers:
Rep. Weldon and a bipartisan congressional delegation had visited Itera in May 2002 during an official trip to Russia. Itera was drawing scrutiny at the time because of allegations that it had bought assets from a state-run energy giant for hundreds of millions of dollars below their true value.
Two months before Weldon's visit, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency scrapped plans to award an $868,000 grant to Itera to study gas deposits in Russia because the firm refused to identify all of its owners.
But Weldon, at a news conference after returning from Russia, called on the Bush administration to release the grant. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2004 that Weldon also complained to presidential adviser Karl Rove and to then-energy secretary Spencer Abraham about the company's treatment by the U.S. government. The grant was never approved.
On Sept. 30, 2002, Itera signed a $500,000, one-year contract with Solutions North America, a deal that included a $170,000 payment up front. It also gave Solutions a 10 percent "finder's fee" for any sales it generated, an arrangement barred by federal contracting regulations.
On Sept. 24, 2002, six days before Solutions got the contract, Weldon introduced a House resolution encouraging "improved cooperation with the Russian Federation on energy development issues." That night, assisted by his daughter's firm, he hosted a dinner at the Library of Congress honoring Itera's chairman—an event attended by nearly 30 members of Congress and 18 members of the Russian Duma, that country's parliament.
On Jan. 10, 2003, Solutions landed a second client: a one-year, $20,000-a-month contract to represent a Russian firm that had designed a "flying saucer" drone to deliver supplies to war zones. Payments, however, would start only if Solutions landed some business for the firm, Saratov Aviation Plant. Another 10 percent finder's fee was included.
The congressman visited Saratov in Russia later that month, reportedly accompanied by his daughter. Weldon was impressed with the potential of the unmanned aircraft and contacted the Naval Air Systems Command, headquartered at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland.
A Navair spokesman, Rob Koon, said Karen Weldon met with John Fischer, Navair's director of research and engineering sciences, in May 2003 to pursue the matter without Fischer knowing she was representing Saratov.
That September, at a meeting in Russia, Navair's Fischer and a Saratov executive signed a three-page letter of intent to work together on the new aircraft. But Navair spokesman Koon said the talks ended on Oct. 30, 2003.
Solutions got its third foreign client, the Serbian Karic Foundation, after Weldon took on the unpopular job of seeking a U.S. visa for Dragomir Karic and reportedly, one for his brother, Bogoljub.
In the early 1990s, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control had listed the Karic brothers among parties whose U.S. assets were frozen because of their close ties to Milosevic, who died in his cell last spring while facing war crimes charges stemming from the genocides in Bosnia. Recently, the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs issued an international warrant for the arrest of Bogoljub Karic as part of a tax evasion investigation.
The Karic Foundation agreed to pay Solutions $20,000 per month, to assist with its humanitarian work, including setting up a U.S. branch.
Solutions later paid more than $2,300 for Mike Conallen, who was Weldon's chief of staff at the time, to travel to Belgrade, Yugoslavia—a trip approved by Weldon, records show. Conallen later reimbursed the firm because members of Congress and their aides are barred from accepting money from foreign agents.
The Times quoted Conallen as saying he phoned the State Department so many times pushing for visas for the Karic brothers that he didn't have to say why he was calling. Conallen said he was surprised to learn of the current Justice Department inquiry, but declined further comment.
In late 2003, Sexton and Karen Weldon set up a new firm, Solutions Worldwide Inc., but ended their representation of Saratov even before the news stories broke.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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