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Originally published Friday, June 10, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Pasco congressman in rare spotlight

Doc Hastings, the laconic Republican congressman from Pasco, has spent much of the past three days trying to avoid being sucked into the...

Seattle Times Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — Doc Hastings, the laconic Republican congressman from Pasco, has spent much of the past three days trying to avoid being sucked into the vortex of ethics complaints swirling around House Majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas.

News reports earlier this week linked Hastings to GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is under investigation for his lobbying on behalf of Indian tribes and is a key figure in the DeLay ethics dispute. The reports also tied Hastings to Seattle's largest law and lobbying firm, Preston Gates Ellis, where Abramoff used to work.

Hastings is chairman of the House Ethics Committee, which admonished DeLay last year for violating conflict-of-interest guidelines and may investigate him over allegations that Abramoff paid for DeLay's trip to a Scottish golf course in 2000. House members cannot accept free travel from lobbyists.

The Abramoff scandal has tarnished DeLay and become a cause célèbre for dispirited Democrats. Anyone remotely connected to the lobbyist is likely to face intense scrutiny.

Hastings has stayed out of the limelight for most of his 10 years in Congress. He never held a D.C. news conference until April, when the DeLay ethics allegations heated up. He became ethics committee chairman in January.

Democrats delighted in Hastings' dilemma this week, sending reporters copies of New York Times stories reporting that Abramoff once bragged to a client that he had "excellent" ties to Hastings.

That client, the government of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific, is a U.S. commonwealth that for years has opposed federal attempts to raise the islands' minimum wage.

Hastings has been among the members of Congress opposing the increase. He couldn't be reached for comment yesterday. His aide, Ed Cassidy, said Hastings never talked to Abramoff but that Hastings' staff members have spoken frequently with Preston Gates lobbyists.

National Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean decried Hastings' "close ties" to Abramoff and called on him to step aside in any ethics-committee review of DeLay.

Yesterday, members of a new coalition, Washingtonians for a Cleaner Congress, also called for Hastings to resign from the ethics committee and denounced his position on the Marianas. Several coalition members from Yakima sent Hastings a letter alleging that Abramoff and Preston Gates "pressed you and your staff for help in blocking the imposition of the federal minimum wage on the Mariana Islands' sweatshops, which produced clothing labeled 'Made in USA' but kept foreign workers in virtual captivity. ... "

Also yesterday, Democrats failed in an attempt to force Republicans to appoint a nonpartisan staff director for the ethics committee. The committee has been shut down for a month, since Hastings said he wanted to name his longtime chief of staff, Cassidy, to that post.

By the end of the day, Hastings' low profile was history: Roll Call newspaper, which covers Congress, published perhaps its only cartoon featuring the congressman. It showed a somber Hastings with a shirt that said, "This lousy T shirt was made in a sweatshop in the Northern Marianas and all I got was $1,000 from Jack Abramoff!"

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The reported links between Hastings and Abramoff seem somewhat tenuous by D.C. standards, and Hastings has hardly received windfalls from Preston Gates.

In 1996, Abramoff and Preston Gates, representing the Northern Marianas, were lobbying a congressional subcommittee against raising the minimum wage for the islands. Hastings was a member of the panel.

"Hastings went across the hall from his office to a subcommittee hearing on this, said four sentences, stayed 10 minutes and left. That was it," Cassidy said. He added that Hastings has opposed raising the minimum wage anywhere.

The New York Times reported no direct contact between Abramoff and Hastings, and Hastings never introduced legislation on the issue.

The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said Hastings received roughly $14,000 in contributions from Preston Gates over the past decade, and $1,000 directly from Abramoff.

"It is not surprising to have the largest law firm in Seattle contacting one of its members of Congress, and the amount of money here is not particularly steep," said Larry Noble, the center's director.

In 2004, Preston Gates gave a total of $5,647 to Hastings' re-election campaign, less than the $9,500 given by the Democratic lobbying firm McBee Strategic Consulting, according to The Center for Responsive Politics.

"Right now, Hastings is trying to distance himself from Abramoff," Noble said. "It would be more interesting to learn if anyone at Preston held fundraisers for Hastings; ... that would make a difference."

Among Preston lobbyists who have contributed personally to Hastings is Tim Peckinpaugh of the firm's D.C. office. Asked if he'd held any fund-raisers for Hastings, Peckinpaugh said, "I'll have to get back to you on that."

The firm later issued a statement saying, "Preston Gates has the largest lobbying practice of any Pacific Northwest law firm. ... Members of the firm have hosted fundraisers for Rep. Hastings as we have for many other members of the Northwest Congressional delegation."

Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or amundy@seattletimes.com

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