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A watchdog group has filed an ethics complaint against Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, for what it says is improperly using outside lobbyists to help push a bill he is sponsoring.

Aides to Hatch call the complaint a "ridiculous," "frivolous" smear job designed to kill Hatch's proposed reforms of the federal regulatory process.Public Citizen - a watchdog group founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader - filed the complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee saying the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Hatch chairs, set up a meeting to brief Senate staffers about a substitute version he was to propose in a markup the next day.

"The briefing was conducted not by the majority staff of the committee, but by three private attorneys from the law firm of Hunton & Williams, which represents, among others, Phillip Morris, the Edison Electric Institute, and numerous electric utilities with interest in this legislation," Public Citizen said.

The group added that committee staff deferred to the lawyers about what Hatch's bill meant. Democratic staffers at the meeting complained about such use of lobbyists.

The group said their use by the committee appeared to violate rules of conduct that prohibit in-kind contributions of goods and services from lobbyists. It also noted that clients of the firm have donated $8,500 to Hatch over the past five years.

It encouraged the Ethics Committee to ask who paid for the time spent by the lobbyists at the meeting, what role they played in drafting the bill and whether announcements of the meeting made clear it was to be a briefing by outside interests.

A statement from the Judiciary Committee said, "Any suggestion that there was anything improper is ridiculous. This is an attempt by opponents of comprehensive regulatory reform to manufacture reasons to oppose legislation which, not withstanding the smears, enjoys broad public support."

Committee spokeswoman Jeanne Lopatto said, the three lawyers "were invited as technical experts . . .. Meetings with outside experts are commonplace. They happen all the time" - and notes the committee especially would avoid anything remotely unethical at a meeting to which it invited Democratic staffers.

The committee statement added, "Stated simply, this is a frivolous, politically motivated charge generated by opponents of meaningful regulatory reform. Sen. Hatch listens to all sides before making up his mind and crafting legislation."

Hatch and Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., have been pushing the legislation that would subject any new health or environmental rule that would cause more than $50 million in economic impacts to rigorous cost-benefit tests before they are imposed.