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White House tries to cool Hastert's anger over leak

Feds deny network's claim that speaker is probe target
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, through a spokesman, said the ABC report was "absolutely untrue."


Dennis Hastert
Justice Department

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House tried to cool congressional anger Thursday over a report linking House Speaker Dennis Hastert to a wide-ranging corruption probe, denying the story was leaked to punish Hastert for criticizing the FBI's raid of a lawmaker's office.

Hastert demanded a "full retraction" of an ABC News report that he is being investigated in connection with the Jack Abramoff corruption probe, and he speculated that the leak was meant as retaliation by Justice Department officials.

Hastert has been a particularly vocal critic of an FBI search of a Democratic lawmaker's office Saturday and suggested the leak was meant to intimidate him.

"This is one of the leaks that come out to try to intimidate people, and we're just not going to be intimidated on it," Hastert told Chicago radio station WGN on Thursday.

White House spokesman Tony Snow denied there was any effort to hit back at Hastert, and he said the Justice Department and lawmakers were working out a deal that would return material seized from Rep. William Jefferson's office to the House.

"This White House is interested in maintaining, in recognizing the constitutional concerns of members of Congress and the law-enforcement obligations of the executive branch," Snow told reporters. He said Justice Department officials "are not leaking information to try to undermine the House speaker. It's just false, false, false."

But House aides told CNN that lawmakers from both parties have blamed the FBI for the ABC report.

Rep. Terry Lee, a Nebraska Republican, called the allegations "clear retaliation."

"I guess we shouldn't be surprised that there is retaliation from those that have been criticized, but let's realize what that is -- retaliation," said Lee, who also blasted ABC for "noncredible journalism" during a speech on the House floor.

A lawyer for Hastert also raised the possibly of legal action against ABC News for the Wednesday evening report.

In a letter to ABC News on Thursday, Hastert's lawyer, J. Randolph Evans, said the report by ABC News investigative correspondent Brian Ross "constitutes libel and defamation" and was "a specific and malicious intent to injure and damage Speaker Hastert's reputation," which is the legal standard a public official must prove to win a libel case. (Read Evans' letter to ABC -- PDF)

On Wednesday night, the report prompted the Justice Department to take the highly unusual step of denying on the record that the Illinois Republican is the subject of a probe.

"With regard to reports suggesting that the speaker of the House is under investigation or 'in the mix,' as stated by ABC News, I reconfirm, as stated by the Department earlier this evening, that these reports are untrue," Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty said.

Usually, when queried by reporters, the Justice Department neither confirms nor denies the existence of an investigation.

Citing the department's denial, Hastert's spokesman, Ron Bonjean, released a statement saying the ABC report was "absolutely untrue."

"We are demanding a full retraction of the ABC News story," Bonjean said.

However, ABC News posted a statement on its Web site late Wednesday standing by the story.

Aide: Hastert learned of report when it aired

A senior aide to Hastert told CNN that the speaker learned about the report after it aired. ABC News called shortly before its deadline asking for a response, and his office issued a denial after checking with his lawyers, the aide said.

Although Hastert did not personally talk to anyone at the Justice Department, senior staff called to find out about the report and were told that the department would be putting out a denial, the aide said.

ABC News, citing "high-level official sources," reported that the FBI is investigating a letter Hastert wrote three years ago urging then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton to block an Indian casino that would have competed with casinos operated by other tribes, which were represented by Abramoff.

Hastert's letter, the details of which were widely reported during news coverage of the Abramoff case, was written shortly after a fundraiser for the speaker was held at the lobbyist's Washington restaurant, where Abramoff and his clients made contributions to Hastert.

A source involved with the Abramoff case told CNN that Justice Department officials have asked Abramoff about the fundraiser, which netted $75,000 for Hastert days before he wrote the letter.

Hastert's office told ABC News that the speaker has "a long history and a well-documented record of opposing Indian reservation shopping for casino gaming purposes."

Abramoff, the former high-flying lobbyist with strong connections to GOP leaders, has pleaded guilty to corruption charges and agreed to cooperate with an ongoing federal investigation.

The ABC News report came just hours after Hastert and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi demanded that the Justice Department return materials it seized over the weekend during a search of Jefferson's office. The Louisiana Democrat is the subject of a separate federal corruption probe. (Full story)

Hastert and congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle said the weekend raid on Jefferson's Capitol Hill office violated the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches. He and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, demanded Wednesday that the Justice Department return materials taken from Jefferson's office.

Thursday, President Bush ordered the documents placed under seal in the solicitor general's office at the Justice Department for 45 days while both sides seek a resolution to the dispute, but he pledged that "This investigation will go forward, and justice will be served." (Full story)

Shortly afterward, Hastert and Pelosi announced that the House counsel would begin negotiations with the Justice Department on the procedures agents would follow when dealing with evidence "that might exist in the offices of members."

CNN's Dana Bash, Ed Henry, Terry Frieden, Deirdre Walsh and Kevin Bohn contributed to this report.

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