Lamborn Losing Grip on Congressional Seat

Consequences.

Rookie Republican Congressman Doug Lamborn talked about consequences in a phone message he left for a pair of GOP constituents. The pair had criticized Lamborn in a letter to the editor.

“There are consequences to this kind of thing,” Lamborn warned on the answering machine of Jonathan and Anna Bartha.

You bet there are consequences, and those consequences are being felt most by Lamborn. The Colorado Springs conservative looks less and less like an incumbent and more and more like a pariah in his own party.

An ethics group in Washington has asked for a Congressional inquiry into his actions. 

In essence, Lamborn called the Barthas liars for saying he took political donations from gambling interests. But as of Wednesday morning, Lamborn’s campaign headquarters and his Washington office produced few details of when and why Lamborn returned $1,500 donated to his Congressional campaign by the gambling industry.

“It will appear on the next (Federal Election Commission) filing,” Lamborn’s spokeswoman Abby Winter promised.

That was all the depth Winter had. She could not tell me the date when Lamborn returned a $1,000 contribution from International Game Technology, which makes gambling equipment. She acted as if she didn't know about a second $500 donation from a casino official in Colorado.

“You should call IGT,” she suggested.

I did.

Chuck Brooke, the company’s senior vice president for government affairs, said the company stroked campaign checks in late January 2007 to a group of freshman GOP Congressmen at the request of party bosses.

IGT lobbyists never spoke to Lamborn, Brooke said.

IGT’s check to Lamborn arrived back at IGT more than six months after it was written. The returned check was accompanied by a piece of plain white paper with an unsigned, undated, handwritten note.

“Thank you,” the note said. “But we are unable to accept your check.”

“We sometimes get checks returned,” said Brooke, whose company produces gambling equipment. “Usually they come with letters on campaign stationery and are signed by someone.”

I don’t blame IGT for these shady circumstances. It’s not their problem.

It is Lamborn’s problem, and he’s handled it with all the finesse of a fingerless juggler.

Tuesday, Lamborn sent a letter to the Barthas. He apologized to them for any misunderstanding.

But Lamborn was still sketchy about returning the IGT gambling money. He said he returned it in June, after his wife, who handles his mail, discovered it. The press of business and his mother-in-law’s illness caused the six-month delay, he said.

Lamborn’s account is at odds with Brooke’s. The IGT veep says he didn’t get the check back until after June 30 and “probably in the last three or four weeks.”  

That’s right around the time the Barthas have told others that they wrote their critical letter and first tried to get it published.

If you want to stop the kind of political meltdown that Lamborn finds himself in, you better know chapter and verse what happened to any controversial contributions. You better have a paper trail.

Yet on Tuesday Lamborn’s Washington office had no details about the IGT pay-back and didn’t even seem to know about a second contribution of $500 from Marc Murphy, an executive of Bronco Billy's Casino in Cripple Creek.

For Lamborn, an avowed social conservative, the silence deafens all other noise surrounding his phone messages.

Federal campaign contribution records show infusions to Lamborn’s campaign of $1,000 from IGT in January 2007 and from $500 from Murphy in summer 2006.

No official records have yet surfaced to prove that Lamborn gave the money back, as he claims.

Giving the money back might save Lamborn. But the timing of the returns is equally critical.

We’re talking high levels of hypocrisy here, big time gotchas, the stuff that helps topple the powerful.

Maybe the congressman meant to settle this matter privately. He remains a public figure. By leaving his voice twice on the Barthas’ telephone answering machine, he created a record that could be made public. In other words, he Rodney-Kinged himself.

You remember the video of the cops clobbering King that became the basis for a national controversy and lawsuits over police brutality? Well, Lamborn’s transgressions created the same kind of tangible proof. Only it didn’t hurt the Barthas. It wounded Lamborn.

Perhaps mortally.

Combined with an ugly 2006 primary and some legislative gaffes, the phone calls could portend an early end to Lamborn’s career in Congress, said Colorado State University political scientist John Straayer.

“In terms of political fortunes, this is not something you’d put on the to-do list,” said Straayer. Lamborn “comes off sounding defensive and edgy. Calls like this run the risk of offending folks and finding their way into the media.”

The Republican Party, already reeling from losing majorities in both the U.S. House and Senate in 2006, cannot afford the ongoing family feud in Colorado Springs.

The Barthas support Lamborn’s chief political rival in the Republican party, Jeff Crank. So they could easily be manipulating the Lamborn messages to help their guy. But even without this dust-up, Lamborn has been an embarrassment in Congress. He has raised his profile by arguing to stop funding public television while voting against regulating dog fighting. Hurting kids and animals is not a winning combination for any office holder in any party.

Crank has refused to comment on Lamborn’s phone messages to the Barthas, but Crank has announced his intention to challenge Lamborn for the GOP nomination in 2008.

Crank’s intentions are understandable. He narrowly lost to Lamborn in a crowded primary to replace longtime Congressman Joel Hefley in a district where the Republican candidate should be a perpetual lock.

Lamborn, however, is on the verge of losing the keys.

Crank, who worked for Hefley, got shafted by primary campaign smears that Crank wouldn’t fight hard enough against the so-called “homosexual agenda.” Gay-bashing is about as popular as piety in the Springs, home to Focus on the Family. But what Lamborn’s surrogates did was so sleazy that it crossed a line.

“It was over-the-top aggressive,” noted Straayer. “It generated bad feelings.”

Jonathan Bartha works at Focus on the Family. His wife was a scheduler for Crank’s campaign. They couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday, but I’m betting neither backs gay rights.

Hefley’s disgust for Lamborn’s primary tactics resulted in Hefley’s refusal to endorse the Republican candidate chosen as his successor.

The Democrats still don’t have a prayer of winning in Colorado’s 5th
Congressional District.

But if this in-fighting continues much longer, neither will Doug Lamborn.

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