Deputy Attorney General Nominee's Ties to Abramoff Eyed

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up the nomination of Timothy Flanigan as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' right-hand man at the Justice Department. Panel Democrats want to ask Flanigan about his ties to Jack Abramoff, a Washington lobbyist now under indictment.

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Even as the Senate decides on the nomination of John Roberts, the Senate Judiciary Committee is considering another of the president's choices for an important job. Timothy Flanigan has been nominated to be the right-hand man to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at the Justice Department. Confirmation is expected, but committee Democrats want to ask Flanigan more questions, mostly about his ties to a Washington lobbyist now under indictment. The lobbyist's name is Jack Abramoff, and it's the second time this month that lobbyist has caused headaches for the Bush administration. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

The fight over Flanigan's nomination has been brewing since last summer. It mostly boils down to two sets of issues. First, in 2001 and 2002, he was a top aide to Alberto Gonzales, who was then White House counsel. Flanigan helped to draft the policies establishing military tribunals and setting standards for interrogating enemy combatants, both areas of intense controversy.

But the second set of issues may be more important now. In the spring of 2003, Flanigan had left the White House. He was a senior vice president in the Washington office of the multinational corporation Tyco International. Tyco needed a heavy hitter of a lobbyist. It was under attack for having its corporate headquarters in Bermuda, and Flanigan helped to hire Jack Abramoff, then a prince of Pennsylvania Avenue with a multimillion-dollar lobby practice and connections to top Republicans around town. Flanigan has told the Judiciary Committee that Abramoff even claimed he would take Tyco's concerns to Karl Rove, President Bush's chief strategist.

Nowadays, Abramoff is keeping a lower profile. He's been indicted in Florida and is under investigation in Washington. Flanigan, like most appointees awaiting Senate confirmation, isn't giving interviews, but George Terwilliger III, a lawyer representing Tyco in the Abramoff probe, says that Flanigan did not pal around with the lobbyist.

Mr. GEORGE TERWILLIGER III (Attorney): Mr. Flanigan didn't travel with him, didn't go on any kind of trips with congressional members and that sort of thing.

OVERBY: Unlike some others. Nine days ago FBI agents arrested another Bush appointee, Abramoff friend David Safavian, a top official at the Office of Management and Budget. He's charged with lying about going on a golfing trip to Scotland with Abramoff and Congressman Bob Ney. Trips with Abramoff have also come back to haunt Congressman Tom DeLay, who was House majority leader until he was indicted yesterday in a separate case out of Texas. The main thrust of the Abramoff investigation is thought to be that he defrauded clients, including Tyco. Separately, Abramoff's old law firm has agreed to give Tyco a $1 1/2 million settlement for payments that appear to have been misdirected.

If Flanigan becomes deputy attorney general, he would be overseeing the probe of his old employer, Tyco, as well as his old lobbyist, Abramoff. The question for committee members would be whether Flanigan should recuse himself. Terwilliger says that last April, when Abramoff's law firm notified Tyco of its problems, Flanigan took decisive action.

Mr. TERWILLIGER: It was clear to Mr. Flanigan that he would in all likelihood be a witness in the matter going forward, and therefore, he recused himself from any decision-making as to how Tyco should proceed in similar decisional issues such as that.

OVERBY: But in a written question-and-answer exchange with Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, Flanigan was more cautious. He said he would consult with Justice Department experts on any recusal issue. He was definite about stepping aside only if, quote, "it appears likely that those investigations could involve Tyco." Durbin isn't satisfied.

Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): It was a stock-and-standard answer. I think it's clear that Mr. Flanigan, if he is approved, should step aside from this case, and Mr. Abramoff's lobbying activities affected his company directly.

OVERBY: And now all eight committee Democrats want Flanigan to come back for more questions. Senators Edward Kennedy and Russell Feingold this week sent him batches of written questions. Committee Republicans didn't want another hearing, but Chairman Arlen Specter now says the panel will put off a vote and confer about what to do nest.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): We've already had one hearing. It's not our custom to have multiple hearings unless a cause is shown, and I want to review Mr. Flanigan's answers, and I want to get the specifics as to what somebody else has in mind.

OVERBY: What the Democrats have in mind, of course, is using Flanigan to explore the details of Abramoff's activities, including his claims of clout in the White House.

Peter Overby, NPR News, the Capitol.

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