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Rove aide seeks immunity in lobbyist probe

/ Source: NBC News and news services

A top aide to White House political adviser Karl Rove says she'll tell what she knows about administration links to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff — if she's immune from prosecution.

A House investigative committee says Susan Ralston, Rove's former executive assistant, told lawyers for the committee this month she would provide information if protected. Ralston resigned her White House post in October following the committee's finding that she had extensive contacts with Abramoff and had accepted tickets to sporting events and concerts.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform also signaled that the Abramoff probe is widening. The committee may seek further documents and information about the former lobbyist's contacts with the Bush White House.

Abramoff, once a prominent Republican lobbyist and fundraiser, is in prison after pleading guilty to charges of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion.

Ralston responded to some questioning but wouldn't answer any questions about White House contacts with convicted lobbyist Abramoff.

Ralston's attorney Brad Berenson said she would assert her Fifth Amendment privilege if compelled to testify.

During the deposition, Berenson told the committee's majority counsel that "the entire subject of the Abramoff team's relationship with the White House and other White House officials is one on which she will have to decline to respond to questions at this time."

Ralston's attorney added that "she was personal friends with a number of the individuals on Abramoff's staff ... and was frequently the recipient of communications from them, even if the substantive matters under discussion related only to activities by other officials in the White House."

Did Abramoff influence White House?
What committee chairman Henry Waxman wants to know is whether Abramoff's relationship with Ralston and other White House officials influenced White House decision making.

According to billing records and e-mails released by the committee, Abramoff and his associates had 485 lobbying contacts with White House officials between January 2001 and March 2004.

These contacts included more than 150 meetings over meals or drinks that the Abramoff team billed to clients. The e-mails also described 19 events to which Abramoff or his associates offered tickets to White House officials, including Wizards and Capitals games and U2 and Bruce Springsteen concerts.

Waxman writes in a memo to committee members that he wants to know "whether there was evidence that the lobbying contacts, meals, and tickets described in the billing records and e-mails influenced official White House action."

The committee chairman said that "the e-mails and billing records described some instances in which White House officials took actions sought by Mr. Abramoff, and they described other instances in which Mr. Abramoff did not obtain the results he was seeking."

Waxman also signaled that he intends to broaden his investigation of Abramoff as well as asking committee members to consider whether to grant immunity to Ralston.

"Before further considering the request of Ms. Ralston for immunity, the Committee should seek to obtain information about the relationship between Mr. Abramoff and the White House from other sources."

Other testimony sought
Waxman says the next step in this investigation will be to seek testimony from individuals who worked as lobbyists with Abramoff and former and current administration officials who may have knowledge about Abramoff's contacts with the White House. He also wants additional documents from the White House and federal agencies.

Abramoff has yet to be sentenced in the Washington lobbying scandal after pleading guilty in 2005 to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials.

He is currently serving a five-and-a-half-year sentence for his conviction in the Florida based SunCruz Casinos gambling boat fraud case. A federal judge has granted him a hearing in order to determine a reduction in his sentence as a reward for his continued cooperation in the Department of Justice probe in both cases.