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Dorgan: Stricter ethics rules on way

Congress will enact new ethics rules as a result of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, North Dakota Democrat Sen. Byron Dorgan said last week in a one-hour sit-down question-and-answer session with The Forum.


Congress will enact new ethics rules as a result of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, North Dakota Democrat Sen. Byron Dorgan said last week in a one-hour sit-down question-and-answer session with The Forum.

Dorgan has been under fire in recent months for having accepted campaign contributions from Indian tribes with connections to the disgraced lobbyist. In December, saying he wanted nothing to do with Abramoff or his arranged contributions, the senator returned $67,000 to the connected donors.

Abramoff pleaded guilty to influence-buying in Congress on Jan. 3 in a plea agreement that includes his promise to help the Justice Department further its investigation, which could ensnare members of Congress or their staff.

The same day we sat down with Dorgan, Republicans in the House and Senate announced their proposed lobbying reforms, which include new restrictions on lobbyists footing bills for lunches, gifts and "fact-finding" trips for lawmakers.

The next day, congressional Democrats announced similar proposals.


We asked Dorgan to answer some questions about the Abramoff scandal and other congressional issues that might be on the minds of his constituents. The following is an edited version of the discussion, which runs today and Monday.

Q. You said people who may be connected to Abramof were trying to specifically discredit you because of your being involved in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee investigation. What makes you think that and who would those people be?

A. Well, The Hill newspaper published an article with a headline that the Republicans' strategy was to pull Democrats into the Abramoff issue. In recent weeks, people who talked to Republican strategists said their approach was to pull Democrats into it so that it is not seen as a Republican scandal.

The fact is (Sen.) John McCain and I took on this investigation. We exposed a pretty big scandal, and it's not surprising to me that there's some push-back.

I think I understand the stakes of when you take on something like this. But, frankly, I'm proud of what we did. We exposed a very significant scandal.

You've been asked before why you didn't step down from the Abramoff committee investigation. You had already declined stepping away from the investigation and obviously you haven't.

Anyone who has paid attention to the investigation would understand that there's never been a conflict. I mean, I've been - Sen. McCain and I have both been - the most aggressive interrogators, the most aggressive investigators of this scandal.

As you know and as I've said, I've never met Abramoff, I've never received a campaign contribution from Abramoff. Abramoff obviously knew a lot of members of Congress, contributed to a lot of members of Congress. I didn't know him, never received a contribution from him. So I never perceived of having any kind of a conflict.


You've had some awfully strong words about what was coming out in that investigation about Abramoff. You've called him corrupt and, I guess, all kinds of descriptive words. Do you think maybe if you feel so strongly, and went into it feeling so strongly about what he had done, that it was really a fair hearing for him?

When I described what we were learning at the hearing, it was about the facts that we were uncovering. I wasn't describing what I thought about him. So it's perfectly appropriate, it seems to me, to comment on some pretty disgusting facts.

I think it's perfectly appropriate to have expressed a judgment about the disgust that I felt about what we had learned.

Commenting about the evidence, not necessarily saying that Jack Abramoff is a so-and-so.

All I have learned about Jack Abramoff is from what we exposed. We issued many subpoenas, gathered hundreds of thousands of documents and held hearings - and exposed a very substantial amount of corruption. And that's all I know about this man. My comments are based on what we have learned about him, and I think confirmed, as well, by the action the Justice Department has taken.

In light of the Justice Department investigation of Abramoff's alleged influence-buying, is your Senate investigation continuing?

Our Senate investigation is done through the Indian Affairs Committee. We've invested a great deal of time and energy to expose this corruption. We are probably at a point where we have completed all the hearings. The next likely activity is for us to write a final report with recommendations.

You've said many times you've never met Abramoff but, obviously, you knew who he was.


I would not have known him from a John Deere tractor. Abramoff was not part of my radar. He was what is known as a Pioneer for President Bush - those are people who raised over $100,000 for the president. He, by all accounts, gave personal contributions to a lot of members of Congress, all of them Republican. Many of them probably knew him, probably went to fundraisers with him, but he's not someone I would have known.

You must have been aware of him by the time you used the (MCI) skybox of the Choctaw Indians.

That was in 2001, I believe. That skybox was offered for use by the Green Traurig law firm by two Democratic attorneys who worked for that law firm. We were told it belonged to the Choctaw Indian tribe. There were pictures of Choctaw Indians on the wall, Choctaw chieftains and so on. And when we reported it on our FEC report four years ago, we reported it as an in-kind contribution from the Choctaw Indian tribe. When reports later surfaced that suggested that Mr. Abramoff had controlled perhaps that and other skyboxes, I immediately refunded the money that was reported as an in-kind contribution from the Choctaw tribe.

The implication by some is that someone did things for Indian tribes out of the blue and then received campaign contributions for them.

This is not some passing interest of mine, working on Indian issues. I have been aggressive, doing so because I think a lot of children on Indian reservations don't have adequate health care, are going to bad schools, are put in foster homes that are unsafe. A lot of elderly are not getting the health care they need. So I want you to have a context because there are some who look at this and say, "Oh, well, he did something for an Indian tribe and therefore got an Indian tribe contribution." That is just not the case.

I stimulate and initiate a lot of things dealing with Indian health care and education, Indian housing, just because I think we're in such desperate situations.

You've been saying that since the first time ...

If somebody came to my office and said, "Do something and I'll give you a campaign contribution," I'd kick them out of my office. North Dakotans know that is not the way I would ever allow business to be done. And so when someone suggests that I sign a letter asking for an extension of the school construction program because I got contributions, that's just absurd. It's a program I have previously supported, a program that will save the government money, build schools more quickly.


The history of my passion to deal with these issues has never had anything to do with money, campaign contributions; it had to do with trying to solve some really difficult problems for people I think have been left behind by this country.

And so, do I take umbrage to some of that? Sure. But you know, I've chosen a political career. I understand this life and I understand there are times when you are heavily criticized for things. People have a right to criticize me, they have the right to take me on on issues. That's part of American politics.

Did you set any future ground rules so that you might have more knowledge about the background on some of these contributions?

Certainly in any future campaign fundraising - I have never, ever, under any circumstances, related anything I've ever done to fundraising, and never will.

Have you been interviewed by the Justice Department on these cases?


I want you to understand something I think is interesting and important. The minute that law firm discovered what Abramoff had been doing - discovered it in large part by our investigation - John McCain and myself - they fired him. They didn't know what he was doing. And there are levels of representations of these Indian tribes - some, routine things they were working with Congress on, perfectly above board and so on.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has proposed that political fundraising be banned inside the beltway. What do you think of that?


Well, Newt Gingrich left Congress under a cloud, as you know, and I expect there will be some reform measures passed in Congress. We've been working on reform measures, and we will almost certainly pass some out of the Abramoff scandal.

Does there need to be some bright line between lobbyists and campaign money to make sure stuff doesn't get commingled -that lobbyists are making sure that somebody gets a donation to someone they lobbied to?

(Lobbying) goes on all the time, and it's instructive to the process. Experts from all areas want to come in and describe their interests. I mean, I don't know how you limit that or in any way change that. But, you know, we're going to have some reform legislation.

Let me say one other thing that I think is important. You know, I work in the Senate and I'm friends with people in the House. Frankly - and I've done a number of jobs in the private sector and state government and the House. Most of the people I work with are remarkable people, great skill, great talent, great dedication. And I'm enormously proud to work with them. And I understand that those of us in the political system are subject sometimes to being viewed skeptically. But I think most members of Congress, most Republicans, most Democrats, come to these jobs and come to public service because they really care about this country and they try every day to do the right thing. That's how I feel about most of what's going on.

Go back 60 years ago, maybe 70 years ago, and there were members of Congress who would serve in the Congress and have their name on the front door of a law firm. And they would actually introduce legislation in Congress for their clients in the law firm. Campaign contributions in cash, in paper bags, never recorded by anybody. There was no financial disclosure.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Janell Cole at (701) 224-0830

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