May 25, 2006 -- ABC News' story about Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert set off a wave of reaction from Chicago talk radio to the wells of the Capitol. There it seems to have added fuel to the fire in the dispute between the executive branch and Congress.
The Department of Justice issued two separate denials of our report that officials had told us Speaker Hastert was "in the mix" of the investigation into Congress.
The speaker and his colleagues suggested the FBI was out to get him with a bogus story.
As he gaveled the House to order this morning, Hastert was praised, and ABC News was denounced by his Republican colleagues.
"This is a case of sensationalism over reporting," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.
Congressman Lee Terry, a Republican from Nebraska, said, "This non-credible journalism I think degrades freedom of speech and the reputation of journalists."
On WGN Radio in Chicago, Hastert said the story was a leak planted by the FBI to intimidate him.
"It's just not true, you know, the Justice Department said there is no investigation, and this is one of the leaks that come out to try to, you know, intimidate people, and we're just not gonna be intimidated on it," he said.
ABC News Stands by Its Report
As for the facts of ABC News' story itself, this is what we've confirmed today:
That the FBI interrogation of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff included specific and repeated questions about his relationship with Hastert along with other members of Congress.
That, although Hastert is not a formal target, the FBI has been looking into a letter Hastert and others sent to the Secretary of the Interior urging her to block an Indian casino that would have competed with casinos represented by Abramoff.
That a few days before the letter was sent, Abramoff hosted a fundraiser for Hastert at a restaurant he owned.
The Speaker today said the letter repeated long-held views about certain Indian casino rules.
"So it was a letter saying this precedent shouldn't be set," Hastert told reporters today.
When questioned about the letter's timing, after a fundraiser for Hastert at a restaurant owned by Jack Abramoff, Hastert replied, "That's a coincidence."
But long before ABC News' story aired, public interest groups had asked the Department of Justice to investigate Hastert and other members of Congress in light of the contributions they had received from Abramoff.
"That's very unusual activity, and we believed it needed to be and needs to be investigated," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to pursuit of democracy for all Americans.