Thursday, May 25, 2006

Justice Department denies House speaker probe

Justice Department denies House speaker probe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Justice Department official denied a report on Wednesday that the speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, is under investigation by the FBI in connection with a corruption probe.

ABC News, citing unnamed Justice Department sources, reported that information implicating Hastert was developed from convicted lobbyists now cooperating with the government.

But a Justice Department official told Reuters: "The story is wrong. Hastert is not under investigation."

Hastert's spokesman Ron Bonjean demanded that the network retract the story, pointing out the Justice Department denial.

"The ABC News report is absolutely untrue. As confirmed by the Justice Department, 'Speaker Hastert is not under investigation by the Justice Department,'" Bonjean said in a statement. "We are demanding a full retraction of the ABC News story."

In an update on its story, ABC quoted unnamed federal law enforcement sources as saying that the Justice Department denial was meant only to deny that Hastert was a formal "target" or "subject" of the investigation.

"Federal law enforcement sources tonight said ABC News accurately reported that Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert is 'in the mix' in the FBI investigation of corruption in Congress," the network reported on its Web site.

In its initial report, ABC said part of the corruption investigation involved a letter Hastert wrote three years ago, urging the secretary of the Interior Department to block a casino on an Indian reservation that would have competed with those of other tribes.

The other tribes were represented by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who reportedly provided details of his dealings with Hastert as part of his plea agreement with the government, ABC said.

Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to fraud charges and is cooperating with prosecutors in the investigation into a conspiracy to bribe members of Congress in return for legislative favors, which could implicate more officials and lawmakers.

Tom DeLay, the former Republican House leader, resigned his seat after becoming embroiled in the Abramoff scandal. Two of his former aides and a former aide to Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate in the corruption investigation.

Louisiana Democratic Rep. William Jefferson is also under investigation in a separate public corruption probe.

Two of his former associates have pleaded guilty to bribery charges and the FBI disclosed it videotaped Jefferson accepting bribe money and had found $90,000 in cash in his freezer.