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Rumors about a federal probe into Rep. Rick Renzi (R-AZ) and a land deal he pushed for have been in the air for the last several days. The AP nailed down the first piece of the story tonight. We may be able to add a bit more.

In the past few days we've chased this story ourselves, and have talked to a number of the players involved. (None would confirm the existence of a federal probe, although several referred our questions to the FBI.)

All the facts aren't on the table yet, but here's what we know: Two separate investment groups had land swaps in Arizona that needed federal approval, something for which a lawmaker like Renzi would be instrumental in obtaining. (Swaps are deals where private investors trade tracts of land the government wants -- for conservation purposes, perhaps -- for government-owned tracts which can be sold or developed.)

Both groups say Renzi told them to buy an unrelated parcel of land as a part of their deal, which was owned by James Sandlin, a political backer and onetime business partner of Renzi's.

Both groups have since come to believe that Renzi had an inappropriate financial connection to that proposed land sale -- possibly a financial stake -- which he did not disclose when he pitched them on it.

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Associated Press reports:

A land deal involving Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., is being scrutinized by the U.S. attorney's office in Arizona, a law enforcement official in Washington said Tuesday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity while the inquiry is ongoing, said the investigation has been under way for a few months and is still in its very early stages.

The AP could not confirm which land deal Renzi was involved with that drew the interest of a federal prosecutor, but the wire service indicates it is likely the 2005 land swap in which Renzi acted on behalf of a political backer and business partner.

The land swap, in which private investors traded parcels of land with the U.S. government, was first reported by the Phoenix (Ariz.) New Times Oct. 12. Renzi's lawyer told the AP the congressman "was not aware of any investigation," according to the article.

The federal investigation involving Renzi has been rumored for several days now, but the AP story is the first to confirm any involvement by federal investigators in Renzi's land schemes.

I just got a call from Jamal Ware, the spokesman for the House Intelligence Committee, about my earlier post on the technical breakdown that prevented lawmakers from reading the infamous National Intelligence Estimate on the global terror threat and the war in Iraq for five months this year.

Ware clarified that the "equipment failure" spanned only two months, March and April, not five, as I reported. For the next three months, the equipment worked fine -- the report was simply lost.

As Ware explained it, the Iraq terror NIE came to the committee in late April, but did not get scanned because of the malfunction. Then, after the equipment was working again in late April, the document -- which contradicted key aspects of Bush administration policy and rhetoric -- sat unnoticed in a "backlog," along with other classified documents awaiting the committee's consideration, until the New York Times revealed its conclusions in late September.

As a result of misplacing this important document for several months, Ware informed me, the committee now has a system in place to make sure that such "snafus" don't prevent committee members from seeing classifed documents. Following the New York Times article, members have been receiving a daily report of classified documents that come in to the committee.

Two sitting congressmen and an administration official close to President Bush were among those who recently penned letters in support of David Safavian, the former administration official recently convicted for lying to ethics officials and Senate investigators about his ties to Jack Abramoff.

As part of a defense motion seeking probation or house arrest instead of jail time, Safavian recently offered letters from family members, friends, and others testifying to his good character. Prosecutors have asked that Safavian be sentenced to three years in prison.

Rep. Chris Cannon (R-UT), for whom Safavian worked as chief of staff, wrote that Safavian had worked "tirelessly" for him, according to an excerpt from the letter in the defense motion. Cannon's spokesperson declined to release the entirety of the letter, saying that the excerpt "speaks for itself."

Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) offered a testimonial about Safavian's attention to the transfer of a lighthouse in Jones’ district during Safavian's term as chief of staff of the General Services Administration. Jones' spokeswoman said that Jones had been asked to write the account and offered the full text of the letter, which is after the jump.

Clay Johnson, the Deputy Director for Management at the Office of Management and Budget, and also one of President George W. Bush's oldest friends, described Safavian as a "real professional" who “recused himself at even the slightest possibility of the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

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With a federal investigation into influence-peddling allegations knocking on his office door, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) said yesterday he may ban earmarks from the spending bill he oversees. “I don’t like things that look questionable,” he told Roll Call yesterday.

Some might beg to differ.

Three weeks before election day 2004, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) -- facing surprisingly stiff opposition to his re-election bid -- took $74,000 in campaign contributions from a group of folks whose employer appreciates government money. Weeks later, Specter helped shower the organization with millions in earmarks, according to a nonpartisan government watchdog.

The group of donors, senior executives representing the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), gave the money to Specter as a bundle of 90 separate checks at a private, UMPC-only event at Piittsburgh's Duquesne Club on Oct. 18, 2004. Three weeks later, Specter was re-elected.

Three weeks after that, the senator squeezed out an appropriations bill laden with millions in earmarks for the group's employer, a private, "not-for-profit" multi-billion-dollar health care behemoth, Pennsylvania's second largest employer.

"It's somewhat problematic," said Naomi Seligman Steiner of the left-leaning watchdog, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). "There's nothing illegal here," she observed, "[but] there's no question that he needs to avoid even the appearance of impropriety."

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Armed with his personal lawyer, House Speaker Dennis Hastert began his private testimony today before the House panel investigating the Foley affair, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.

"Shortly before the speaker appeared, his security detail arrived and went inside the ethics committee room, where testimony is taken in secret sessions. Hastert then arrived with his attorney, J. Randolph Evans of Atlanta," the paper says.

Also testifying today was Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-NY), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which works to get Republicans elected to Congress. The two men disagree on who knew what, when about Foley's misbehavior with teenaged pages.

For five months this year, the House intelligence committee had a crucial intelligence report on the increasing threat of terrorism in the wake of the Iraq War -- yet not a single member read it. That's including the panel's chairman, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-IL) and the ranking member Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA).

In fact, an untold number of classified documents were kept from the members of the vital oversight committee from at least April to September of this year, according to the chairman's spokesman. In an interview yesterday, he blamed the months-long delay on technical problems with the "equipment" which handles the reports. (Harman's office did not return our phone calls and emails requesting comment.)

Hoekstra's spokesman told the Washington Post last month that a computer problem had delayed for months the distribution of the now-infamous National Intelligence Estimate on terror and the Iraq war, which was eventually leaked to the New York Times.

"There was a bit of a snafu," the paper quoted the chairman's flack as saying.

I wanted more detail on this "snafu." So yesterday I called Hoekstra's spokesman on the committee, Jamal Ware.

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Ever since The Los Angeles Times reported that Tan Nguyen, the Republican challenger in California's 47th District, was under investigation for attempted voter suppression, he's been doing what he could to salvage his already failing challenge. And it just gets worse.

The feds are probing Nguyen's campaign for sending a letter to approximately 15,000 Latino voters sometime in the last two weeks warning that "if... you are an immigrant, voting in a federal election is a crime that could result in jail time." The letter was made to appear as if it came from a local immigration reform group and was signed by an apparently fictional name.

Today, the Times reports that, despite his categorial denials, Nguyen was personally involved in the mailing.

At first, Nguyen denied knowing anything about the letter. He fired the staffer he said was responsible for it and announced that "I will do whatever I can do to encourage all citizens in this district to vote."

But he reconsidered. His staffer hadn't done anything wrong after all, he decided. So he un-fired her and asked her to come back onboard.

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Specter Mulls Labor-HHS Without Earmarks "Facing an FBI investigation of his top staff and scrutiny of his own financial records, Sen. Arlen Specter [R-PA] said he currently is weighing 'the pros and cons' of whether to eliminate earmarks entirely from the annual Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and related agencies spending measure.

"Specter, whose staffers are being investigated for allegedly improperly securing earmarks for businesses owned by their family members, currently chairs the Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the bill. He said in a recent interview that he plans to talk to his fellow Senators about the idea of ridding the measure of targeted spending provisions but has yet to reach a final determination." (Roll Call)

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A close review of the ties connecting House Speaker Dennis Hastert to the GOP lawmakers overseeing the House probe into his handling of the Foley scandal helps explain why no fewer than seven public interest groups have called for the matter to be turned over to an impartial outside counsel.

When the scandal erupted earlier this month, the ten-member House ethics committee created a special four-member panel to investigate the matter, ignoring calls to use an impartial outsider. That investigatory panel is led by the top Republican and Democrat on the committee, Reps. Doc Hastings (R-WA) and Howard Berman (D-CA); joining them are Reps. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones (D-OH) and Judy Biggert (R-IL).

But oh, the conflicts. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) is so close to Hastings, the top Republican, he's rumored to have put Doc's name on a secret "succession list" to take his place in case of a catastrophe.

Hastings, who's called a "loyalist" and "protege" of Hastert -- which are terms about as close to "brown-noser" as Washington insiders ever use -- was given the ethics chair by Hastert, who used him to replace Rep. Joel Hefley (R-CO), the last ethics committee chairman, who upset the speaker by ruling against former majority leader Tom DeLay.

Hastings isn't the only GOP member of the panel with ties to embattled House speaker. Leadership ambitions, which need a Speaker's help to become real, are dishearteningly present among Republican members of the ethics committee, as Congressional Quarterly recently noted (sub. req.).

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