BOSTON --Days after calling on his party to exhibit higher ethical standards, Gov. Mitt Romney said the Republican Governors Association would donate to charity $500,000 in contributions it received from a donor entwined in the investigation of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Romney, a potential 2008 presidential candidate and the newly elected chairman of the RGA, said the association will give the money to American Red Cross chapters in five hurricane-ravaged states. The RGA had received donations in that amount in October 2002 from a public affairs company owned by Michael Scanlon, Abramoff's business partner.
"When influence peddling is alleged, a political institution like the Republican Governors Association wants to be above any possible shadow of complicity," the governor said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press.
Scanlon, like Abramoff, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges as part of a federal probe of influence peddling on Capitol Hill. President Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert -- all Republicans -- have already given charities much smaller sums equal to donations they received from Abramoff or his associates.
Romney said an internal review, triggered by questions about the donations on Tuesday from the AP, deemed the donations legal. But he and Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia, the RGA vice chairman, decided to split them equally over two years among Red Cross chapters in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Florida.
The move allows Romney and the RGA to avoid questions about the contributions while they are trying to help Republican governors win elections in 36 states this fall.
And while the divestiture will take at least $250,000 out of RGA coffers this year in the run-up to those elections, Romney refused to swear off future contributions from lobbyists or their corporations to replace the lost funds.
He also said he would continue to travel occasionally on corporate aircraft, as he did in December when he flew to an RGA meeting in California on a Gulfstream jet owned by
"I'm not going to propose to you a new series of laws," he said. "But I can say the best efforts in campaign finance reform to date seem to have driven money into secret corners, and it's had unintended consequences."
Romney said groups like the RGA and its equivalent, the Democratic Governors Association, are designed to be funded by corporations. He also noted the aircraft travel is reported to the IRS, as are cash and other in-kind donations.
"It's not a form of corporate largesse," he said. "It's a form of corporate contribution."
In an interview with the AP on Monday, Romney urged his party to emerge from what he termed its "ethical scandal" by seeking resignations of top leaders associated with Abramoff, and by pushing for the line-item budget veto. He said that would allow the president to eliminate special-interest spending supported by lobbyists.
Romney, who gained national prominence for his work on the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, announced last month that he would not seek re-election this fall and has already visited early-voting Iowa and New Hampshire.
Scanlon worked for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas before forming Capital Campaign Strategies and teaming up with Abramoff. DeLay himself abandoned his House leadership post last year after being indicted separately on conspiracy and money laundering charges.
Scanlon's plea agreement outlines a web of illegal activity stemming from work he and Abramoff did lobbying for Indian tribes interested in protecting or expanding their gambling franchises. As part of his agreement, he was ordered to pay restitution totaling more than $19 million to the tribes.
Abramoff and Scanlon were paid more than $80 million between 2001 and 2004 by six American Indian tribes with casinos.
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