The White House says it is examining a congressional report that says former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is due to enter prison in coming weeks after admitting to fraud and influence peddling, had more contacts with key Bush administration officials than was originally known.
Release of the report has thrust the Abramoff scandal, including the recent guilty plea on bribery charges by a Republican House lawmaker, back into the spotlight.
President Bush and his spokesmen have consistently downplayed previous revelations about Abramoff's high level connections, including photographs of the disgraced lobbyist at White House functions.
The House Government Reform Committee report, based on billing records and e-mails from Abramoff's former law firm, shows he or his associates had 485 contacts between 2001 and 2004 with White House officials.
That includes 82 with Karl Rove, President Bush's key adviser, and six directly with Ken Mehlman, former White House political affairs director who now heads the Republican National Committee.
Democrat Congressman Henry Waxman says the report raises serious new questions. "If the documents are accurate they paint a picture of campaign contributions and policy decisions being mixed together, going hand in hand, with gifts of meals and sports and concert tickets. This is unethical conduct at the minimum, and it may well be even far worse," he said.
Waxman says it is not possible to draw conclusions about clear cases of wrongdoing, but adds there is enough evidence to prompt further investigation. "We know that Jack Abramoff is a liar, we know that Jack Abramoff has deceived his clients, we know that Jack Abramoff broke the law. The question is whether the White House broke the law with him. And those are the questions that I think need to be further investigated and answered," he said.
White House Spokesman Tony Snow denied Friday that Abramoff had any undue influence on the White House, calling him an exuberant practitioner of sleaze.
But Snow said the administration will look carefully at the report. "We are going to study this, carefully because the president has made it clear he expects people in his administration to hew to (to maintain) a high ethical standard, and that remains the policy of this administration and will from the first day to the last," he said.
Karl Rove has denied accepting gifts from Abramoff and a spokesman for Ken Mehlman said it was not unusual for him to have contacts with supporters interested in administration policy.
But Democrats now have another opportunity to highlight ethics as an issue as they try to wrest control of Congress from Republicans in the November 7th congressional election.
Senator Charles Schumer added his voice to the fray as House Democrats demanded the White House release all records regarding Abramoff: "This report is devastating. It shows a real nexus between Abramoff and the highest figures in the White House," he said.
Congressman Tom Davis, the Republican chairman of the Government Reform Committee, says the report reveals only scant and circumstantial evidence that Abramoff was effective in influencing administration policy or personnel decisions.
However, Davis adds the investigation reveals an enormous gap in the amount of lobbying taking place and financial disclosure requirements.