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Originally published Saturday, June 25, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Ethics claims target Doc Hastings

Records released yesterday allege improprieties by the Pasco Republican and House ethics committee chairman concerning two trips.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — Rep. Doc Hastings, already under fire as chairman of the stalled House ethics committee, accepted a $7,800 trip to England in 2000 from a company he championed for a multibillion-dollar contract at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, records released by an advocacy group yesterday show.

In addition, other records released yesterday by a political Web site show that Hastings, a Republican from Pasco, did not file a required travel report for a 2004 trip to a resort on Stuart Island, B.C. That was paid for by another company also working at Hanford.

Hastings has been under fire for not scheduling hearings on ethics allegations against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay is accused of accepting a trip paid for by lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is under investigation over allegations that he defrauded clients of millions of dollars.

For the past two weeks, Democrats have been trying to link Hastings to Abramoff and the lobbyist's former employer, Preston Gates & Ellis, an influential law and lobbying firm based in Seattle.

"This raises problems for Hastings as chairman of the ethics committee because one of the main issues he will face — if the committee ever gets its act together — will be privately paid congressional travel," said Larry Noble, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-contribution watchdog group.

"If Hastings has the same problems as DeLay, there's a perception of a conflict of interest," Noble said. "He may say that everybody does it, but in his role as ethics chairman, he isn't everybody."

Hastings declined to comment. His spokeswoman Jessica Gleason said the 2004 travel report had been completed, but apparently never reached the congressional records office. He will refile the report on Monday.

Gleason called the 2000 trip "absolutely appropriate and permissible. Chairman Hastings' visit provided a firsthand look at nuclear technology that was going to be used at the Hanford site in Washington state."

She added that Hastings has been chairman of the Nuclear Cleanup Caucus for 10 years.

House rules allow members to accept privately paid travel as long it is for "fact-finding" trips.

Campaign for a Cleaner Congress, an advocacy group that says it is nonpartisan, released records yesterday from Hastings' personal disclosure statements that show he went to Edinburgh, Scotland, and Manchester, England, in 2000 as a guest of the firm BNFL.

He also received campaign contributions from BNFL and one of its employees.

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BNFL won a $6.9 billion federal contract in 1998 to convert 54 million gallons of nuclear waste into glass for permanent storage. The contract was promoted by Hastings, who offered amendments to the Defense Authorization Act to pay for Hanford projects, including BNFL work.

But in October 1998, the General Accounting Office began questioning the contract as too lucrative for the company. Hastings continued to defend the contract.

The trip to the U.K. took place in January 2000. Four months later, the Department of Energy abruptly terminated the BNFL deal when it learned the cost could soar to $15.2 billion.

The 2004 trip to Stuart Island was paid for by the Washington Group International, according to the Web site PoliticalMoneyLine. Washington Group International, based in Idaho, is a major contractor with the U.S. government in Iraq and also is involved in the Hanford cleanup. The company was Hastings' top contributor to his 2004 re-election, giving $10,200.

Hastings, accompanied by a family member, spoke at an energy symposium during the $3,170 trip.

The ethics committee has been stalled for six weeks. Democrats, led by ranking member Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, declined to meet after Hastings proposed making his longtime chief of staff, Ed Cassidy, staff director for the committee.

Mollohan said that violates rules that say professional staffers who take part in investigations of House members must be nonpartisan and elected by committee members.

"I don't think it's possible to make the rule clearer," he said. "It is very simple."

Because the committee isn't meeting, "issues are piling up," said longtime political writer Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "You have the DeLay issue and several others involving lobbyists' payments and gifts to other Republicans."

There's also the long-standing issue involving Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, who leaked an illegal recording of a cellphone call by another congressman.

Hastings was named chairman of the ethics committee in February, after Republicans ousted their colleague Rep. Joel Hefley of Colorado. Hefley had led several investigations of previous allegations involving DeLay, resulting in three admonitions from the committee.

Published reports this week said Hastings is fed up with continuing unfavorable publicity and calls for him to step aside as chairman.

"It's time he stepped down and appointed an independent counsel to clear up these investigations," Common Cause press secretary Mary Boyle said.

But Mollohan disagrees. "We need to be able to show that Congress can investigate itself and demand appropriate behavior. If we can't make our own committee work, what does it say about our commitment to ethics?"

Meanwhile, Ornstein said the pressure on Hastings will increase with yesterday's disclosures. "The Preston Gates stuff was not a smoking gun. But this is different. In ethics, appearances count."

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

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