WASHINGTON — Meet John Doolittle, working stiff.
Sacramento, Calif.,-area residents once called him Republican state senator, then congressman. Federal prosecutors once called him, ominously, Representative 5. Now, starting over at the age of 61, he unashamedly calls himself a lobbyist.
"It's funny," Doolittle said. "That's such a negative term, but if people ask, that's what I say I am."
He laughed. He laughs easily, which is saying something, given all that's transpired.
"I know," said his former colleague Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., "that he and his wife went through a great deal."
Doolittle was one of several lawmakers caught up the turbulent wake of Jack Abramoff, the Republican uber-lobbyist who was released recently after serving three and a half years in prison on mail fraud and conspiracy charges. More than a dozen other individuals were convicted or pleaded guilty to assorted charges, though no charges were ever brought against Doolittle or his wife, Julie, who did event planning for Abramoff's firm.
John and Doolittle estimate that they shelled out more than $400,000 for attorneys' fees during a long-running corruption investigation that left them poorer but in the clear. Doctors' bills have tallied hundreds of thousands of dollars more, covering the exotic medical travails of Julie Doolittle.
They suffered the essentially involuntary end of John Doolittle's 28-year career in elective office. They saw his former legislative director sob as he was sentenced to four years in federal prison. They have, whatever one might say about Doolittle's politics, endured.
"It was painful to leave" Congress, Doolittle acknowledged, but "I'm going forward. Honestly, I don't look back."
Doolittle represented portions of the Sacramento area in the state Senate from 1981 through 1990. From 1991 through his 2008 retirement, he represented roughly 650,000 residents in a congressional district based in Roseville, Calif.
Now he operates a one-man lobbying shop from his Northern Virginia home. Outside that, his sole title is choir president at the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ward. He's a gardener and a grandfather, and a man coping with sciatica and tennis elbow who nonetheless still looks younger than his years.
A fat cat, he is not. "I'm his staff," Julie Doolittle said, and she, too, laughed.
Doolittle first registered as a lobbyist in August 2010, representing a Folsom, Calif.,-based firm called Resource Capital. Soon, public records show, he added a client called Downhole Pipe & Equipment, based in Sugar Land, Texas. Last May, the Roseville-based North State Building Industry Association joined Doolittle's stable.
All told, Doolittle has reported being paid $210,000 by his lobbying clients.
"I know some people may think it shows just how far I have sunk, but I had no compunction about it," Doolittle said of his new profession.
He likens lobbying to legislating. They both are about solving problems and helping people, he said. So he makes connections. He knows the key legislative directors and the committee chairmen. He knows how Washington works.
"In his areas of expertise, he'll do very well," Burton predicted. "I think he's a very honorable man ... (who) understands the process."
Doolittle, for instance, knows he need meet with a former House of Representatives colleague only "if it's essential." He need not brave congested Interstate 66 to reach the Capitol, or K Street, every day. He usually works from the two-story, five-bedroom home his family has lived in since 1991.
He's still a conservative, but with subtler shadings. A hard-liner while in office, awarded a perfect 100 voting score from the American Conservative Union in 2007, Doolittle has since adjusted his views; at least, with regard to the criminal justice system.
"It's just outrageous how they treat people," Doolittle said. "It's made me much more keenly aware of the need to give everyone the presumption of innocence."
On Friday the 13th of April 2007, he was heading to an appointment in Oroville, Calif., in his congressional district. A little after noon, Julie Doolittle opened the door to discover several FBI agents on the front step. They had a search warrant, and reinforcements.
While she tried to figure out a way to reroute her daughter, due home from middle school, the agents spent several hours combing through the house. They took her journals, her business files and her desktop Dell computer. None of it was returned.
A year later, John Doolittle's former-staffer-turned-lobbyist Kevin Ring was indicted on corruption charges. Prosecutors accused Ring, allied with Abramoff, of lavishing favors on those who might help his clients.
Doolittle, designated "Representative 5," appeared throughout 12 pages of Ring's original 46-page indictment. Ring was said to have provided "many tickets for entertainment events" to Doolittle's staff. He bought "many meals at various restaurants" for Doolittle himself. He helped arrange consulting work for Julie Doolittle. In an October 2000 e-mail to Abramoff, he called John Doolittle a "good soldier, doing everything we asked of him."
"Congressman Doolittle and his staff helped out again and again and again on lots of projects," federal prosecutor Nathaniel Edmonds told a jury, the trial transcript shows.
After a mistrial the first time around, Ring was convicted at a second trial. He's now appealing. Doolittle submitted a character endorsement of Ring, urging mercy in sentencing, but he never was called as a trial witness, nor was he interviewed by prosecutors or FBI agents.
"I've had the pleasure," said Julie Doolittle, whom investigators interviewed several times.
Finally, Doolittle's attorney obtained an oral Justice Department declaration last year that the matter was closed. The Doolittles were free and clear, albeit with a reputational and financial hangover. John Doolittle's campaign committee reported still owing $121,381 for his legal fees as of Sept. 30; he said that had since been resolved.
But as the legal burden lifted, his wife's health deteriorated. Pursuing the cause of her persistent breathing problems over the past year, doctors finally determined that her trachea was collapsing. George Washington University surgeons inserted three stents in March and untwisted the trachea; for eight days after the operation, she was deeply sedated.
"When I got out, I couldn't talk, or write, or walk," she said, in a voice that's still hoarse. "It's been a difficult, difficult situation for us."
Thankfully, John Doolittle said, his health care coverage as a retired member of Congress handled a lot of the expense. He does, after all, count his blessings.
"Bad things," he said, "happen to good people all the time ... (but) we're trying to move forward, in a new life."
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