They've got muck; we've got rakes. TPM Muckraker

The Helena Independent Record reports that "rumors are swirling are swirling around Montana political circles" that Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) might drop out of the race before Thursday's filing deadline. A recent poll showed Burns trailing the leading Democratic challenger 48-43.

Burns' spokesman says that he's in it to win it.

Looks like we're in for a round of the Katherine Harris will-he-or-won't-he Do-Si-Do up there in Montana.

Here's our rundown of Burns' Abramoff troubles.

Katrina Contractors: Reaping the Whirlwind

A House panel is preparing to look at fraud in Katrina contracting. Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), chair of the Government Reform Committee, has said he will hold "at least one hearing" on the topic. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), the panel's ranking member, has pushed for an independent commission to investigate fraud in Katrina contract.

As the Washington Post reported yesterday, tiers of subcontractors drive up the costs of reubilding New Orleans. While guys on the ground get less than $6 per cubic yard of debris they remove, the prime contractor charges betwee $25 and $30 iIn between, as many as three other contractors take cuts before hiring someone else to do the work. The Post quoted local hauler Troy Hebert:

"Every time it passes through another layer, $4 or $5 is taken off the top," Hebert said. "These others are taking out money, and some of them aren't doing anything."


The Post says federal officials assured them that the system is "a normal and even necessary part of doing business in the aftermath of a major disaster." (WPost, AP)

Read More →

Mitchell Wade and his MZM, Inc. have been grabbing headlines recently. Knight-Ridder detailed MZM's work for the Pentagon's domestic "counterintelligence" operation, CIFA, and the WPost recounted Wade's rise to crooked prominence.

We had a story on the guy too, about a funny little contract his company held with the Department of Energy's counterintelligence office. The work was performed by an MZM staffer named Douglas Evalenko; we knew little beyond that.

Since the story ran we've learned a little more. According to DoE spokeswoman Chris Kielich, Evalenko had developed a "classified data system" for the department's CI office when he was employed at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

In 2002 Evalenko left LANL to work for MZM. But DoE still needed him to work on its "classified data system," so it contracted with MZM to use him -- at $180 an hour.

Evalenko's contract with Energy went from March 2002 to Sept. 2005, and cost $67,000, according to Kielich. She declined to give details on what his secret system did, saying only, "It's classified."

That's the second counterintelligence data system we know MZM was helping run; the first is at CIFA. What were these databases meant for? Are there others?

Paul has been raking muck at a furious pace on these Doolittles -- how Julie Doolittle, wife of Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA), took campaign cash from, among others, accused bribers, and how he cut her in on the action. One palm greases the other!

Funny thing, though: no one knows how much grease there was.

The San Diego Union-Tribune, which first reported the story, couldn't nail down exactly what Julie's cut was. Off of roughly $118,000 Doolittle collected from associates of Brent Wilkes, a crooked contractor accused of felony bribery charges in the Cunningham case, they ballparked her cut at around $14,400.

The UT further estimated that Julie Doolittle's total take from her husband's fundraising was $180,000. But given the evidence we've seen and the other Abramoff-related clients she allegedly had, we're curious, what was Julie Doolittle's total income?

I trotted down to Congress, thinking Doolittle's financial disclosure forms would show the number. Lawmakers are required to disclose their spouse's income, don't you know. But lo and behold -- in his paperwork, John Doolittle (R-CA) declined to state his wife's income!

I checked the law, and it turns out he's not required to: if a lawmaker's spouse is self-employed -- and it appears Julie was an independent contractor -- the lawmaker doesn't have to say how much she's making. Even if he's the one paying her.

If it's all above board, of course, what is there to hide? Perhaps we'll give him a call tomorrow and ask.

Below we noted that John McCain's new "senior aide" Terry Nelson played a central role in the money laundering scheme for which Tom DeLay is being prosecuted in Texas.

But 2002 was a busy year for Terry Nelson.

He was deputy chief of staff of the Republican National Committee, where in addition to being in a position to funnel money back to Texas congressional candidates, he was the superior of one James Tobin, the New England political director for the RNC. Tobin, you'll remember, was convicted late last year for his role in a scheme to jam the phone lines for Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts.

Maybe Nelson had nothing to do with it. But if he didn't, it makes you wonder why he was on the government's witness list to testify at Tobin's trial. He was never called, so it's not clear what he knows, but clearly he knows enough that the government thought he might be helpful for their case.

It seems the White House believes the Secret Service is sworn to protect not only the President's life, but also his fragile ego.

According to the Denver Post, an internal Secret Service investigation has confirmed that "White House staff" were the ones who ordered three attendees to be removed from a "town hall" event in Denver last year. The trio's only crime was disagreeing with the President, but the White House staffers called in the Secret Service to have them thrown out.

The agents responded -- although one can only imagine they did so grudgingly.

Last week, we learned some administration staffers find it easier to simply pretend they're Secret Service. If you were charged with the noble duty of protecting the President's life, wouldn't you find this stuff insulting?

Rep. John Doolittle's (R-CA) wife, acting as his fundraiser, was getting a 15% cut of contributions coming into his campaign. That sounds sketchy to us, but you never know in D.C., so we asked around to people who do know. The verdict: it sounds as bad to experts as it does to you. And a strong case can be made that Doolittle broke the law.

Neither Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 nor Naomi Seligman of CREW could think of another example of a lawmaker's wife or other family member getting a cut of contributions, and it's not hard to figure why: because it sets off all sorts of warning bells. It is against the law for lawmakers to convert campaign money to personal use. And that's just what was going on here.

Now, as with all matters legal, it's more complicated than that. The FEC ruled on a matter very similar to this one back in 2001, when Jesse Jackson, Jr. was seeking to use his wife for consulting work. And what the FEC said back then was that it was OK as long as his wife was paid the "fair market value" for her services.

In that case, Jackson's wife had plenty of experience. In this case, Doolittle's wife had no experience. And she was being paid a 15% commission, which sounded high to Naomi Seligman.

So: no experience and she was being paid top dollar. Is that "fair market value?" Sounds like a pretty clear violation of the law to me.

The Houston Chronicle runs a piece today on the dueling investigations into Tom DeLay and how they're likely to last at least through the election in November.

The Jack Abramoff investigation is likely to start with lower-level casualties, like DeLay's former staffer Tony Rudy, who is reportedly expected to reach a plea deal with prosecutors. They'll work their way up the chain from there, and it may be months and months before they've finally got DeLay cornered.

And Ronnie Earle's prosecution of DeLay in Texas isn't likely to see a trial date until late July, according to DeLay's attorney. So those charges will continue to hang over his head as well.

It seems like DeLay is in for a slow roasting until November.

TPMLivewire