Hastert, ABC Still at Odds over Abramoff Report

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ABC is sticking by a Brian Ross report that cited unnamed sources saying House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) is under investigation by the Justice Department in relation to the Jack Abramoff corruption probe. Lawyers for Hastert say they may sue. The Justice Department denies Hastert is under investigation.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

ABC News reported last week that House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, was under investigation in the corruption probe involving federal lawmakers and lobbyists. The scoop triggered angry denials from both Hastert and the Justice Department, but the network stands by its story, all alone. The report and its aftershocks sheds light on how the game is played by politicians and by journalists.

NPR's David Folkenflik has more.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:

ABC News Investigative Reporter Brian Ross isn't the most telegenic guy you'll ever see, but he's won a bunch of national awards for ferreting out facts that led to splashy exposes over the past three decades.

At the very beginning of Wednesday's broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight, anchor Elizabeth Vargas promised viewers yet another Brian Ross scoop.

Here's his podcast version of that story that night.

Mr. BRIAN ROSS (Reporter, ABC News): Federal law enforcement sources tell ABC News the FBI investigation of Capitol Hill corruption has widened to include the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert.

Officials described the 64-year-old Hastert as very much in the midst of the corruption investigation.

FOLKENFLIK: Then, all hell broke loose. Hastert demanded a retraction. The Justice Department denied it, twice. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty said Hastert was not "in the mix," and not under investigation.

As even Ross acknowledges, that didn't seem to offer much wiggle room.

Mr. ROSS: That's what it looked like to us, in fact, at first blush when we saw it. We checked again with our sources, who said your story is accurate and the Justice Department may think it's accurate by the way it defines what it means to be under investigation. So I guess it's really a question of semantics and how words are used in Washington.

FOLKENFLIK: Hastert's lawyers suggested he might sue the network.

Mike Tackett is the Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune, the largest paper in Hastert's home state of Illinois. Tackett notes Ross ended the original story by saying Hastert might not have done anything wrong at all.

Mr. MICK TACKETT (Washington Bureau Chief, the Chicago Tribune): So in that sense, you know, they sort of covered themselves. That said, the clear impression left by the first story was to the contrary, that indeed he was under investigation.

FOLKENFLIK: The Associated Press first broke the news back in November. Hastert had written the Interior Secretary to oppose a casino on an Indian reservation. His letter was sent just days after lobbyist Jack Abramoff raised more than $20,000 for a Hastert fund, and the letter helped Abramoff's clients, members of the Indian tribes with competing casinos.

Tackett recalls the Tribune gave the letter front-page treatment in January, after Abramoff pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

Mr. TACKETT: We talked about it being, you know, the likely object of scrutiny. And that's different from saying the FBI is investigating this person as part of the Abramoff scandal.

FOLKENFLIK: Tackett says FBI agents are examining all interactions between lawmakers and Abramoff - even the ones that turn out to be completely innocent. Hastert is not currently a target of the investigation. If he were a target, it would mean he could be indicted at any time. And Ross' sources did not say Hastert was even a subject, which would indicate prosecutors are trying to determine if he broke the law.

But Ross says his story broke real news.

Mr. ROSS: I think its worth knowing if the investigation, even in its early stages, had reached the point where FBI agents and the public corruption squad had begun to take a look at the relationship between the Speaker of the House and a convicted, corrupt lobbyist.

FOLKENFLIK: Did he push the envelope? Even those journalists who admire Ross say he can be aggressive about very quickly turning newly discovered facts into big stories.

Paul Friedman is a vice president at CBS News, who is a former executive producer of World News Tonight. Friedman isn't sure there was enough in the report to justify putting it at the very start of the broadcast, a signal to viewers that it's really important.

Mr. PAUL FRIEDMAN (Former Executive Producer, World News Tonight): It just feels to me like there's a legitimate question to be asked about in that case, if he's not clearly target and clearly near the end of an investigation, maybe it shouldn't be the lead.

FOLKENFLIK: But Friedman's a fan of Ross. He hired Ross at NBC News back in the 1970s and says Ross has terrific sources. But Friedman also says ABC has an obligation to Hastert.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: If it turns out that the Speaker was peripherally involved, that the FBI was just dotting i's and crossing t's, then I think ABC, and I would expect ABC will go on the air and say, remember that story? It turned out to be less than what we were led to believe at the time.

FOLKENFLIK: Hastert blamed the story on leaks from the Justice Department, which he says is retaliating because he opposed an FBI raid on a House Democrat's office in another bribery scandal. The Justice Department denies that too.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

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