Weller reportedly will leave  House
Rep. Jerry Weller, dogged by ethics questions surrounding his Nicaraguan investments and his wife's finances, is set to announce his retirement in the near future, Republican sources said Wednesday.

One of the sources said the announcement could come as soon as Thursday. Others said it would be early next month. A spokesman for the Illinois Republican did not return messages seeking comment.

Weller, a seven-term incumbent who boasts the most extensive foreign land holdings of any House member, has faced questions about his re-election intentions all month, following a Tribune investigation that revealed he failed to disclose several land transactions in Nicaragua on his congressional ethics forms.

On other sales, he reported vastly different purchase prices for the land in American and Nicaraguan records.

The Tribune also reported last week that a charity formed by Weller's wife -- Zury Rios de Weller, a member of the Guatemalan Congress -- raised questions about whether Weller could legally exclude her assets from his congressional filings.

Weller has not been officially accused of any wrongdoing.

Weller and a dozen other House members disclosed this week that they had been subpoenaed to testify in the case of a defense contractor accused of bribing then-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.). All of the members said they would fight the subpoenas.

Political implications

His retirement would force the Illinois GOP to defend a third open seat in 2008 and could turn his southwest suburban district into a national battleground in the fight for congressional control. Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) and former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) already have announced they won't seek re-election.

Democrats and some Republicans say the changing demographics of Weller's district -- which have made the district's largest county, Will, a Democratic force -- could make it the most competitive of the three open seats, at least on paper. Other Republicans say the fact that President Bush carried the district in 2000 and 2004, albeit narrowly, suggests the seat still leans their way.

Several potential challengers had already lined up to face Weller, including Republican Jason King, Democrats Jerry Weber and Bob Gorman, and Green Party candidate Jason Wallace.

Party leaders said that if Weller retires, it likely would push several better-known politicians to consider the race.

Democrats suggested three state lawmakers: Senate Majority Leader Debbie DeFrancesco Halvorson of Crete, Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi of Joliet and Rep. Careen Gordon of Morris.

Republicans floated several possible candidates: Joliet lawyer and Republican activist Dick Cavanagh; New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann; Frankfort Mayor Jim Holland or former Mayor Ray Rossi; James Roolf, president of First Midwest Bank in Joliet; Chris McNeil, a previously unsuccessful state legislative candidate; state Rep. Renee Kosel of New Lenox and state Sen. Christine Radogno of Lemont.

"I don't know that there will be any kind of contest if the right candidate comes along," said Jack Partelow, the Will County Republican chairman. "But there's no natural candidate who jumps out right now."

Republicans in Illinois and Washington have debated Weller's future after the Tribune disclosures. Some said Weller wasn't circulating re-election petitions. Others wondered why he didn't respond to the stories.

Weller has declined to comment about his land deals or his role in his wife's charity, which counts his mother and brother, along with one of his business partners in Nicaragua, on its board of directors.

Nothing illegal, wife says

Zury Rios de Weller defended her husband in an interview with the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre this week.

"My husband would never do anything illegal," she told the newspaper. "He has never done so in the 14 years he has served in the U.S. Congress."

Several GOP leaders, including Partelow, said they had not heard any official word about Weller's plans on Wednesday.

Neither, apparently, had LaHood or Hastert. They discussed the GOP's prospects in their soon-to-be-open seats in an afternoon meeting with Illinois Republicans -- including Weller -- in Hastert's office, LaHood said, and Weller never mentioned any retirement plans.

"We were just all together," LaHood said Wednesday night, "and he never said a word about it."

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jtankersley@tribune.com

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