FBI probing Jewish backing for L.A.-area lawmaker

washington | The FBI is looking into allegations that Jewish donors to the Democratic Party unduly influenced California Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), the ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee.

The investigation was first revealed by Time magazine on Friday, Oct. 20. Several Jewish and congressional officials familiar with the inquiry said that the case, while still technically open, has been abandoned in its earliest stages because it went nowhere.

The Justice Department refused comment.

The dimension of the inquiry is not clear, but it appears to deal with major Jewish donors to the Democrats who lobbied Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the House minority leader, to keep Harman as the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee and in line for its chairmanship if Democrats prevail in Nov. 7 midterm elections.

In exchange, the Time article suggested, Harman agreed to pressure the administration to “go lighter” on two former AIPAC lobbyists facing trial on classified information charges. Reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post also suggested the case focused on an AIPAC-Harman connection, but sources familiar with the investigation said its exact thrust was unclear.

In any case, it’s not clear how such a quid pro quo would work: Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, the former lobbyists, already have been indicted and are to be tried soon. At this advanced stage, no pressure from Congress or even the Bush administration is likely to change that.

Harman, who learned of the investigation from Time, dismissed the allegations about a quid pro quo for Rosen and Weissman as “scurrilous, laughable and irresponsible.” She has hired Theodore Olson, formerly the U.S. solicitor general and now a lawyer in private practice, to find out where the investigation is heading.

Sources said the lead Democratic Party donor making the case for Harman was Haim Saban, the Power Rangers toy and TV-show magnate, who also has been a major donor to AIPAC and the Brookings Institution, where a center for Middle East studies was established in his name. Saban, a dual Israeli/American citizen, also is a donor to Israel’s Labor Party.

Sources close to Harman, who is Jewish, and Pelosi acknowledged that there has been such lobbying, but added that it’s par for the course and not illegal, though Pelosi has made it clear she resents the pressure. The sources also noted that other interest groups have spoken to Pelosi on Harman’s behalf.

AIPAC officials dismissed the lobbying allegations out of hand, noting that Harman’s rival for the position, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), has an exemplary pro-Israel record.

Additionally, they said there never was any indication that Saban was making the representations as anything other than someone close to Harman. AIPAC did not come up in Saban’s discussions with Harman, the sources said; conversely, Harman did not arise as an issue in Pelosi’s meetings with AIPAC officials.

AIPAC officials also said that Justice Department officials told them the organization and its employees were not under investigation. That guarantee was first made in March 2005, when AIPAC fired Rosen and Weissman.

Multiple sources said they suspected the investigation was leaked in retribution for Harman’s release last week of a damaging report about former Rep. Randy “Duke’ Cunningham (R-San Diego), who was convicted earlier this year on bribe-taking charges. The report suggested that, by looking the other way, Republican staffers on the Intelligence Committee had enabled Cunningham’s maneuvers on behalf of contractors who were bribing him.

Cunningham used the committee to steer $70 to $80 million to his co-conspirators.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief