The Abramoff Saga: The Worst Hill Scandal in Our Lifetime?

Posted October 18, 2005 at 3:49pm

Stories of rot and corruption involving Congress just keep coming. The latest was the double dose of Jack Abramoff in The Washington Post. Tuesday’s story, detailing the multiple connections between Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and Abramoff, portrayed Ney in an extraordinarily bad light, including a recap of the water he carried to help Abramoff negotiate his purchase of gambling boats in Florida (a story that now includes a gangland-style murder), plus new light shed on a questionable contract for wireless service in the House, overseen by Ney as House Administration chairman, to a company that hired Abramoff as a lobbyist for a fat fee. At a minimum, this cries out for a full bore ethics investigation. [IMGCAP(1)]

Even more damning, though, was the detailed retelling of Abramoff’s efforts in 2000 on behalf of yet another gambling client, this time a non-American Indian tribe: eLottery.

Abramoff hit a lobbying equivalent of a home run on behalf of the Internet gambling industry, stopping the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act in its tracks after its authors and proponents had built widespread support and momentum for it. Even though the bill was supported by anti-gambling interests and by prominent figures on the religious right, it ended up dying in the House.

Its opponents, curiously enough, included Abramoff ally Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas). Now, Post reporters Susan Schmidt and James Grimaldi have given us the reasons why the bill went down and DeLay voted nay.

One central player was DeLay’s key staffer, Tony Rudy, who worked hand-in-glove with Abramoff from the inside, e-mailing him internal House memos, telling him what was going on in closed-door sessions and giving him advice on what to do.

His performance as a secret agent, or mole, inside the House was so helpful that Abramoff soon hired him directly as a lobbyist. Even before that, Abramoff made sure that some of the fees in the $2 million eLottery campaign went to Toward Tradition, the Orthodox Jewish organization run by conservative rabbi and Abramoff friend Daniel Lapin, who just happened to hire Rudy’s wife to be a consultant.

Another $25,000 went to the National Center for Public Policy Research, a think tank used by a board member, one Jack Abramoff, to pay for foreign trips for Members of Congress and staff; this money paid for part of the now-infamous May 2000 golfing trip to St. Andrews in Scotland that included both DeLay and Rudy. The greens fees alone exceeded $5,000 a day.

Money, lots of money, also went to the Rev. Lou Sheldon’s Traditional Values Coalition and to Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, with some of Reed’s money flowing through Grover Norquist’s group Americans for Tax Reform, and other funds were shuffled through other intermediate groups to hide its source.

And lo and behold, Sheldon, a familiar presence to watchers of Capitol Hill for his efforts to promote a conservative Christian agenda, and Reed, an avowed foe of gambling, joined eagerly in the efforts to kill the anti-gambling bill and thus achieve the goals of eLottery and the Internet gambling industry.

To do this, they courageously took on Reed’s old outfit, the Christian Coalition, as well as the Rev. James Dobson and lots of other conservative Christians. OK, I’m exaggerating a bit: Strike the word “courageously” and put in “surreptitiously.” Well, maybe strike “surreptitiously” and put in “deviously.”

The story gets only more nauseating. Abramoff and his business associate, Michael Scanlon (what do you know — another former top DeLay aide) wanted to secure a letter opposing the bill from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R). There was a problem, however: Bush didn’t oppose the bill. Scanlon had hired the Shandwick public relations firm to get letters from Bush and others. It did, with one small problem: The letter from Bush was a forgery. (The firm blamed an operative acting without Shandwick’s sanction.) But this did not faze the intrepid lobbyist; the “letter” was widely circulated, and it created enough confusion that some lawmakers thought that Bush indeed had sent it.

Bulk attack mailings — paid for by American Marketing, a company run by the head of Reed’s direct-mail subsidiary — were sent under Sheldon’s aegis to districts of wavering House Republicans. The mailings attacked staunch anti-gambling conservatives for being pro-gambling by supporting the bill. As Dobson might (or might not) say, what chutzpah!

These stories lead one to a number of conclusions. First, from now on, anybody who would pay attention to anything Sheldon says based on his moral authority needs to have his head examined. Also, you might want to think again if you believed that Reed had no idea that the millions of dollars he garnered by helping Abramoff’s Indian gambling clients came from gambling sources.

Second, based on all the Abramoff stories of the past few months, we can see a clear modus operandi: extract large sums of money from eager lobbying clients, skim a lot off for yourself and your firm, then launder a lot of what is left through a series of nonprofit and for-profit organizations, enriching your friends, advancing your causes and covering your tracks.

The same pattern of laundering money through a series of organizations, real and shell, is characteristic of DeLay as well, as another recent story, this one by The Associated Press, makes clear. DeLay and his temporary successor as House Majority Leader, Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), deliberately raised far more soft money than they needed to finance parties at the 2000 GOP Convention. They then shuffled the excess funds from from corporations and other interests — hundreds of thousands of dollars worth — back and forth between each other via their leadership PACs, Americans for a Republican Majority PAC and the Rely On Your Beliefs Fund.

Some of the money ended up at the Alexander Strategy Group, a lobbying firm headed by a former DeLay chief of staff and employing DeLay’s wife. Some ended up with the Missouri Republican Party, which in turn made generous contributions to Matt Blunt, Roy’s son, who was then running an ultimately successful campaign for Missouri secretary of state. (He is now governor.) Some of the funds came from Northern Marianas Islands-based Concorde Garment Manufacturing, part of a coalition of companies, considered sweatshops by critics, that had hired Abramoff as a lobbyist.

And of course, this form of money shuffling sounds a lot like what happened with the corporate funds given to ARMPAC’s Texas counterpart, Texans for a Republican Majority PAC, which then shifted the funds to the Republican National Committee, which in turn gave targeted contributions to Texas state legislative candidates in 2002 to allegedly sidestep the Texas law barring corporate funds in state campaigns. These are the transactions that led to the indictments against the suspended Majority Leader.

Third, not everything outlined in the Post stories about Ney and eLottery is necessarily illegal. A whole lot is merely unethical, unseemly, hypocritical, revolting. But if Rudy, as a top Congressional staffer, gave all that direct, inside assistance to Abramoff and his client, and was contemporaneously given a lavish golfing trip to Scotland (and a separate trip to the Super Bowl) while his wife was being paid by funds provided to another group by the client, that sure walks and talks like a quid pro quo to me.

The prosecutors can deal with that part. They no doubt will also be looking at various facets of the Ney-Abramoff nexus, and the DeLay-Abramoff partnership, which extends to the DeLay family and extended staff. The rest of it, though, has to be dealt with by the ethics committee. Oops, I forgot: Thanks to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the panel’s chairman, there is no functioning ethics committee to deal with the rest of it.

Fourth, even to a jaded veteran of the lawmaking scene, the Abramoff Chronicles is over the top. Every new story I read makes me want to take a long shower to get rid of the grime. I don’t think we have had something of this scope, arrogance and sheer venality in our lifetimes. It is building to an explosion, one that could create immense collateral damage within Congress and in coming elections. If I were a Member of Congress who knew Abramoff and played footsie with him, a staffer who worked with him and then for him, or a prominent outside activist who did business with him, I would be afraid — very afraid. And if I were a Member of Congress who staunchly defended other Members of Congress who played footsie with Abramoff, I would be pretty nervous as well.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.