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Flanigan Withdraws for Justice Post

Timothy Flanigan, President Bush’s choice for the No. 2 post at the Justice Department, has withdrawn his name from consideration after Senate Democrats complained that Flanigan had refused to answer questions about his ties to former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Flanigan, who served as the top aide to now-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales during Gonzales’ tenure as White House counsel, is the latest Republican figure to be caught up in the burgeoning scandal surrounding Abramoff.

A former top official at the General Services Administration, David Safavian, was indicted last Wednesday for allegedly lying about his relationship with Abramoff to the FBI and Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and Abramoff himself was hit with federal mail- and wire-fraud charges in mid-August. The Justice Department continues to probe Abramoff’s business dealings with a number of American Indian tribes, and Capitol Hill has been abuzz with rumors of who will get caught up in the probe next.

In a letter to Bush on Thursday, Flanigan acknowledged that opposition to his nomination as deputy attorney general had left it in limbo. “The timing of my nomination, however, remains uncertain,” said Flanigan, who was picked by Bush for the post in May.

Senate Democrats, who have slammed Republicans for the “culture of corruption” they say surrounds the White House and GOP Congressional leadership, pounced on Flanigan’s withdrawal as another political misstep for Bush and the latest in a series of poor choices by the president for senior executive-branch posts.

“Rather than appointing professionals with relevant experience, the Bush Administration has promoted a culture of cronyism by tapping political allies and close friends for key positions,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, in a statement released by his office.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who also serves on the Judiciary Committee, said Flanigan’s decision failed to address Democratic concerns about Abramoff’s interactions with top administration officials. Durbin has also criticized the White House’s failure to release internal memos relating to U.S. detention policy in the ongoing war on terror.

“While Mr. Flanigan’s nomination has been withdrawn, troubling questions remain about the Bush administration’s torture policies and Abramoff’s dealings with the administration and the Republican leadership of Congress. We have to answer these questions in order to restore the trust of the American people’s trust in their government,” Durbin said.

An aide to Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said his boss was “genuinely surprised” by Flanigan’s decision to withdraw.

Under pressure from Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, who were unhappy with answers that Flanigan gave at a Sept. 29 committee hearing, Specter had agreed to bring Flanigan back for more questioning on Oct. 18. Democrats were prepared to press Flanigan further on his interactions with Abramoff, who had been hired by Tyco International Ltd., where Flanigan has served as general counsel, in early 2003.

Abramoff was retained by Tyco at that time to help block legislation that would punish companies that shift their headquarters operations to low-tax havens in order to avoid paying U.S. taxes. Tyco is headquartered in Bermuda. Abramoff bragged to Tyco officials about his ties to then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and top Bush adviser Karl Rove, now White House deputy chief of staff, and the legislation was eventually killed by Congress.

Abramoff, then a lobbyist for the firm Greenberg Traurig, also persuaded Tyco officials to pay another firm, Grassroots Interactive, at least $1.5 million. These funds, designed to bankroll a grass roots lobbying campaign to benefit Tyco, were later diverted to bank accounts controlled by Abramoff, a move that the company determined was in violation of its agreement with Abramoff and Greenberg Traurig. Greenberg Traurig and Tyco have reportedly reached a private settlement in recent weeks, according to knowledgeable sources.

Flanigan told Judiciary Committee staffers that he confronted Abramoff repeatedly on whether he had ties to Grassroots Interactive and was told no. Flanigan also portrayed himself as someone who was duped by Abramoff, although he supervised Abramoff’s lobbying efforts on behalf of Tyco.

But senior Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, especially Leahy, Durbin and Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.), were unhappy with Flanigan’s oral and written responses to their inquiries, and they asked Specter for additional time to scrutinize his nomination.

A GOP source close to Flanigan said it was clear the nomination was going to be withdrawn even before Specter decided to schedule the Oct. 18 hearing. “Specter had issues with [Flanigan], that was clear,” said the source.

This source also said the White House “bungled” Flanigan’s nomination and was “spooked” by his dealings with Abramoff as the former lobbyist’s infamy continues to grow.

A spokeswoman for Tyco said Flanigan was not available for comment at press time, although she confirmed that he will remain at the company as general counsel. Flanigan has held that post for nearly three years.

The Senate is expected to turn its attention to Abramoff once again later this month. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, will hold a hearing on Oct. 26 to review Abramoff’s dealings with the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, who paid Abramoff and former DeLay aide Michael Scanlon more than $20 million dollars to shut down gambling casinos owned by rival tribes and gaming operators in Louisiana and Texas. The Coushattas, who have their own casino, have sued both men, alleging the pair overbilled them by millions of dollars. Both Scanlon and Abramoff have denied the allegations.

This hearing is expected to be the last on Abramoff overseen by McCain. Indian Affairs will likely release a report later this year on Abramoff’s influence network, according to Senate sources, although no criminal referral to the Justice Department is expected.

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