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Politicians run from the Abramoff scandal

WASHINGTON—President Bush and other political leaders scrambled Wednesday to distance themselves from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff by giving Abramoff-linked campaign contributions to charity.

Among those giving up cash they got from Abramoff or his clients were Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who was forced out as majority leader of the House of Representatives last fall while facing an unrelated indictment; Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., his temporary successor; and Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the Senate majority leader.

They and other members of Congress acted as another prominent Republican, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, warned that the party faces election-year fallout and the possible loss of majority control of the House and the Senate unless it admits deep-seated problems, adopts strong reforms and permanently dumps DeLay for an untainted replacement.

"You can't have a corrupt lobbyist unless you have a corrupt member (of Congress) or a corrupt staff. This was a team effort," Gingrich said. "The danger for Republicans is to pretend this isn't fundamental or to pretend they can get by passively without undertaking real reform."

The political moves came as Abramoff, 46, pleaded guilty Wednesday in Miami to more charges of conspiracy and fraud, these connected to his 2000 purchase of SunCruz, a fleet of gambling ships.

The day before, Abramoff pleaded guilty in Washington to corruption and tax-fraud charges. His plea bargains hinge on his cooperation in a broader corruption investigation that will bore in on members of Congress, their staffs and members of the Bush administration.

At the White House, press secretary Scott McClellan said the president didn't know Abramoff, despite the lobbyist's campaign work for Bush and attendance at several White House social functions.

"It's possible that they would have met at a holiday reception or some other widely attended gathering. The president does not know him, nor does the president recall ever meeting him," McClellan said.

He said Abramoff had attended three White House Hanukkah parties, but added that he didn't know whether there were White House photos of the two men shaking hands, as is routine at those functions.

He also said he didn't know whether Abramoff had attended any special receptions for Bush campaign fundraisers. Abramoff was a Bush campaign Pioneer, the honorary title given to those who've raised at least $100,000 for Bush. Abramoff used that title to impress potential clients with his White House ties.

McClellan said the Republican National Committee would donate to the American Heart Association $6,000 that Abramoff and his clients had given to Bush's campaign.

The Democratic National Committee said the president should have gone farther, that he "should have no hesitation about returning the more than $100,000 directly raised for his re-election campaign by an admitted felon."

McClellan rejected those demands, noting that there were no allegations that the other contributors were accused of any wrongdoing.

He also stressed that members of both major parties received money from Abramoff or his clients. "There are certainly people on both sides of the aisle that ought to take a look at that," he said.

DeLay announced through a spokesman that he's giving $15,000 that he got from Abramoff and his wife to charities in his district. He's received $57,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff or clients since 2001.

DeLay didn't mention returning the cost of golf junkets that he took overseas on Abramoff's tab. He's said that he thought charitable groups paid for the trips.

DeLay was forced to step down as majority leader in September when he was indicted on a campaign-finance charge in Texas. Republican leaders had changed House rules earlier to protect DeLay in the event of an indictment, but they restored the automatic suspension after a public outcry.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., had postponed the House's post-holiday resumption of business until Jan. 31 to give DeLay more time to resolve his criminal case, which would free him to try to regain his leadership post. But Gingrich said House Republicans shouldn't wait and should elect a permanent new leader now, because DeLay would be tied up with legal problems for at least six to eight months.

Hastert had announced Tuesday that he'll give $69,000 in Abramoff-linked donations to charity.

Blunt will give to charity the $8,500 he received from Abramoff, a spokeswoman said. "While we firmly believe the contributions were legal at the time of receipt, the plea indicates that such contributions may not have been given in the spirit in which they were received," said Burson Taylor, the spokeswoman.

Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Administration Committee, who's thought to be the next target of the Justice Department's Abramoff investigation, announced that he'd given $6,500 in Abramoff contributions to the American Indian College Fund.

Frist, who wants to run for president in 2008, will return $2,000 that his political action committee received from one of the Indian tribes that Abramoff represented.

Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said he'd donate $32,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff's clients to a foundation that the congressman created to fight illegal drugs.

"Although these contributions were lawfully made and properly reported, out of an abundance of caution, so as to avoid any appearance of impropriety, I am donating these funds to the UNITE Foundation," Rogers said after a query from the Lexington Herald-Leader, a Knight Ridder newspaper.

Several Democrats, including Sens. Max Baucus of Montana and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, also had announced earlier that they'll donate Abramoff-related contributions to charity, but Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader, gave no indication that he'll give back a $5,000 contribution.

Instead, he released a copy of a letter he co-wrote last month with Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., to the Senate Ethics Committee.

In it, the two said they'd urged the Interior Department to block an Indian casino proposal in Louisiana because of their long-standing opposition to expanding Indian gambling off reservations. They said they were out to protect their home state's casino business, and that their intercession wasn't related to contributions from Abramoff or his clients. Their position on the issue was the same as Abramoff's.

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(Knight Ridder reporters James Kuhnhenn and Maria Recio contributed to this article.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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