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Lobbyist and Ernest Istook linked to funds

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A lobbyist with close ties to U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook helped the congressman raise tens of thousands of dollars that then were used to support Republican candidates running for the Oklahoma Legislature in 2004.

At the time he was raising money for Istook's political action committee, the lobbyist, Dennis Stephens, had clients with specific interests in legislation being authored by Istook, The Oklahoman reported from its Washington bureau.

Istook, R-Warr Acres, was chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees transportation spending as well as the U.S. Postal Service and some Treasury Department activities. It is a powerful position that Istook held in 2003 and 2004.

Istook is now a candidate for governor of Oklahoma.

His political action committee, the First Freedoms Fund, was set up in June 2003, just a few months after he got the chairmanship. The first donation was $5,000 from Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who pleaded guilty last week to federal charges of conspiring to bribe members of Congress and tax evasion. The money from Abramoff was disbursed in 2003 to five Republican congressional candidates in political races outside Oklahoma.

In response to the criminal probe of Abramoff, Istook last month directed the First Freedoms Fund to donate $5,000 to the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Istook, who also received a $1,000 donation from Abramoff to his campaign fund, recently donated $1,000 from that fund to the foundation.

The legality of Abramoff's donation to Istook's political action committee hasn't been questioned. Nor has the arrangement between Istook and Stephens on the First Freedoms Fund.

Numerous lawmakers have registered lobbyists operating the political action committees they use to raise money for other candidates.

``The purpose of this was to do fund raising to help Republicans around the country,'' Istook said in an interview.

Istook said he didn't know why Abramoff contributed to the First Freedoms Fund. He said Stephens solicited most of the donations. According to Istook, another person involved in fund raising was lobbyist Kevin Ring, who was questioned by a Senate committee last year investigating Abramoff's dealings.

Ring worked with Abramoff as lobbyists for three Indian tribes that donated early to Istook's new fund-raising committee: the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, which gave $10,000; the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, which gave $5,000; and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians of California, which gave $2,000.

Some of the committee donors belong to companies that employed Stephens as a lobbyist. Some of those same donors had interests before Istook's subcommittee.

Istook said the method of raising money for the political action committee was typical of most of the fund raising that occurs in Washington: lobbyists, trade groups and others with interest in issues before Congress often host or attend events and donate money.

He said he makes it clear that donations don't sway his positions.

``You must be able to exercise proper judgment and to tell contributors no,'' he said.
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