Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Report: Hilleary Says He Will Try To Return Abramoff Money

After months of repeated calls from both sides of the political aisle to return all the corrupt money he received from Jack Abramoff and his tribes, it now appears Van Hilleary is going to do the right thing...maybe.

Tuesday's Kingsport Times-News reports, "U.S. Senate hopeful Van Hilleary said Monday he'll try to do the right thing concerning his old political cash contributions linked to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Before addressing a group of Greene County Republican Women at the General Morgan Inn, the Murfreesboro Republican was asked if he will return money given to himself and his leadership political action committee in 2000 and 2002 when he was a congressman. The contributions included $500 from Abramoff, two $5,000 gifts and a $4,000 donation from Native American Indian tribes, according to Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a campaign finance tracking organization tracking Abramoff's cash gifts from 1999 to 2006.

"We're going to try to figure out some way to find a way to find some source of money to send back to them," Hilleary said of the contributions.

Abramoff pleaded guilty last week to three counts charging him with conspiracy, aiding and abetting honest services mail fraud and tax evasion, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Under the terms of the plea agreement, Abramoff faces up to 30 years in prison, a fine of more than $750,000, and restitution estimated at $26.7 million.

A DOJ news release said Abramoff admitted that he engaged in "a pattern of corruptly providing things of value to public officials," including trips and campaign contributions with the intent to influence them. He represented Native American Indian tribes that operated gaming casinos.

Abramoff and the tribes made contributions to the war chests of both Republicans and Democrats. All the contributions appear to be legal, according to CRP.

"Several members of Tennessee's congressional delegation received various money from various Abramoff-linked organizations," Hilleary said. "Those who could send it back have sent it back. ... The (Hilleary) accounts that money came into no longer exist. That's been years ago, and I haven't been in office for several years. ... (But) if a Republican has done something wrong, they need to go to jail. If a Democrat has done something wrong, they need to go to jail. ... There's some good honest people in Congress, and there's some apparently that are not. "

Hilleary is seeking the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. His competition in the August GOP primary includes former congressman Ed Bryant and former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker.

On Monday, Corker's campaign issued a news release calling on the Democratic front-runner in the U.S. Senate race, U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., to fully explain and acknowledge his relationship with "Team Abramoff" lobbyists. Ford had called on Hilleary last week to donate his Abramoff money to charity.

"Congressman Ford has never received money from Abramoff's corrupt money machine. For Bob Corker to insinuate otherwise is dishonest," Ford spokeswoman Carol Andrews said in an e-mailed response.

In his talk to the Greene County GOP group, Hilleary called Ford "unelectable, but you can't take that for granted." Hilleary insisted he is the "experienced, sincere conservative" running for the Senate post.

"We've got a tremendous amount of spending going on," Hilleary said of what's going on in Congress. "We've got a war on terrorism going on. We've got people flooding across the border, and we're doing nothing about it. ... We need someone who can step into the job on day one."

Hilleary said he has raised about $1.5 million for his Senate bid. In contrast, Corker's campaign recently released its fund-raising totals showing over $4.7 million raised to date.

"Money is going to be important, but we're going to find out for sure this time if Tennesseans will allow this Senate seat to be bought - whether they want someone who is a true conservative Republican to be their senator," Hilleary said. "Obviously, East Tennessee is an important area for Republicans running for statewide office. Greene County has always been very good to me politically."

It's about time Van.