The Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, is under investigation by the FBI, which is probing corruption in Congress, ABC News reported on Wednesday.
ABC, citing high level Justice Department sources, said information implicating Hastert was developed from convicted lobbyists who are now cooperating with the government.
Part of the investigation involves a letter Hastert wrote three years ago, urging the Secretary of the Interior to block a casino on an Indian reservation that would have competed with those of other tribes.
Hastert's Press Secretary told ABC in a statement: "We are not aware of this." Hastert's spokespeople were not immediately available for comment.
The Department of Justice issued a statement clarifying that Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is not under investigation Wednesday evening after ABC World News Tonight reported that he was "very much in the mix" of the DOJ’s sweeping congressional bribery probe.
"Speaker Hastert is not under investigation by the Justice Department," DOJ Director of Public Affairs Tasia Scolinos said in a one-line statement.
The DOJ started releasing the statement in response to reporters’ questions around 7 p.m. Wednesday.
The ABC News story, which was picked up by the Drudge Report in the early evening, claimed that Hastert was under investigation by the FBI, "which is seeking to determine his role in an ongoing public corruption probe into members of Congress," according to the story. The story first cited "high-level government sources," but later changed the sourcing on its web story to "senior U.S. law enforcement officials."
Brian Ross, who reported the story, is ABC News’ chief investigative correspondent. According to his biography on ABC News’ website, he received the National Headliner Award for breaking the 1980 ABSCAM story, among other accolades.
The story maintained that part of the investigation involves a letter Hastert wrote three years ago, urging the Secretary of the Interior to block a casino on an Indian reservation that would have competed with other tribes. The other tribes were represented by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe public officials, tax evasion and fraud. The story claimed that Abramoff has provided details of his dealings with Hastert as part of his plea agreement with the government.
The report caused a late-day furor on Capitol Hill with GOP aides questioning the motivation behind the leak, and then quickly circulating the DOJ statement that Hastert is not under investigation through e-mail. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), vice chair of the Republican Conference, sent the DOJ release out to his press list at 8:09 p.m.In the last two days, Hastert has publicly chastised the administration for its raid on Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.) congressional office over the weekend. Hastert has argued that the raid is a direct violation of the separation of powers between the two branches of government as they are defined by the Constitution.
Ron Bonjean, Communications Director for Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) issued the following statement regarding the ABC Nightly News story that aired this evening: "The ABC News report is absolutely untrue. As confirmed by the Justice Department, ‘Speaker Hastert is not under investigation by the Justice Department.’ We are demanding a full retraction of the ABC News story. The Speaker’s earlier statement issued today to ABC News accurately reflects the facts regarding this matter."
A spokeswoman for ABC News did not immediately return a call for comment.
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert is demanding a full retraction from ABC NEWS after it led its WORLD NEWS TONIGHT broadcast with a report that claimed he was being investigated for "bribery."
[Video of ABCNEWS story]
Deputy Attorney General McNulty explained: "With Regard to reports that the Speaker of the House is under investigation or 'in the mix,' as stated by ABC News, I reconfirm, as stated by the Department earlier this evening, that these reports are untrue."
ABC claimed the Hastert turn was a "major development" and possible "political earthquake."
ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas questioned the "political implications if Speaker Hastert is now a target of the FBI investigation."
VARGAS: Good evening. We begin with a major development in a Washington bribery scandal.
Tonight, sources tell ABC NEWS the case involving convicted lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, has led FBI investigators to some of the most powerful members of congress, namely the man, second in line for the presidency, after the vice president.
This is a story with potentially major political implications. And our chief investigative correspondent, Brian Ross, joins us with his exclusive report. Brian...
ROSS: Elizabeth, federal officials tell us the bribery investigation now includes the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, based on the testimony from convicted lobbyists.
Justice Department officials describe the 64-year-old Illinois Republican as very much in the mix of the corruption investigation.
Part of the investigation is said to involve a letter Hastert wrote three years ago, urging the secretary of the interior, to block a casino on an indian reservation that would have competed wit the other tribes.
The other tribes were represented by Jack Abramoff, who has reportedly disclosed his deals with Hastert. The letter was written shortly after a fund-raiser for hastert, at a restaurant owned by Abramoff. Abramoff and his clients contributed more than $26,000 at the time.
Hastert denied any unlawful connection, and said he would donate to charity, any campaign contributions he received from Abramoff or his clients. This week, following the FBI raid of another congressman under investigation, testimony William Jefferson of Louisiana, Hastert was outspoken in his criticism of the FBI.
HASTERT: We are not trying to protect any individual. But we want to protect the house, as far as a constitution.
ROSS: A spokesman for Hastert said the speaker was unaware he was the subject of any investigation. And there had been no requests for documents. The spokesman said Hastert had a long line of opposing casinos. This is at the very beginning. The allegations could prove unfounded. But what's clear from all this, is the FBI intends to take this case as far as it goes.
VARGAS: George Stephanopoulos joins us now. The political implications if Speaker Hastert is now a target of the FBI investigation.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Potentially seismic, Elizabeth. And it is going to depend on the facts and whether prosecutors can demonstrate a quid pro quo, that Hastert took that official action, in return for the campaign contribution. As Brian said, he has denied that. But if he can prove that, they can get an indictment, this would be a political earthquake.
VARGAS: That's a big 'if'. This is the find of charge that's exceedingly difficult to prove.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Exactly right. And it's been, frankly, common practice in Washington. There's 33 members of congress who wrote letters to the interior secretary and got campaign contributions from Jack Abramoff. If Hastert is facing that kind of scrutiny, they may, too. A lot of heads could roll.