The many problems of Richard Pombo


This must be the winter of Richard Pombo’s discontent, or it would be if they had winter in California.

It isn’t just that his plan to privatize 15 national parks and other public lands went kerblooey, or that he found it prudent to give away embarrassing campaign contributions. It isn’t just that three Democrats are seeking to run against him in November, or even that two Republicans plan to challenge him in the primary as he seeks his eighth term in the U.S. House of Representatives.

There are other troubles. First, Pombo, the powerful chairman of the House Resources Committee, got "Abramoffed." He also got Hurwitzed. And perhaps most humiliating of all, the press discovered that a supporter had attempted a reverse Siegenthaler.

Some definitions are required here. Charles Hurwitz is known largely for owning the company that clear-cut several thousand acres of old-growth California redwoods. He is also a Houston millionaire from whom the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was seeking $300 million as partial compensation for the $1.6 billion taxpayers spent to bail out a Texas savings and loan he helped run.

Last month, the Los Angeles Times revealed that Pombo and fellow California Republican Rep. John T. Doolittle subpoenaed the FDIC’s confidential records on the Hurwitz case. To call such interference with a federal investigation unprecedented would be an exaggeration. But it worked: The FDIC dropped the investigation.

John Siegenthaler is a retired newspaper editor, known for his work at the Nashville Tennessean and USA Today. He was in the news recently because some fool inserted false and defamatory "information" into the article about him in Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia "that anyone can edit," as it proclaims.

How embarrassing for Pombo, then, that on Super Bowl Sunday, the Argus in California’s East Bay ran a story detailing how someone had altered Pombo’s Wikipedia entry, conveniently deleting material that might not look good to the average voter.

There is no evidence that Pombo was behind the changes. But some of the deleted material was about Pombo’s relationship with Jack Abramoff.

Everyone not actually residing under a rock knows Abramoff as the Washington character with whom no other Washington character wishes to be associated. Especially to be avoided is any indication of having taken his money, eaten at his restaurant, or had staff members go to work for his lobbying firm. All three apply to Pombo.

Not that Pombo was among the GOP congressmen closest to Abramoff. He received only $7,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff and that’s what he gave away. But late last year, FBI agents visited the headquarters of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts. It turns out that the Wampanoags’ 30-year struggle to gain national tribal recognition made sudden progress after they hired Abramoff as their lobbyist — and contributed $20,000 to Pombo’s political action committees. Pombo had considerable say in the Wampanoag case: The Native American Affairs Subcommittee is part of his Resources Committee.

This kind of conflict of interest complicates Pombo’s two current ambitions — to get the Senate to pass his emasculation of the Endangered Species Act, and to get re-elected.

Pombo’s ESA bill narrowly passed the House late last year. Its chances in the Senate, never very good, grow worse as the image of its chief sponsor does; a congressman has less clout when he (a) is under investigation, and (b) could lose his seat.

Pombo is less likely to lose his seat than his critics like to think. Yes, Pombo will face primary opposition from Pete McCloskey, the liberal Republican who left Congress in 1982 after 15 years, during which he helped write the Endangered Species Act. McCloskey, though ruggedly handsome and outspoken, is 78 (Pombo recently turned 45), just moved into the district, and probably would have a better chance as a Democrat.

Complicating matters somewhat, 70-year-old businessman Tom Benigno plans to enter the GOP primary, associating his campaign with the anti-immigration views of Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo. Benigno, then, would run to Pombo’s right, no doubt taking more votes from him than from McCloskey.

Still, Pombo is expected to win the primary, after which he will face either Jerry McNerney, an engineer he beat in 2004, or former Navy pilot Steve Filson. A third candidate, self-described activist Steve Thomas, is not given much chance.

Pombo’s district is shaped almost as weirdly as the famous Massachusetts district that inspired the word "gerrymander." Like all California districts, it was artfully drawn to protect its incumbent and his party.

By the usual political arithmetic, that makes the district noncompetitive. But that was before its incumbent’s connections to Abramoff and other shady characters were quite as well known. Pombo could still win, but I wouldn’t bet the family fortune on it.

Jon Margolis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He writes about the doings in Washington, D.C., from a safe distance — Vermont.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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