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Bum rap pinned on Hatch?

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WASHINGTON — Sen. Orrin Hatch thinks he was set up.

The Utah Republican doesn't say it quite so directly. He uses lawyerly phrases and caveats, but the senator makes it clear he wonders if someone orchestrated recent events to make it appear he was secretly trying to do favors for a drug company that helped him financially.

Meanwhile, his Democratic opponent for his Senate seat, Scott Howell, says much more directly that Hatch is being paranoid, especially about any involvement by him. Howell also says that, regardless, Hatch has some serious explaining to do about his interactions with the drug company.

"Sen. Hatch is really beginning to sound a little like Hillary Clinton with regards to everything being left-wing conspiracy, or a right-wing conspiracy, depending on which party you are in," Howell said.

What happened is a bit complicated, but it led to Hatch being pummeled in the national press.

Two weeks ago, ABC News ran a story about how some senator, subsequently dubbed "Sen. Anonymous," was anonymously trying to add an amendment to an appropriations bills to allow extension of a patent on Claritin, an allergy medicine made by Schering-Plough. Such an extension could bring the company billions of dollars by preventing generic drug companies from offering inexpensive copies. But it could hurt consumers by keeping prices on the medicine high.

Shortly afterward, the Seniors Coalition took out ads and passed out handbills in Washington offering a $1,000 reward to anyone who could identify the dastardly Sen. Anonymous.

Howell, meanwhile, issued a press release wondering if Hatch were Sen. Anonymous. He pointed out that Hatch had tried to help Schering-Plough earlier in his Judiciary Committee by backing similar legislation by Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., to allow administrative hearings on whether to extend the Claritin patent. That earlier effort fell apart amid reports that Hatch used a Schering-Plough jet at bargain-basement prices to fly around the country when he was running for president. Also, Schering-Plough funneled $10,000 to Hatch's senate and presidential campaigns.

Guessing who Sen. Anonymous might be became a popular game in Washington, especially because Schering-Plough had given huge donations to many senators and parties. Hatch said that amid constant press inquiries about whether he was Sen. Anonymous, he decided to dig deeper into what was happening.

He said he found his Judiciary Committee staff had drafted months before — without his knowledge — legislation similar to that being pushed by Sen. Anonymous.

"It was sent months ago to Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, with my name on it, to try to restart negotiations on the topic. But it was dead on arrival and quickly rejected," Hatch said.

He said somehow, maybe at the hands of a political enemy, similar wording without a sponsor's name was being used as a possible amendment to appropriations bills. He insists that he and his staff were not the ones pushing it as part of the appropriations process.

Hatch said he told Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Congress, after his research that, "I'm Sen. Anonymous who is not anonymous," because legislation that his staff wrote with his name attached was apparently what was being used to try to help Claritin via appropriations bills.

However, Roll Call simply quoted him saying, "I'm Sen. Anonymous."

The paper did say he denied trying to secretly use the appropriations process to help Schering-Plough.

Democrats on Hatch's Judiciary Committee then blasted him and attempts by anyone to use the appropriations process to secretly push patent extensions. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was quoted saying Hatch should perhaps fire staffers involved.

Looking at what happened, Hatch calls it all a "tempest in a teaspoon," a "phony baloney" event.

But Howell said that "at the heart of the issue are some very serious matters raised by Sen. Hatch's colleagues on the Judiciary Committee. . . . We should not be able to file anonymously. I think it's an issue that should be investigated thoroughly by Sen. Hatch's colleagues to determine what was appropriate, what happened and what didn't."

Hatch said he also strongly believes that issues such as patent extensions should be considered through normal legislative channels, which he notes would be through his Judiciary Committee.

He also said he only had sought, previously, to allow "Schering-Plough its day in court" because the company believes it was short-changed in the timing for its patent consideration because of administrative delays in its initial approval.

E-mail: lee@desnews.com