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Family ties spark concern in lobby debate

Watchdogs want Congress to act

WASHINGTON -- The website promoting the lobbying services of Joshua Hastert is enticing: ''Josh has long-standing relationships with numerous offices on Capitol Hill and in the administration as well as a unique understanding of the legislative process."

Unique, indeed. Hastert is the son of J. Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the House, making him one of dozens of high-powered lobbyists with family connections to members of Congress. Joshua Hastert, who says he does not lobby House Republican leaders, is registered as a lobbyist for clients ranging from Amgen, a biotech company, to Lockheed Martin, a defense contractor.

Now, the kind of unique access available to congressional family members is being scrutinized as a result of the lobbying scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff. The elder Hastert has not publicly suggested a restriction on lobbying by congressional family members, but such a ban is under consideration by a task force he appointed to come up with ethics legislation.

There appears to be wide agreement about the need to tighten restrictions on gifts and trips paid for by lobbyists, but a proposal to end the lucrative and widespread practice of lobbying by congressional family members has substantially less support, making some government watchdogs suspicious.

A study by Public Citizen's Congress Watch, which advocates for consumer rights in Congress, found at least 32 examples of congressional family members who lobby Congress.

''There definitely should be restrictions" on family members, said Craig Holman, a Congress Watch official who has studied the matter. ''This is family members cashing in on connections. . . . It is an ideal opportunity for special interest groups to exploit family relationships for personal gain."

The role of congressional family members has come up partly because of publicity about the work of Christine DeLay, the wife of US Representative Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican and former House majority leader. Although Christine DeLay is not a lobbyist, she worked for Alexander Strategy Group, a Washington lobbying firm that has ties to Abramoff.

The firm, whose principals included DeLay's former chief of staff, recently announced it was shutting down because it lost business as a result of publicity about the Abramoff scandal. A DeLay spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.

One of the leading candidates to replace DeLay as majority leader is the acting majority leader, US Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri. He is married to Abigail Blunt, who has lobbied for tobacco interests and is registered to represent Altria, the conglomerate that includes Philip Morris. Critics have cited the Blunt case as an example of the need for change.

When Blunt was dating his future wife in 2002, she was a registered lobbyist for Philip Morris and he unsuccessfully sought to insert a measure into a homeland security bill favorable to tobacco interests. Spokeswoman Jessica Boulanger said, however, that Blunt was acting in concert with other congressional leaders, and added that a similar measure had been inserted into legislation for a new version of the Patriot Act.

Still, after Blunt became the acting House majority leader in September, Abigail Blunt's office announced that she would extend her policy of not lobbying House Republican leaders to not lobbying anyone in the House. Roy Blunt's chief of staff, meanwhile, wrote a memo saying that no one in Blunt's office should have any lobbying contact with Abigail Blunt.

Abigail Blunt now lobbies on Kraft Food matters as a director of federal government affairs for Altria, according to her spokeswoman, Dawn Schneider.

Democrats also have family members who lobby Congress. Senator Evan Bayh, the Indiana Democrat, is the son of former Senator Birch Bayh, who works for the Washington company Venable, which has an array of corporate clients. Bayh said his lobbying portfolio includes issues such as Title IX, which requires more opportunities in sports for women.

''I am very careful not to lobby my son," Birch Bayh said. ''I can't ignore the fact that Evan is there. I'm proud of that, but I don't weigh on that as a means of gaining access."

As a former senator, Bayh added, ''I served with some of the more influential" members of Congress. Many lobbyists formerly served in Congress.

Representative John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who has drawn headlines with his call to withdraw US troops from Iraq, is the brother of Robert Murtha, who is registered to lobby for a number of companies, including Gensym Corp., a Burlington, Mass., company that sells software to the Department of Defense.

Stephen Allison, Gensym's chief financial officer, said he has never met Robert Murtha but has dealt with one of Murtha's partners at the firm, KSA Consulting.

Some members of Congress say they don't talk to family members who lobby, or don't even know about it.

For example, Kara Delahunt, the daughter of US Representative William Delahunt of Quincy, registered in July as a lobbyist for the Saudi Economic and Development Co., an investment firm that bills itself as ''a leader in Islamic investments," and says it only puts money in projects that adhere to Islamic law.

The Democratic congressman said he didn't know his daughter had registered as a lobbyist until contacted this week by the Globe, even though her employment was noted briefly in a few local and professional publications last summer.

''Honestly, I was totally unaware of that," Delahunt said in a telephone interview.

Kara Delahunt said in a telephone interview that she did public relations work and never lobbied for the Saudi company. Lance Morgan, president of Powell Tate, the public relations firm that formerly employed Kara Delahunt, characterized her registration as a lobbyist as a technicality. ''We registered her to make absolutely sure we adhered to the laws, but Kara never lobbied anyone and her work was all communications and media-related," he said.

When Tom Daschle ran for reelection in 2004, the role of his wife as a lobbyist received considerable attention, and the South Dakota Democrat was defeated. His wife, Linda, who is registered as a lobbyist for firms such as Lockheed Martin, had said she would not lobby the Senate while her husband was in office.

After her husband's defeat, she dropped her ban on lobbying Senate members, according to her spokeswoman.

Lobbyists contacted for this story said they do not lobby their family member in Congress. Various proposals under consideration, however, would ban lobbying other members of a congressional committee on which the relative sits, or the chamber where the relative serves, or to any lobbying of Congress.

Even some of the strongest critics of the practice, which is legal, say it is difficult to know where to draw the line. The First Amendment says Congress shall make no law abridging the right of people ''to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Larry Noble, director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, said that ''some would argue that in an age of two-income professional spouses, it is not fair to limit the lobbying by spouse of member of Congress.

But others would argue that there is at least an appearance, if not the reality, that the spouse has an unfair advantage."

Noble said the question is ''how far down the line do you go," raising the issues of whether to stop the ban at spouses, or children, or siblings.

Hastert delegated the job of coming up with a lobbying bill to Representative David Dreier, Republican of California.

Jo Maney, a spokeswoman for Dreier, said a ban on lobbying by family members ''is something that is still under consideration" and that a decision on the matter may be made in the coming week.

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