Democrats urge Bush to disclose extent of Abramoff ties
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(CNN) -- As Senate Democrats pressed President Bush to act with "openness and accountability" when he responds to questions about dealings with Jack Abramoff, a White House spokesman Tuesday remained reticent about Bush's contacts with the embattled lobbyist.
Abramoff attended "just a few staff-level meetings" and two Hanukkah receptions in recent years, spokesman Scott McClellan said.
However, McClellan declined to give any details about the meetings between White House aides and Abramoff, who pleaded guilty on January 3 to bilking clients, evading taxes and conspiring to bribe a congressman. Abramoff has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in a wide-ranging influence-peddling probe. ( Watch the rise and fall of a Washington power lobbyist -- 1:50)
"We just don't get into discussing staff-level meetings," McClellan said.
Senate Democrats, who have lambasted the GOP for its involvement in a host of alleged ethics violations, called on Bush on Tuesday to disclose any contact he had with the embattled lobbyist.
"The American people need to be assured that the White House is not for sale," four Senate Democrats wrote in a letter to Bush. "As the leader of your party, you have the opportunity to set an example and call for openness and accountability from your fellow Republicans." (Read the letter)
The letter was signed by Senate minority leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, and Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Charles Schumer of New York.
McClellan refused to delve into specifics regarding Abramoff's contact with the White House and refused to name which White House aides met with Abramoff.
The spokesman further told reporters that it was possible Abramoff made other trips to the White House. But McClellan was adamant that Abramoff's visits to the White House don't imply that Bush or his staff were involved in any of the lobbyist's improprieties.
"There are people who have been charged with wrongdoing," McClellan said. "That doesn't in and of itself implicate anyone else, and I don't think getting into discussing this is fair to anybody." ( Watch why Abramoff's plea agreement has D.C. biting its nails -- 2:37)
Abramoff was a Pioneer-lever fundraiser during Bush's re-election campaign, meaning the lobbyist raised more than $100,000. The White House has given $6,000 of Abramoff's donations to charity.
In the letter to Bush, Senate Democrats questioned whether Abramoff's influence led to certain hirings and firings, including those of David Safavian, a White House and former General Services Administration official indicted in September on charges he obstructed a GSA probe and made false statements to investigators.
The GSA is "charged with simplifying the procurement, utilization and disposal of government property," according to the agency's Web site.
The senators also asked if the White House acted on Abramoff's behalf to dismiss a federal prosecutor who was investigating the lobbyist's dealings with the U.S. territory of Guam.
"The American people have a right to know how many times you and senior staff met with Abramoff and what benefits, if any, Abramoff received from this high degree of access," the Democrats wrote.
Abramoff was an associate of some of Congress' top Republicans, including former House Speaker Tom DeLay, who is now facing money-laundering charges in an unrelated Texas case. (Read about DeLay relinquishing his majority leader post)
Also, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, gave up a House leadership post earlier this week after government sources identified him as the unnamed congressman in Abramoff's plea agreement.
Ney is accused of receiving gifts in exchange for agreeing to support certain bills and place statements in the Congressional record, charges Ney has denied. The representative has said the ongoing investigation will clear his name.
Many lawmakers, including Democrats, have scrambled to return or donate contributions linked to Abramoff, and McClellan portrayed the lobbyist an an equal-opportunity campaign contributor.
That assertion does not seem substantiated by Federal Election Commission records.
Records since 1998 show no personal donations from Abramoff to Democrats, and almost two-thirds of the $4.4 million contributed by Abramoff and his associates went to Republicans, according to documents compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-finance watchdog group.
The Abramoff case has heated up as Democrats head into the 2006 congressional elections, blasting what they call a "culture of corruption" among Republican leaders. And the lobbyist's guilty plea has prompted a push for reform among the congressional GOP leadership.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, and Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-California, proposed banning all privately funded travel, setting a stiffer ban on gifts from lobbyists and requiring more frequent and detailed financial disclosures from members and staff. (Full story)
"A member of Congress should be able to accept a baseball cap or a T-shirt from the proud students of a local middle school," Hastert said. "But he or she doesn't need to be taken to lunch or dinner by a Washington lobbyist."
CNN's Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.
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