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Bill Berkowitz: The Rabbi And The Uber-Lobbyist

The Rabbi And The Uber-Lobbyist

Will Rabbi Daniel Lapin's involvement with Jack Abramoff hurt or solidify his position with the evangelicals?
Bill Berkowitz

Rabbi Daniel Lapin's Toward Tradition Web site is filled with all sorts of announcements and information about the organization's various projects. The ultra-orthodox Mercer Island, Washington-based rabbi recently announced that he had signed on to host a weekly radio program called “The Rabbi Daniel Lapin Show” - broadcast on KSFO, San Francisco.

Before signing on with the San Francisco-based right wing talk station, Lapin had been dropped from his regular radio gig at KTTH, Seattle. According to Michael Hood, of blatherWatch --"listening to talk radio so you don't have to..." -- Lapin has been "no spellbinding broadcaster." He has "failed in syndication, and never really had much luck staying long anywhere on the dial, although he's tried at KVI, KKOL and KTTH."

In fact, blatherWatch noted, Lapin's "local show was brokered" which means that his organization, "Toward Tradition (TT) paid to get him on the air." The Toward Tradition Web site also proudly reported that on March 13, Lapin appeared on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, where he and Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg were introduced by Pastor John Hagee. The two-hour program was "devoted to the Jewish significance of the holiday of Purim and the historic links and prophecies found in the Book of Esther," according to a program description provided by TBN.

A much bigger story -- and one with national implications -- has failed to make it onto the front page of the Web site; details about Rabbi Lapin's longtime friendship and working relationship with former uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who on March 29 was sentenced to nearly six years in prison for fraud in the purchase of a Florida casino cruise line.

The Rabbi Lapin/Jack Abramoff connection

On April 1, 2006 the Seattle Times reported that "Abramoff admitted in his own guilty plea in January that he funneled money through [Lapin's] Mercer Island religious foundation as part of an attempt to influence" Tony Rudy, Rep. Tom DeLay's former deputy chief of staff.

Lapin said that Toward Tradition "took $50,000 from two Abramoff clients and, at Abramoff's suggestion, used it to hire Lisa Rudy, to organize a Washington, D.C., conference for the group."

The Seattle Times also reported that "Lapin said he and his board had no idea the money was part of Abramoff's scheme to influence Congress and, in this case, stop legislation to raise postal rates and ban online lotteries."

Less than a year earlier, Rabbi Lapin was gaining a national reputation as the Christian right's go-to Rabbi. On June 25 of last year the Washington Post provided an in-depth look at the rabbi's growing political influence. The story talked about the rabbi's frequent trips from his Washington headquarters to the nation's capital, where he would meet with the likes of Rep. Tom Delay, Karl Rove, and hang out with his old chum Jack Abramoff.

"Last year he came for a private Shabbat dinner with President Bush," the Washington Post reported. "The president recognizes my enthusiasm for his faith," Lapin said.

"With a city increasingly dominated by the religious conservatives who appreciate Lapin, he can now be described as Republican Washington's Official Rabbi, and to some it's an improvement," the newspaper reported.

"When you're talking to a pastor he could be inspired by God, etc., but he may not have the scholarship," Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), one of several Republicans who refer to Lapin affectionately as "my rabbi," told the Washington Post. "When you're talking to Rabbi Lapin you know you're getting an expert, someone who's the equivalent of a Ph.D. at a major university."

The Post described Lapin as "an evangelical Christian's stereotype of a rabbi: He wears a rabbi's beard, from ear to ear, but trims it to a dignified length. He speaks in a posh South African accent, which adds to his authority. In his speeches and on his radio show he takes the Torah at its word and quotes extensively from it.

"For evangelicals who are used to reading about Jews as God's chosen people, he solves an essential mystery: 'A lot of people are surprised when they leave church and encounter essentially [Alan] Dershowitz Judaism, Jews who are liberal...' says conservative activist Grover Norquist [head of Americans for Tax Reform], who is also a friend. 'Lapin is the opposite of that.'"

At the time of the article, Abramoff was under investigation by the Justice Department, and several of Lapin's close friends, including DeLay and Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition who is involved in a race for lieutenant governor of Georgia, were subjects of interest. "But Lapin dismisses it all as an accounting error," the Washington Post noted.

Less than two weeks later, the Seattle Weekly, one of Lapin's hometown publications, also reported on the Lapin/Abramoff connection:

"A stream of political money currently under U.S. Senate investigation quietly meandered south from D.C. in 1999 -- 2000, but its headwaters turn out to have been in Seattle. A $121,000 expenditure -- the initial funds used for a deceptive Deep South antigambling campaign run by religious right leader Ralph Reed -- was authorized by top officers at Seattle's Preston Gates Ellis law and lobbying firm, for whom Reed worked as a subcontractor, according to new Senate documents. Eventually, as much as $1.3 million -- apparently supplied by an Indian casino client -- may have gushed through Preston Gates accounts in one month to kick start the campaign."

Where does Lapin come in? According to the Seattle Weekly, "New Senate documents show Seattle radio host Rabbi Daniel Lapin was more than just a friend and fellow religious conservative to embattled D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff ...Lapin was also on the payroll of Abramoff's D.C. charity, Capital Athletic Foundation [CAF]. According to Abramoff's e-mails, CAF was sometimes used as a money conduit to avoid paying higher income taxes."

"At one point, the e-mails state, Abramoff proposed using Lapin and another person on CAF's payroll to create a 'research' project as a tax write-off, but Abramoff's accountant worried the IRS would see it as a 'sham transaction,' and the idea was apparently dropped. Abramoff also proposed using Lapin's Mercer Island charity, Toward Tradition, as an apparent money pass-through to help fund Ralph Reed's antigambling drives (see main story), then learned the charity didn't have the correct IRS status.

"There is no indication Lapin, who would not comment last week, was aware of the schemes. Abramoff is a board member of Lapin's charity, and Lapin was one of four people who collectively earned $20,000 a month at Abramoff's D.C. charity, according to Senate documents.”

After the Abramoff connection was exposed, “donations slumped ... and his organization became radioactive,” blatherWatch reported. Abramoff "had been an old friend, a founder, a two-time Board president of TT before being unceremoniously dropped after being indicted."

Abramoff, who seemed to have a predilection for sending fascinating and revealing email to his pals, asked Lapin in one email "to make up an award or two so Abramoff could get into the private Cosmos Club, inhabited by Nobel Prize winners and others of an ilk Abramoff wished to be seen associating with," blatherWatch reported. They settled on 'Scholar of Talmudic Studies?' or some such. Lapin claims it was a joke, but Abramoff, it was revealed in the investigation, used it in serious applications."

BlatherWatch also pointed out that "checks written by gambling entities and other corporations ... were washed through Toward Tradition. Lapin claims he was ignorant of the devious way his old friend was using him." According to an earlier report by the Seattle Weekly's Rick Anderson ("Meet the Lapin Brothers"), "Years ago, Lapin introduced Abramoff to DeLay. 'It was just, 'Jack? Meet Tom' -- very informal at a D.C. dinner,' says a Lapin follower. 'Just people who see eye to eye.'"

While Daniel Lapin refused to speak with Anderson, his younger brother David, who is also a rabbi and is the CEO of Strategic Business Ethics, was willing to talk about reports that he "had a $1.2 million no-bid Northern Marianas government contract that was arranged by Abramoff during his Preston Gates days, to conduct ethics-in- government programs there." According to a New York Times report, David Lapin didn't provide the services.

The Seattle Weekly reported "On his consultancy's Web site, David Lapin says the Marianas' attorney general, Pam Brown, told him she was misquoted by the New York Times about not knowing what work Lapin did for the commonwealth. 'SBE contacted Ms. Brown last night, who assured us that she had implied nothing of the sort,' David Lapin says on the Web site. 'What she said was that there have been two administration changes since the SBE projects and that, not having reviewed the files, she was unable to comment about the deliverables of SBE's work.' Brown did not respond to phone and e-mail messages left by Seattle Weekly. David Lapin was never interviewed by the New York Times because he was away during Passover. He says the work he performed over two years included leading a governmental reorganization, establishing new labor laws, and providing 'an improved work ethic.'"

David Lapin also told the Seattle Weekly that he had "met Mr. Abramoff many years ago. He was on a trip to South Africa and was a guest of mine." The Weekly pointed out that David Lapin "once ran a Jewish academy established by Abramoff in the D.C. area." David Lapin added that he and Jack "are good friends and there was nothing improper about this deal."

On March 31, the Washington Post's Al Kamen pointed out that among the many letters sent to U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck prior to the sentencing of Abramoff, "there was a warm letter from Rabbi David Lapin, urging leniency and noting Abramoff was not your 'average criminal.'"

The Right's Most-Favored Rabbi

For years, leaders of the religious right have virtually conferred a most-favored-Rabbi status on Lapin. As the head of Toward Tradition, a very conservative Jewish organization, Lapin, who immigrated to the US from South Africa in 1973, has been carrying water for the religious right at every opportunity.

The Rabbi often goes beyond merely carrying water, however, he appears to ladle it out as well: In a June 21, 2002 article in the Forward titled "Born-Again Allies," the Rabbi argued that it was time for Jews to do something concretely to thank Christian evangelicals for their support of Israel. If they didn't step up, the Rabbi implied that they would risk losing that support.

Lapin also praised President Bush, the now beleaguered, indicted and soon-to-be-former Texas Republican Congressman Tom DeLay, and former Texas Republican Congressman Dick Armey, for their support of Israel. "At very least," Lapin wrote, "We have an obligation to desist from thinking of ourselves as the parole officer for the Rev. Billy Graham, who was recently humiliated for offensive remarks [revealed in a taped conversation with President Richard Nixon] made long ago. We should also stop acting as the watchdogs over Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and many other Christian leaders, all of whom are devotedly pro-Israel and who are guilty of nothing more than frankly stating their religious beliefs, some of which we as Jews do not hold."

Marching along with Lapin on this issue was Toward Tradition's David Klinghoffer, who suggested in a late June 2002 story in National Review Online that "At a minimum, Christians can reasonably ask that groups like the ADL, the American Jewish Congress, and Wiesenthal Center lay off a bit. In exchange for their vital support of Israel, at least until the Mideast crisis has subsided, let [Abe] Foxman et al. declare a moratorium on bashing Christians." Lapin was a strong advocate for Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," and was outspoken in his support for Terri Schiavo's parents, Mary and bob Schindler.

Toward Tradition

According to the Seattle Weekly, Rabbi Daniel Lapin's nonprofit was founded with Abramoff and film critic/radio talker Michael Medved.

Toward Tradition, a non-profit [501(c)(3)] organization claims it is "working to advance our nation toward the traditional Judeo-Christian values that defined America's creation and became the blueprint for her greatness." The organization's mission statement goes on to say: "We believe that only a new alliance of concerned citizens can re- identify and dramatically strengthen the core values necessary for America to maintain that greatness and moral leadership. These values are: faith-based American principles of constitutional and limited government; the rule of law; representative democracy; free markets; a strong military; and, a moral public culture."

The organization has "four unique programs":

The Macabee Project

The website offers an 800 number where alleged instances of defamation of faith or bigotry against any religious American can be reported.

The Biblical Blueprint Institute.

The American Alliance of Jews and Christians.

Founded in early in 2002 along with Gary Bauer -- the failed presidential candidate who once headed up the Family Research Council and who now runs a group called American Values. According to a Toward Tradition press release, the Washington, D.C.-based AAJC was to be a "unique synthesis of Jewish authenticity and Christian grassroots muscle."

The organization's Board of Advisers includes Dr. James Dobson, Gary Bauer, Charles Colson, Rev. Jerry Falwell, Rev. Pat Robertson, Pastor Rick Scarborough, as well as Rabbi Barry Freundel, Rabbi David Novak, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, Michael Medved, John Uhlmann.

The Ethical Investment Project -- "Restoring American respect for the dignity and morality of business."

According to the bio posted at Toward Tradition's website, Lapin moved to Washington state in 1991 in order "to develop Toward Tradition and host a nationally syndicated weekly radio show." He has written articles for the Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary, the American Enterprise, the publication of the American Enterprise Institute, and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon-owned Washington Times. His bio claims that Lapin has "taught at the Christian Coalition, U.S. Army, Harvard Law School , and the Family Research Council." He is also the author of "America's Real War," "Buried Treasure" and more recently "Thou Shall Prosper." His bio points out that he "serves on the board" of the Jewish Policy Center in Washington , DC.

A significant fundraiser for Bush/Cheney, Lapin was recently reappointed to the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, which helps preserve cemeteries, monuments, and historic buildings in Eastern and Central Europe.

Between the years 1994 and 2004, Toward Tradition, received more than half-a-million dollars in grants from such conservative foundations as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Roe Foundation, The Carthage Foundation (controlled by Richard Mellon Scaife) and others. BlatherWatch pointed out that "according to a 2003 IRS filing, Toward Tradition paid Lapin $165,000 a year."

Being linked to the Abramoff Affair doesn't appear to have hurt Rabbi Lapin's standing among Christian evangelicals. On March 28, 2006 the Rabbi "gave a fiery speech" at a Cincinnati banquet organized by Citizens for Community Values, a Christian evangelical group founded in 1983 to "battl[e] pornography and strip clubs in Cincinnati," the Columbus Dispatch reported.

The theme of this year's annual banquet was expansion: "Politics," Lapin said, "is the practical application of our religious beliefs. If Citizens for Community Values fails in its mission, we all lose."


For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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