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Call it a sign of the times...

It looks like Freedom's Watch, the pro-war pressure group bankrolled by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and talked up by former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, is wrapping up its operations -- apparently without too much to show for its efforts.

The advocacy organization is likely to permanently shut its doors at the end of the year, according to sources who spoke to the Las Vegas Review Journal.

As we noted earlier this month, Adelson has been down on his financial luck lately. His casino company Las Vegas Sands recently said it may default on debt and face bankruptcy.

The group, which advocates an open-ended commitment in Iraq and unquestioning support for Israeli hawks, spent $30 million to influence the recent congressional elections.

But spokesman Ed Patru, a former spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, wouldn't say how the group's favored candidates fared. "Our focus was to impact the debate," said Patru.

In other words, it's safe to assume, not well.

Wal-Mart has fired James Hirni, the former Team Abramoff lobbyist who prosecutors on Friday charged with giving illegal gifts to two congressional staffers.

In a statement emailed to The Hill, a company spokesman wrote:

"Based on Mr. Hirni's [expected] guilty plea which relates to conduct occurring prior to and unrelated to his employment by the company, we terminated his employment."

Todd Boulanger, another former Abramoff team member implicated in the scheme resigned on Friday from the lobbying firm Cassidy and Associates. Boulanger has not been formally charged at this point.

Hirni had worked as Wal-Mart's "director of Republican outreach". He first represented the retail giant in 2004 while working with Abramoff at the law and lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig.

So what did James Hirni and Todd Boulanger -- the former Team Abramoff lobbyists now in hot water for plying congressional staffers with undisclosed gifts -- want in return?

Both men were working for Abramoff at the law and lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig, on behalf of United Rentals, an equipment rental company. Court documents filed by prosecutors allege that in 2003, they wanted action on an amendment to a federal highway reauthorization bill that would have encouraged state public works agencies to rent, rather than buy, construction equipment. That would clearly have benefited United Rentals.

The documents further allege that immediately after they had paid for Blackann and another staffer (identified as Staffer D) to attend the World Series (and a "Gentleman's Club" in New York), Boulanger and Hinri sent drafts of the specific measure they wanted to Trevor Blackann, the staffer who just pleaded in connection with the scheme, and Staffer D.

Staffer D at the time worked for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which was then chaired by Rep. Don Young (R-AK). That committee was overseeing the larger highway reauthorization bill to which Boulanger and Hirni were seeking to attach their measure.

In November of that year, say the documents, Boulanger and Hirni prevailed on a Senate staffer to offer the amendment they wanted to the Senate version of the bill.

United Rentals hardly has a squeaky clean reputation. This September, it agreed to pay the SEC $14 million, ending a four-year probe into claims that the company fraudulently inflated its earnings and made fraudulent leasing transactions with suppliers, between 1997 and 2002. It did not admit or deny the charges.

Did U.S. intelligence listen in on the personal phone calls of Tony Blair and former Iraqi president Ghazi Al-Yawer?

That's what David Murfee Faulk, a former Arab linguist who worked at a secret NSA facility, has told Murfee Faulk says he saw and read a file on Blair's "private life" and heard "pillow talk" exchanged between Al-Yawer and his then-fiancee.

The U.S. and Britain have pledged not to collect information covertly on each other, several former intelligence officials told -- though this would by no means be the first time the U.S. was found to have done so.

Last month, Murfee Faulk and another former worker at the NSA facility revealed to the news network that the agency had listened in on private calls made by American journalists, aid workers, and soldiers stationed in Iraq. A Senate panel has said it is investigating those claims.

More developments in the ongoing Jack Abramoff probe...

Last week Trevor Blackann, a former staffer for Missouri Republicans Roy Blunt and Kit Bond, pleaded guilty to concealing thousands of dollars in illegal gifts he received from lobbyists who were part of Team Abramoff.

Those lobbyists were quickly identified as James Hirni, until recently a lobbyist for Wal-Mart, and Todd Boulanger, who until last week worked for Cassidy and Associates, a top DC lobby shop.

And late Friday, reported that prosecutors had filed charges against Hirni, and that he's expected to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Hirni's lawyer told the site that Hirni is cooperating with prosecutors, suggesting that DOJ is working to build cases against bigger fish.

As for Boulanger, he could be next to be charged: also Friday, Cassidy and Associates announced that it had "accepted the departure" of the lobbyist that afternoon.

Former California GOP congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Louisiana's Democratic ex-governor Edwin W. Edwards, both convicted of corruption, are among the people seeking a presidential pardon before Bush steps down in January. Scooter Libby, whose sentencing in 2007 for perjury, obstruction of justice, and lying to investigators during the investigation of the Valerie Plame leak Bush commuted last year, is not on the list. During his eight years in office, Bush has granted only 157 pardons, just 17 more than the 140 Clinton granted during the final days of his tenure. (Washington Post)

A Washington Post report highlights the role of the Office of Thrift Supervision in the financial crisis, showing that the federal regulator "failed to rein in the destructive excesses of banks under their watch despite clear evidence of mounting problems." To date this year, banks under OTS regulation, including big names like IndyMac, Bancorp, and Washington Mutual, account for $355.7 billion in failed assets. (Washington Post)

General Motors announced Friday it would return two of its private planes, just days after auto executives got blasted for flying private jets to Washington to plead for a federal bailout. The company maintained that the decision had been made prior to the bad press. (Washington Post)

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The New York Times has more details about the possible continued involvement of the U.S. Attorney in the prosecution of former Alabama Democratic governor Don Siegleman, even after she had formally recused herslef form ghe case because her husband was a GOP operative who had run the gubernatorial campaign of Siegelman's opponent.

The paper reports allegations made in a sworn affidavit by a whistleblower in the office, Tamarah Grimes, about the involvement of U.S. Attorney Leura Canary. Time had reported similar claims earlier this month -- in response to which Siegelman expressed outrage in an interview with TPMmuckraker.

Says the Times:

[I]n her complaint, the Justice Department employee, Tamarah T. Grimes, cited several instances suggesting Ms. Canary maintained a close watch on the case. Ms. Grimes said a legal aide in the office reported on Mr. Siegelman's trial to Ms. Canary or her top deputy "every day, sometimes several times per day by telephone." Once, she observed Ms. Canary "frantically pacing in the executive suite" after a courtroom blowup, "pleading with someone" to get on the phone to "tell Louis he has to control his temper."

Ms. Grimes also disclosed an e-mail message written by Ms. Canary commenting on legal strategy in the case and suggesting to aides that Mr. Siegelman not be allowed to "comment on court activities in the media." Ms. Grimes, who is also in an dispute with the department related to her allegations that the Siegelman prosecution team had harrassed her, cited the affidavit of a former legal aide in the Montgomery office, Elizabeth Jane Crooks, who wrote that "the morning that the trial started, the U.S. attorney herself carried food and beverage over to the courthouse to support the 'Trial Team.' "

The Times also reports that lawyers for Siegelman, whose appeal begins next month in Atlanta court, have made new filings based on Grimes' claims.

A witness who testified against Ted Stevens has said in a letter to the judge that he falsely denied on the stand that he had an immunity deal with prosecutors in exchange for his testimony.

The witness, David Anderson, a welder who worked on the Alaska senator's home, wrote in the letter that his testimony that there was no immunity agreement "is simply not true". And he wrote that prosecutors "instructed me on how to sugar coat [the immunity deal] and get it swept under the rug during the trial."

The letter was filed today by defense lawyers.

Stevens was convicted on seven counts of having lied on his Senate disclosure forms about gifts he received from an oil-services contractor. Earlier this month, he lost his bid for re-election to the Senate.

Late Update: Anderson's letter contains more eyebrow-raising allegations than we'd first noted. He writes: "There was a contract to have me murdered issued by Bill and Mark Allen."

According to a report on the blog AlaskaDispatch, Anderson is Bill Allen's nephew, and Mark Allen is Bill Allen's son. Anderson clashed with Mark Allen, and therefore Bill Allen, over a woman. To protect his family, both from Bill Allen and from unspecified future charges, Anderson testified against Stevens, he told AlaskaDispatch's Tony Hopfinger, who has written for Bloomberg News and Newsweek.

So obviously, this news is being driven by a lot of different agendas, which we don't yet know enough to evaluate. And the specific details of the Anderson-Allen dispute aren't necessarily relevant. But the key point is that if there's compelling evidence that Anderson gave false testimony, or that prosecutors encouraged him to testify falsely or in a misleading manner, Stevens' conviction could potentially be put in doubt.

We'll keep you posted as things become clearer...

Late Late Update: DOJ has responded to Anderson's claims. AP reports:

The Justice Department responded quickly, saying the government never made any agreement of immunity for Anderson or any of his family or friends. "Mr. Anderson's statement in his November 2008 letter is not true, and the court is aware that it is not true," government lawyers said.


[T]he Justice Department said Anderson told two FBI agents in an August 13 meeting that he knew there was no immunity agreement and that the March affidavit was false.

The government agreed not to make him testify against family members, but "Anderson knew that there had been no agreement relative to immunity or promises of immunity by the government as to anyone," the Justice Department said.

Looks like having sex with employees of oil companies you're supposed to be regulating -- not to mention doing drugs in the office -- isn't such a great career move after all.

An internal Interior Department report issued in September found that a "culture of substance abuse and promiscuity" had existed from 2002 to 2006 in the department Denver office. Staffers had been getting drunk and having sex with oil company personnel, as well as doing coke and smoking pot in the office.

And today, reports the Associated Press, Interior took disciplinary action against those involved -- ranging from a warning letter to termination. The department wouldn't provide further details on the punishments.

Workers in the office were also found to have accepted golf and ski trips, snowboarding lessons and concert tickets from oil companies.

The Treasury Department is reviewing concerns relating to the $18 million compensation package received by Mack Whittle, the former CEO of South Financial bank, reports the Greenville News.

As we noted yesterday, Whittle moved up the date of his retirement, possibly so that his pay wouldn't be subject to restrictions on companies participating in the bailout program. Last week, South Financial received $347 million as part of that program.

A spokesman with the office of S.C. Rep. Bob Inglis told the Greenville News: "[Treasury is] examining the issue."

Inglis and South Carolina governor Mark Sanford -- who Whittle had in recent years opposed politically -- had asked Treasury to probe the matter. Both are Republicans.

In a letter to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Inglis urged Paulson to close loopholes to prevent executives from gaming the system in the way that Whittle may have done.

As we reported yesterday, Whittle served on John McCain's South Carolina finance team, and raised money for George Bush in 2000.

Whittle, who has said he'll remain on South Financial's board, is also being sued by a company shareholder seeking to block the payment.

Late Update: In fact, the news that Treasury is looking into the Whittle matter was first reported yesterday afternoon by The financial news site was also first to raise questions about the timing of Whittle's departure back in October.