WASHINGTON — An ex-aide to Commerce Secretary nominee Judd Gregg is under investigation for allegedly taking baseball and hockey tickets from a lobbyist in exchange for legislative favors.
The revelation comes at a particularly bad time for President Barack Obama's administration, a day after he had to defend his selection process because two high-profile nominees withdrew due to tax problems.
It also points to the challenges confronting a president who promised to end Washington's insider dealings but who has hired mostly Washington insiders.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Wednesday that Gregg "is neither a target nor a subject" of the investigation, and he noted the aide in question stopped working for Gregg four years ago.
Gregg, a Republican senator from New Hampshire, acknowledged that former aide Kevin Koonce is being investigated after The Associated Press reported that he was "Staffer F" in court documents filed as part of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
The senator said in a statement he was unaware of the investigation until he was contacted by the Justice Department.
"Prior to this, I was not aware of any improper acts by the former staffer in question. He left my office more than four years ago due to issues completely unrelated to those brought to light by this investigation," Gregg said.
Gregg said he had received written notice that he is neither a subject nor a target of the investigation, and he added his office "welcomes the opportunity to be helpful."
Staffer F was cited in a guilty plea last week by Todd Boulanger, a former deputy to Abramoff. In federal court, Boulanger admitted he plied the staffer with front-row tickets to a hockey game, meals and drinks and other tickets to a baseball game, and in exchange received favors in spending legislation.
The total value of the gifts Staffer F took from Boulanger exceeded $10,000, court papers said.
The biographical details about Staffer F contained in court documents — his job title at the time in the Senate office — correspond to Koonce's.
Koonce has not been charged with any crime. He now works at a private firm, Sorini Samet & Associates LLP.
After several attempts by the AP to reach him, Koonce replied to an e-mail Wednesday, saying only that he was on personal leave.
Abramoff, once a top GOP lobbyist, is now in prison and has cooperated with the Justice Department to help convict more than a dozen people, including former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, former Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles, and a number of former lobbyists and Capitol Hill aides.
Boulanger was the most recent ex-lobbyist to fall, pleading guilty Friday to lavishing a number of congressional staffers with gifts similar to those he gave Staffer F, including an all-expense-paid trip to the World Series.
As part of the plea documents, prosecutors said Staffer F tried to help insert spending measures and add other amendments to legislation for Boulanger's clients. In one case, Boulanger reached out to Staffer F to help preserve a $3.5 million earmark for Boulanger, according to the court documents. Later, the staffer asked Boulanger if he could "score some hockey tickets," and Boulanger got him front-row seats.
Boulanger later got the staffer box tickets to see the Baltimore Orioles, but Staffer F wanted more.
"Could you make sure there's beer this time," he wrote in an e-mail. "(I) mean, the red sox, crab cakes, and fillet mignon's were nice but ... haha."
Later, Boulanger sent an e-mail to Abramoff expressing confidence that the senator for whom the staffer worked would give them a favor. "Easy money," Boulanger wrote, adding that the aide "practically lives in our various suites. We are shady."
According to his biography on the Web site of Sorini Samet & Associates, Koonce was a negotiator for the U.S. trade representative prior to working for Gregg. Koonce also worked for six years as a legislative assistant to former Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., in the 1990s. Koonce graduated from Denison University and received a law degree from Catholic University.