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White House won't discuss meetings between officials, Abramoff

WASHINGTON—For the second straight day, the White House refused Wednesday to say who among its staffers met with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff or whom the recently convicted felon was representing when he visited the executive mansion.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan, pressed to explain Abramoff's contacts with the Bush administration, said, "We're not going to engage in a fishing expedition" in the media.

"I know there's some that want to do that, but I don't see any reason to do so," McClellan said. "Well, I think that some people (are) insinuating things based on no evidence whatsoever."

Several government ethics groups found the White House stance perplexing, saying nothing prevents the administration from disclosing the identities of meeting participants.

"There's a feeding frenzy for transparency and disclosure on Capitol Hill, and that's not a good way to start," said Roberta Baskin, the executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog group. "You can't plead national security. The public has a right to know."

Abramoff was a high-flying Washington lobbyist and a huge contributor to Republican political campaigns until he pleaded guilty before a federal judge on Jan. 3 to one charge each of conspiracy to corrupt public officials, mail fraud and tax evasion. He gave only to fellow Republicans, but his clients contributed large donations to Republicans and Democrats.

He's now cooperating with prosecutors investigating corruption on Capitol Hill and in the Bush administration, and Republicans worry that public outrage over the spreading scandal could cost them control of Congress in November's elections.

Following Abramoff's guilty plea, lawmakers from both parties rushed to distance themselves from him and unload contributions from him. The Bush-Cheney campaign donated $6,000 that it had received from Abramoff to the American Heart Association, though it's keeping more than $100,000 that he raised for the campaign from other donors.

The White House went public about returning the $6,000, but has said little else about contacts between Abramoff and its staffers. McClellan acknowledged Tuesday that Abramoff and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove are casual friends largely because they both once headed the College Republicans.

Other than acknowledging that Abramoff attended Hanukkah receptions at the White House in 2001 and 2002, McClellan has refused to say how many other times the lobbyist has visited. While photos of guests shaking hands with the president at such events are routine, McClellan has ducked whether there are any pictures of Bush with Abramoff, saying only that he'd look into the question.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Abramoff and his associates had nearly 200 contacts with the White House during Bush's first 10 months in office.

"As with all of these scandals, the longer it takes them to answer the question, the more interest there will be in the answer," said Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group. "Answer the question and put the questions to rest."

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

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