Pombo's power grows — and so do the scandals

by Matt Weiser

Richard Pombo had a relatively trouble-free career in Congress until 2003, when he became chairman of the powerful House Resources Committee. Since then, he has been linked to a number of scandals.

"The problem with Pombo is that there are so many things," says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit political watchdog group. "There’s just issue after issue that really brings his ethics into question, and he will never admit to making a mistake. He’s part of the typical Republican leadership that thinks they’re beyond question, that thinks it’s OK because they do it."

Here’s a rundown of the congressman’s current travails:

These trips took Pombo staffers all over the nation and to foreign countries, including Taiwan, Canada and England. Sponsors included the American Gas Association, the Family Farm Alliance, Shell Oil, British Petroleum, the National Indian Gaming Association, Plum Creek Timber Co., and the American Petroleum Institute. Ostensibly, the trips were for "educational" purposes, but committee staffers sometimes traveled in groups, or returned to the same place year after year. Some trips included gifts such as monogrammed jackets, and perks like marlin fishing and target shooting.

Lobbyists are not allowed to pay directly for congressional travel, but news reports suggest Abramoff paid to send a number of elected officials, including DeLay, to the Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory. Abramoff was working for the Marianas government to protect it from U.S. labor laws; garment manufacturers can now produce clothing in the Mariana Islands under sweatshop conditions and legally label it "Made in USA."

Pombo’s committee has jurisdiction to investigate the Marianas scandal, and other House members have asked him to do so, but so far he has refused. Instead, it looks like he’s working to protect his old friends. Abramoff gave Pombo’s political action committee, Rich PAC, $5,000, last year, and the PAC then contributed the same amount to DeLay’s legal defense fund. Rich PAC also received donations totaling $9,500 from another member of Abramoff’s firm, and more money from interests in the Marianas, including the current governor.

The Marianas trips were among many that DeLay allegedly took on the lobbyist’s dime. As a result, he was at risk of losing his leadership position, until House Republicans changed House ethics rules last year to protect him. Pombo played a key role in the rule change.

Critics say some mailings broke other House rules by using public funds to promote President Bush and fellow committee members. Perhaps the most glaring example is the 166,000 fliers sent to Minnesota and Wisconsin residents, weeks before the November election, touting Bush’s push to keep Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks open to snowmobiling. The group Public Citizen filed a complaint against Pombo with the House Franking Commission. Pombo spokesman Brian Kennedy told the Billings Gazette: "If anything, the chairman believes we should be doing more of this."

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