ABC News is standing by its report that House Speaker Dennis Hastert is "in the mix" of an FBI probe of corruption in Congress, despite denials from the Justice Department and Hastert himself.
The network reported Wednesday that Hastert, an Illinois Republican, was part of an investigation of activities involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January to corruption charges. Hastert called ABC's report libelous and defamatory, and demanded a retraction.
Yesterday, ABC News spokesman Jeffrey W. Schneider told The Sun that the network had "checked and checked with our sources, who assure us that our report is accurate." He reiterated the report's conclusion that the federal inquiry spanned an array of lawmakers, based on Abramoff's statements to investigators.
"We reported that Abramoff said things to federal investigators that have them looking at a number of congressmen, including Speaker Hastert, and that Speaker Hastert is very much in the mix in this probe," Schneider said. "We were also very careful to explain to our audience that often in these investigations nothing will come of some of the initial information."
Unmollified, Hastert threatened to sue. "We will take any and all actions necessary to rectify the harm ABC has caused and to hold those at ABC responsible for their conduct," the speaker's attorneys wrote in a letter to ABC officials.
In an interview yesterday with Chicago's WGN radio, Hastert suggested that Justice Department insiders - angered by his criticism of an FBI raid last weekend on the office of Rep. William J. Jefferson - may have leaked the information to ABC in retaliation. FBI agents say they taped Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, accepting a $100,000 bribe.
"This is one of the leaks that come out to try to, you know, intimidate people," Hastert said. "We're just not going to be intimidated on it."
White House spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday that there was no effort to hit back at Hastert, CNN reported. Snow told reporters that Justice Department officials "are not leaking information to try to undermine the House speaker. It's just false, false, false."
A statement late Wednesday from Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty described as untrue the report that Hastert was part of the inquiry. It is rare for the Justice Department to comment on investigations.
But later on its Web site, ABC reported that federal law enforcement sources said the network accurately reported information about the Abramoff probe.
ABC reporter Brian Ross, appearing yesterday on Good Morning America, said his sources did not describe Hastert as a "formal subject or target" of the investigation "at this time."
Ross was also interviewed on WGN, where he said one focus of the probe centers on a letter written in 2003 by Hastert; Tom DeLay, then majority leader; Roy Blunt, who was the majority whip; and Eric Cantor, the chief deputy House whip. It urged Interior Secretary Gale Norton to block construction of an Indian casino that would have competed with tribes that Abramoff represented, the Chicago Tribune reported in January.
The letter was sent a week after a fundraiser at Abramoff's Washington restaurant that raised $26,000 for Hastert from Abramoff and his clients, the Tribune reported.