Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Things don't seem to be turning out the way pessimistic Democrats hoped they would.

The economy is showing increasing evidence of its strength and staying power, the latest being the best non-auto retail sales data in six years. Congress is reauthorizing the antiterrorism Patriot Act over the objections of Senate Democrats, and is now working to make some of the Bush tax cuts permanent. And in a year when most political prognosticators are saying Republicans will suffer losses in the Senate, Democratic seats in New Jersey, Minnesota and Maryland have become surprisingly vulnerable.

Abroad, movement toward a permanently democratic Iraq is heading inexorably toward higher ground. There are near-weekly reports of successful military missions by Iraqi security forces against Al Qaeda terrorists. The likelihood of some drawdown of U.S. troops later this year is improving.

Here at home, one of the Democrats' most prominent campaign issues -- that Republicans are responsible for a "culture of corruption" -- has been undermined by one of their own leaders. It turns out that Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who has been running around the country preaching the "culture of corruption" message, is up to his eyeballs in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

For several weeks, Reid has been leading a fierce campaign offensive on this issue, while insisting that no Democrat has received any money in return for legislative favors in the widening scandal that is being investigated by the Justice Department.

But new details reported last week by the Associated Press reveal that Reid's fervently repeated denials of any connection with Abramoff or his lobbying firm were not entirely true.

We now know that Reid wrote at least four letters to assist Indian tribes that hired the since-convicted lobbyist, that the senator's staff had a lot of contacts with the lobbying firm on behalf of their boss, and that Reid accepted nearly $68,000 in donations from Abramoff's associates and his Indian clients -- often right after he wrote the requested letters.

During a recent campaign trip through Republican red states in the West and Midwest, Reid insisted -- to reporters who peppered him with questions about his involvement -- that "any money I received had no fingerprints of Jack Abramoff on it."

The emerging evidence now shows that Abramoff's fingerprints were all over Reid's association with him and the donations that Abramoff's casino-owning Indian clients and his associates gave to the senator. The lists of senators the tribes followed in making out their political contributions were given to them by Abramoff, and they included many Democrats.

When I asked several ethics and campaign finance attorneys what they thought of the latest disclosures, they said Reid and the Democrats have some explaining to do.

Lawrence Noble, executive director and general counsel at the Center for Responsive Politics (a nonpartisan watchdog group that is tracking the money trail in the scandal), said "this puts Reid in a very awkward position. Reid has to be willing to answer the same questions everyone else has been asking of the Republicans."

One of the questions Reid needs to answer: "Is there any connection between the contributions he received and the action he took, including the letters that he wrote" for Abramoff's Indian clients, Noble said.

"When the public sees any member of Congress taking action that close to a campaign contribution, they are going to be very skeptical," Noble told me.

Other ethics attorneys said Reid's problems go beyond the deep legal implications of the disclosures to the Democrats' destroyed credibility. Reid has been caught in the web of his own denials. "The problem for Reid is not that he necessarily did anything illegal or unethical," said Jan Baran, a Washington-based Republican campaign-finance attorney. "The problem is that he has not been straightforward about all his dealings with Abramoff's firm."

Attorney Cleta Mitchell, who advises Republican clients on such ethical matters, thinks Reid has hoisted himself on his own petard.

"His definition of corruption is having done things for Abramoff's clients and receiving money from them, but he's also been a recipient of contributions from Abramoff's clients after having done things to help them," she said.

This is the glass house Reid and the Democrats have constructed in the lobbying scandal they believe will help return them to political power. But these latest disclosures showing Reid's own culpability have become the rock that has brought it crashing down around them.

The 2006 midterm election year is off to a very bad start for Reid and his party, and my sense is that it's not going to get any better for them in the months to come.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.

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