As my colleague Scott Horton noted yesterday, former Congressman Curt Weldon appears to be in a heap of trouble. Yesterday, the Washington Post has reported, his ex-chief of staff, Russ Caso, copped a plea on charges that he allegedly helped “a consulting firm championed by Weldon obtain federal funds and for concealing money the firm paid his wife.”
Caso was a powerful aide and he is almost surely cooperating with the feds. “When a chief of staff cuts a deal, the congressman is in deep trouble,” one Washington observer told me. “The last one to do so was Neil Volz and his boss [ex-congressman Bob Nye] went to jail.”
The consulting firm that paid Caso’s wife was not named in legal papers but the AP reports that it was Solutions North America, a company run by Weldon’s daughter, Karen, and Charles Sexton Jr., Weldon’s former finance chairman.
When I was at the Los Angeles Times, a colleague and I first reported the story of Weldon’s very helpful attitude towards his daughter’s clients, such as a Russian natural gas firm called Itera As we noted at the time:
“[Weldon] helped round up 30 congressional colleagues for a dinner at the Library of Congress to honor the chairman of… Itera International Energy Corp., that had just agreed to pay his daughter’s firm $500,000 a year to “create good public relations.” Records show Solutions North America helped arrange the privately funded affair for the company, which has been trying to improve its image with U.S. officials after questions were raised about its acquisition of vast natural gas fields in post-Soviet Russia.”
However, the Washington Post specifically says that it was another consulting firm, not Solutions, that paid Caso’s wife. I think the Post is right. It’s more likely that the unnamed firm is one of several pro-Russian trade groups that Weldon worked closely with, and which had ties to Weldon’s political supporters.
Either way, Weldon is in a hot spot.
Here’s another interesting question: what is taking the feds so long to conclude the Weldon investigation and what specifically are they looking at? The Los Angeles Times story ran in early 2004; the FBI raided the offices of Solutions North America in late 2006. The ties between the congressman and his daughter’s firm are fairly apparent, whether illegal or not.
A source familiar with the situation has a possible answer. This person tells me that the feds are not interested only in whether Weldon inappropriately helped out his daughter’s clients, or whether those clients hired Solutions as a means of thanking Weldon for his support. Also being examined, I’m told, is the nature and extent of Weldon’s ties in Russia, including his connections to some shady people, such as business officials close to Itera.
Weldon, who traveled to Russia dozens of times as a member of Congress, had numerous contacts there, and in other parts of Eastern Europe. After losing his seat in Congress in 2006, Weldon was hired by Defense Solutions, a military contractor that has offices and interests in Eastern Europe.
Itera is a very murky company and its American offices, in Jacksonville, Florida, have reportedly been raided as part of the current investigation. Charges of alleged corruption and criminality surrounding Itera have been widely reported. As we noted back in 2004 in the Los Angeles Times, “Questions had been raised by Russian energy and investment companies about how Itera had gained title to billions of dollars worth of natural gas resources from a [Russian] state-controlled conglomerate called Gazprom.”
Here are a few edited excerpts from the piece:
In 2002, Weldon led a congressional delegation to Moscow in connection with a visit by President Bush. Weldon toured Itera’s offices and, according to a company news release, praised it as a “strong and well-established company,” and recommended it as “a great source” for U.S. energy firms seeking partners for joint venture.
On Sept. 5 and 6, 2002, Itera paid for Weldon’s lodging in New York so he could do an interview with Russian radio about energy. A week later, Itera sent e-mails to Karen Weldon telling her the company would complete the terms of a contract with her firm at an upcoming dinner in Washington that her father was co-hosting to honor Itera’s chairman.
Weldon once introduced a resolution in the House that encouraged U.S.-Russian cooperation on developing energy resources. In a floor speech two days later, he gave House colleagues a glowing report on Itera.
When Weldon later led a congressional delegation to Eastern Europe, Itera paid for Karen Weldon to join him. During a stop in Moscow, Weldon called for increased U.S. imports from Itera and other Russian energy corporations.
When Itera opened an expanded U.S. headquarters in Jacksonville in 2003, the company flew the congressman down for the gala marking the event. “I can think of no other company that represents what Russia is today and offers for the future,” the congressman said, according to a local news report.
Recall that all the while Itera was getting hammered in the international press over allegations of corruption.
“How is it possible that a high-ranking member of Congress with access to classified information could have become so friendly with a company like Itera?” my source asked. “Shouldn’t Weldon have kept his distance given the company’s reputation? The full nature of his relationship with Itera, and other Russian entities, still has not been fully explored.”