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Feeney faces more scrutiny

Allegations pile up for the Orlando-area representative, who is "loyal to a fault, even when it hurts him," says a UCF professor and former colleague.

Published February 20, 2006

WASHINGTON - Three members of Congress went on a golfing junket to Scotland with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Two of them are under investigation.

The third is Rep. Tom Feeney of Florida.

Feeney, a Republican from the Orlando area, says he thought that a conservative think tank was paying for the 2003 trip that included a few rounds of golf at the legendary St. Andrews.

No one has accused Feeney of illegal activity, but in Washington, where one scandal after another has made headlines for months, anyone with connections to Abramoff comes under a cloud of suspicion.

Feeney, 47, has tried to move past the allegations but, in typical fashion for him, has shown little regret, or caution.

He kept going to Abramoff's Washington restaurant, Signatures, long after others stopped. He defended former majority leader Tom DeLay even after the Texas congressman was indicted. He let a private group pay for his trip to China last month even though many in Congress are avoiding such travel because of bad publicity over questionable trips.

"He's loyal to a fault, even when it hurts him," said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida and a former congressional fellow in Feeney's office. "When he thinks something is right and thinks something is important, he just does it. Not only does he not shirk, he's dogged, determined and doesn't back down.

"He's really opened himself up for people to attack him."

Watchdog groups, including the Congressional Accountability Project, Democrats and columnists have questioned Feeney's ethics, demanding investigations into his ties, particularly to Abramoff, now a felon. Supporters and fellow Republicans blame partisan politics for the criticism.

Feeney, usually one of the most accessible of the state's congressional delegation, refused to answer questions. His staff described questions into his relationship as a "fishing expedition" and said he has done nothing wrong.

* * *

Feeney got something from Abramoff that many golfers dream about: a chance to play at the St. Andrews course in Scotland.

He has said he golfed two or three times at the Royal & Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews, an eight-course complex considered the birthplace of modern golf and a frequent site of the British Open.

"The notion you're at St. Andrews and have a chance to play golf - the oldest course in the world - didn't offend me," Feeney told the Orlando Sentinel in March 2005.

But Feeney's chief of staff, Jason Roe, wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times that Feeney did not know golf was included in the trip and went because he was already going on vacation to Ireland with his wife about the same time.

"While Tom played golf, and paid for it, he is not even a golfer and golf was never presented to us as an activity in advance of him accepting," Roe wrote.

Feeney has said he met with Scottish business and political leaders.

Details of the trip and Feeney's ties to Abramoff come from published reports, testimony at congressional committees and financial and travel documents. Feeney and his aides did not return calls left on office and cell phones by the St. Petersburg Times , but Roe answered some questions by e-mail.

A member of the Financial Services, Judiciary and Science committees, Feeney has said the Scotland trip provided him a way to learn about one of the world's key regions and that he was invited by Abramoff's former firm because he is a member of the Judiciary Committee's domestic security subcommittee.

He has been on trips to France, Israel and the Dominican Republic, among other places, but told the Orlando Sentinel in March 2005 that the Scotland trip was less substantive than the others.

Feeney went a year after the 2002 trip by Rep. Robert W. Ney, an Ohio Republican who is being investigated by the Justice Department. DeLay, who is under investigation by Texas prosecutors, went in 2000.

"Ethically, he is not doing anything different than other members who are ambitious and want to move up the party leadership," said Dan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida who follows Florida's congressional delegation.

Feeney has said that he thought a conservative think tank - the National Center for Public Policy Research - was footing the $5,643 bill. Later, he said he learned from newspaper reporters that Abramoff paid in violation of House rules that forbid members from taking free trips from lobbyists. Roe said he only has correspondence showing Abramoff indicated the center was paying for the trip.

"Any assertion that this office knew Abramoff paid for the Scotland trip is a g--d----- lie," Roe wrote in the e-mail.

Feeney has said he sought permission to go on the trip from the House ethics committee prior to going and then contacted them again in March 2005 after learning who actually paid. His office has not received a response.

"My staff completed all required documentation based on the information provided by the trip sponsors, but it appears that in some instances, they were misled," he wrote in his letter to the committee.

Records and media reports show lawmakers - including Ney and DeLay - have helped Abramoff with his lobbying.

"I know the culture up there," said Keith Ashdown, vice president for policy for Taxpayers for Common Sense. "You take someone to a baseball game, you're trying to do something. You take them to Scotland, you are trying to do much more. It's the granddaddy of junkets."

Feeney received $4,000 from Abramoff and three of his clients but recently gave the $1,000 directly from Abramoff to charity. Money also went the other direction: Feeney paid the tab at Signatures restaurant at least three times, twice when the costs were more than $2,000, according to Feeney's campaign finance reports. Roe denied that his boss did anything for Abramoff.

"Tom has never written a letter for Abramoff. Abramoff has never been in our office. Abramoff has never asked anything of us," Roe wrote. "There is no accusation of a quid pro quo. No quid pro quo exists."

* * *

A self-described Reagan Republican, Feeney keeps a plastic card in his wallet imprinted with his five guiding principles of conservatism.

Feeney, who has been infatuated with politics since he dressed up as his childhood hero Richard Nixon in a mock grade school election, is conservative on social issues but boasts of a libertarian streak on economic and regulatory policy.

He spent a decade in the Florida Legislature before running for a new congressional seat he carved for himself when he was Speaker of the House. Feeney was immediately taken with DeLay, to whom Feeney sometimes is compared, and voted with him almost all the time. Later, Feeney became a prominent defender of DeLay, giving $5,000 to his legal defense and supporting a Republican move to allow him to keep his leadership post if indicted.

Feeney quickly made a name for himself, often ready with a pithy quote that frequently led to mentions in national newspapers. He has been considered a rising star in Republican circles with a desire to be in the House leadership or the Senate despite bucking his party on Medicare drug coverage, immigration and budget issues.

But more recently, he has been singled out for his missteps by columnists, Democrats and watchdog groups.

He indicated a $2,000 trip for him and his wife to West Palm Beach in 2003 was paid for by a lobbying firm - even though that is forbidden by House rules.

More than a year later, after being questioned by reporters, he filed updated records indicating that the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture paid for the trip.

He went on a trip to Asia in 2003 that was paid for by a charity registered as a foreign agent, which is against House rules. The Korea-U.S. Exchange Council has said its status may have been a mistake and that lawmakers had been told the trip was proper.

He received $5,000 from former Rep. "Duke" Cunningham's PAC before Cunningham resigned last year amid a bribery scandal.

"My concern about him is that he seems to view the rules are optional," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a group that has primarily criticized Republicans. "Rules are there for a reason."

In September, Feeney was named one of "the 13 most corrupt members of Congress" by Sloan's group. The Congressional Accountability Project demanded that the House ethics panel investigate Feeney and others for their ties to Abramoff.

"No one likes being attacked but he still continues with his daily routine," said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, a Brooksville Republican who served in the Florida Legislature with Feeney. "This hasn't changed him at all."

Feeney did not face opposition in 2004 but this year already has two opponents, veterinarian Andy Michaud, a Democrat, and computer programmer Clint Curtis, a lifelong Republican turned Democrat. Both Curtis and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee question Feeney's ethics.

"So much of the criticism that you hear is totally partisan," said Rep. Ric Keller, an Orlando Republican who frequently works with Feeney on regional issues. "This whole election by Democrats is going to be about guilt by association."

--Times Washington bureau chief Bill Adair and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

[Last modified February 20, 2006, 04:01:08]

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