WASHINGTON — Richard Pombo's political opponents want to tie him to imprisoned ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff as part of a larger theme about "corruption."
But a review of the public record shows that Pombo was barely even a bit player during Abramoff's rise and fall. Though Abramoff and his associates definitely tainted some politicians, the campaign-driven innuendo and allegations around Pombo are exaggerated.
"This Abramoff stuff is all B.S." said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia.
Nunes supports Pombo in the 19th Congressional District race and is not a neutral observer. His blunt assessment, though, has merit. A close review shows that claims about Pombo's close ties to Abramoff are iffy and spun together from disparate threads.
Other campaign questions about congressional reimbursement for Pombo's visits to national parks hit closer to the mark. Taxpayers did pay for Pombo's family to accompany him as he visited national parks in 2003, though Pombo had a legislative reason to take the trips and says he saved the public money by how he traveled.
A former Tracy-area congressman, Pombo is now seeking the GOP nomination for the district that stretches from Modesto to Fresno. His opponents include three fellow Republicans, as well as environmental groups that disliked him during his prior House tenure between 1993 and 2006.
Abramoff was an influential Republican lobbyist who pleaded guilty in 2006 to multiple corruption counts. He is scheduled to be released from federal prison on Dec. 12.
The Humane Society, in a new mailing, asserts that "Pombo took thousands of dollars from convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his clients." The Wikipedia page for Pombo, which can be edited by nearly anyone, further asserts that "Pombo has taken more money from Abramoff than any other member of Congress ($500,000)."
The Defenders of Wildlife Action fund has aired ads characterizing Pombo as corrupt, and Denham has echoed the theme with ads about Pombo's national park visits.
The facts are more complicated and, in some cases, contrary to the allegations.
Abramoff made a single, $2,000 contribution in January 2003 to Pombo's re-election campaign, public records show. It was the lobbyist's only direct contribution to Pombo's campaign in 14 years, Federal Election Commission records show.
Abramoff made a separate $5,000 contribution in 2003 to a political action committee Pombo established to help other Republicans, records show. All told, the two Abramoff contributions amounted to 0.0007 percent of the $9 million Pombo raised in his career.
Some critics lump together Abramoff's own contributions with those of the Indian tribes he represented. Tribes contributed several hundred thousand dollars to Pombo, whose committee oversaw Indian gaming and other tribal issues.
In some cases, though, the contributions came when the tribe was not an active client of the lobbyist, or cannot be tied to an Abramoff request.
Billing records show Abramoff charged the Northern Mariana Islands for telephoning Pombo once and met with him once in 1996. In 2000, Pombo's then-press secretary was treated to Abramoff's luxury sky box at three pro wrestling events.
Tellingly, though, investigators who spent years going after Abramoff never drew Pombo into their net.
Pombo's name does not appear in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee's definitive, 373-page report on Abramoff's tribal dealings, completed in 2006. Neither does the name of the House Resources Committee, which Pombo chaired. Pombo's name does not occur in the index of "The Perfect Villain," author Gary Chavetz's 440-page rendition of Abramoff's fall.
Neither Pombo nor his staffers were summoned before the Senate panel during its two-year-long investigation. Neither Pombo nor his staff members were charged in the Justice Department's wide-ranging criminal investigation. Pombo was never called to testify.
The travel allegations are meatier, though still subject to interpretation.
The House Resources Committee in 2003 reimbursed Pombo $4,935 for a two-week rental of a recreational vehicle just after he was named chairman. On the trip, from July 27 to Aug. 11, 2003, Pombo and his family visited several national parks, including: Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.
Pombo called the travel official business and said it was an inexpensive way for him to see the parks his committee oversaw. A Yellowstone official told McClatchy at the time that he set a briefing for Pombo, though officials at several other parks said they didn't recall meeting with the congressman.
"I do not personally remember him being here, (and that) is generally something we do recall," William Tweed, a top official at Sequoia and Kings Canyon, told McClatchy at the time. "We pay attention, because congressmen are significant people for us."