Doolittle, five staffers subpoenaed in Abramoff probe

WASHINGTON — California Rep. John Doolittle said Thursday that the Justice Department has issued subpoenas to him and five of his staff members seeking office records going back 11 years in connection to the congressman's relationship with jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Doolittle's attorney indicated that he might fight having to comply.

Doolittle, a Republican, declined further comment about the subpoenas. But his criminal defense attorney, David Barger, said in a prepared statement that the subpoenas "raise serious constitutional issues going to the very core" of the separation of powers between the Congress and the executive branch.

The statement didn't say what records are being sought but said they include "virtually every record, including legislative records, for the congressman for the past 11 years."

That would indicate that prosecutors want to review records dating from 1996, which is about the time Doolittle would have met Abramoff.

In an interview in February 2006, Doolittle said he couldn't recall exactly when he met Abramoff but thought it was at a fundraiser held for someone other than him. The first political contribution by Abramoff on the records of the Federal Election Commission was $1,000 on Jan. 22, 1997, to former Rep. Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican who later became House majority leader. Doolittle was a friend and loyal lieutenant to DeLay.

The subpoenas could mean an even longer ordeal for Doolittle. Records dating that far back would be voluminous, and going through them would take time. That could mean that the investigation of Doolittle, which has been under way for more than three years, is a long way from reaching a conclusion.

A fight over the subpoenas also could result in a prolonged court battle at a time when Doolittle is coming under increasing pressure to retire from Congress because of fears that his embroilment in the Abramoff scandal will cost Republicans what otherwise would have been a safe seat in a heavily Republican district.

The five staffers served subpoenas are Alisha Perkins, the office scheduler; chief of staff Ron Rogers; deputy chief of staff Dan Blankenburg; Gordon Hinkle, Doolittle's field representative and spokesman in Granite Bay, Calif.; and his legislative director, Evan Goitein.

The office statement said the Justice Department has assured the five staff members that they are merely witnesses.

The new round of subpoenas comes almost a month after Rogers, Blankenburg and Perkins appeared under subpoenas to testify before a federal grand jury in Washington that was investigating the Abramoff scandal.

In April, the congressman's house in Oakton, Va., was searched by the FBI pursuant to a warrant for business records belonging to his wife, Julie. The business, Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions, was hired to work for Abramoff and was paid more than $66,000 over a 17-month period. The only known assignment it had was fundraising work for an Abramoff charity fundraiser, but $40,000 in $5,000 monthly increments was paid to the company after the March 2003 event had been canceled.

Doolittle disclosed in May that the search occurred after federal prosecutors tried to persuade him to plead guilty to a crime that he said he didn't commit. Doolittle said prosecutors believe his wife was paid for work she didn't do as a way to pass money to him for assistance he gave Abramoff.

This isn't the only subpoena fight in which Doolittle is involved. Earlier this month, Doolittle was among 12 House of Representatives members and several senators subpoenaed by defense attorneys in San Diego to testify in the trial of businessman Brent Wilkes. Wilkes is facing trial beginning next week on charges of bribing former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

The general counsel of the House filed a motion to quash that subpoena this week. In it, Deputy General Counsel Kerry W. Kircher argues that Congress is constitutionally protected under the speech and debate clause of Article 1 of the Constitution from having to produce documents that reveal the internal legislative processes.

The House motion quotes a decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia stating that the effect of enforcing such broad subpoenas "would be to authorize a fishing trip into legislative files."

In his statement, Barger said the subpoenas in the Abramoff investigation raise issues that affect not only Doolittle but all members of Congress because they include legislative records.

"We shall be vigilant to ensure that from our perspective the congressman's and, derivatively, Congress' rights are vigorously protected," Barger said.

Barger said the staff members will confer with the House general counsel's office on how to respond to the subpoenas.