Hastert Aide Says Justice Dept. Leak to ABC Was Payback

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:31pm EDT

(CNSNews.com) - An ABC News report, claiming that U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert is a target of the FBI's probe of alleged congressional corruption, is based on a Justice Department leak, according to Hastert's deputy chief of staff. Mike Stokke claims the Justice Department tried to retaliate against Hastert for his harsh condemnation of the FBI's search of another congressional office over the weekend.

ABC News chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross alleged Wednesday that Hastert was "in the mix" of the federal probe into public corruption surrounding convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

"Federal officials say the congressional bribery investigation now includes Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert," Ross reported, "based on information from convicted lobbyists who are now cooperating with the government."

However, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement at 7:25 p.m. (Eastern) Wednesday: "Speaker Hastert is not under investigation by the Justice Department." And Hastert's office responded minutes later.

"The ABC News report is absolutely untrue. As confirmed by the Justice Department, 'Speaker Hastert is not under investigation by the Justice Department.'" Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean wrote. "We are demanding a full retraction of the ABC News story."

Later Wednesday evening, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty issued a second statement on behalf of the Justice Department.

"With regard to reports suggesting that the Speaker of the House is under investigation or 'in the mix,' as stated by ABC News," McNulty wrote, "I reconfirm, as stated by the Department earlier this evening that these reports are untrue."

Stokke, Hastert's deputy chief of staff, told the Chicago Sun-Times that the allegation ABC reported appeared to be in retaliation for Hastert's forceful condemnation of the FBI's weekend search of the office of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.). Jefferson is accused of accepting bribes from an FBI informant.

"We've been in discussion with them since Sunday, with the Department of Justice, on this other matter of unconstitutional search and seizure.'' Stokke told the newspaper. "I don't recall any threats being made, but this is what is called in baseball a brushback pitch.

"ABC News got this from somewhere," Stokke concluded. "I don't think they made this up.''

Hastert had issued a joint statement with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Wednesday criticizing the search and demanding that the items seized be returned to Jefferson. Ross's report came just hours after Hastert's statement.

At 10:21 p.m., Ross updated his initial report.

"Despite a flat denial from the Department of Justice, federal law enforcement sources tonight said ABC News accurately reported that Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert is 'in the mix' in the FBI investigation of corruption in Congress," Ross wrote. "ABC's law enforcement sources said the Justice Department denial was meant only to deny that Hastert was a formal 'target' or 'subject' of the investigation."

Ross quoted one of his "federal official" sources as having said that, "Whether they like it or not, members of Congress, including Hastert, are under investigation,"

At midday, Thursday, Hastert ratcheted up the pressure on ABC News to retract the story. A letter from Hastert attorneys J. Randolph Evans and Stefan C. Passantino -- addressed to Ross, ABC News "This Week" anchor George Stephanopoulos and ABC News president David Westin - rejected the allegation that Hastert was "in the mix" of the FBI probe.

"This statement is false, and your re-publication of it after actual knowledge of its falsity constitutes libel and defamation. ABC News' continued publication of this false information, after having actual knowledge of its falsity, evidences a specific and malicious intent to injure and damage Speaker Hastert's reputation by continued repetition of a known falsehood," Hastert's lawyers wrote. "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 letter goes on to request that ABC "... advise regarding who will accept service of process to remedy this intentional falsehood;" a statement that could indicate Hastert's intent to sue the television network.

As of 1:30 p.m. Thursday, ABC was still standing behind Ross's report.

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