Hastert and the Law

HASTERT AND THE LAW….ABC News reports that House Speaker Dennis Hastert is under investigation by the FBI:

Part of the investigation involves a letter Hastert wrote three years ago, urging the Secretary of the Interior to block a casino on an Indian reservation that would have competed with other tribes.

….The letter was written shortly after a fund-raiser for Hastert at a restaurant owned by [Jack] Abramoff. Abramoff and his clients contributed more than $26,000 at the time.

In previous years this kind of thing would have been business as usual. After all, the fundraiser was legal, the contributions were reported normally, and there was almost certainly no specific, documented connection between the contributions and the letter. But as Jeffrey Birnbaum reports in our cover story this month, the Justice Department has taken an unusual approach to the Jack Abramoff scandals:

At the center of the scandal is something more prosaic, and potentially far more explosive: good old-fashioned campaign donations. Deep in the plea agreements won by Justice Department lawyers are admissions by the defendants ? Abramoff and his cronies, ex-DeLay aides Tony C. Rudy and Michael Scanlon ? that they conspired to use campaign contributions to bribe lawmakers. Even though these gifts were fully disclosed and within prescribed limits, the government said they were criminal, and the defendants agreed. This aspect of the case has received little attention. But it is sending shudders down K Street.

….The Abramoff and Scanlon pleas get very specific. The contributions that they swapped for favors included $4,000 to the campaign committee of “Representative #1” and $10,000 in contributions to the National Republican Congressional Committee “at Representative #1’s request.” Representative #1 has been widely identified as Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who is under investigation as part of the Abramoff scam. Ney denies any wrongdoing. Officials close to the investigations say that possible campaign-donation bribery is also being looked at as part of the ongoing probes of as many as six other lawmakers.

Read the whole thing. Hastert might be one of “six other lawmakers” named here, and it’s possible that he could be in serious trouble even if he fully reported the Abramoff contributions. The rules of the game may be changing.

UPDATE: Hastert flatly denies that he’s under investigation.