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Bill Berkowitz: How the Mighty Have Fallen

How the Mighty Have Fallen

By Bill Berkowitz
June 30, 2005

Ralph Reed, the former Golden Boy of the Christian Coalition, and George Bush’s longtime political adviser, is under investigation in Washington and taking fire at home

Ralph Reed had it all going for him in the 1990s: Boyish good looks, soft-spoken demeanor, and an image as a squeaky-clean spokesperson for the religious right.

As Executive Director of Pat Robertson’s powerful Christian Coalition (website), Reed offered an articulate and often calming television persona . More often than not he had the mainstream media eating out of his hands -- even while defending one of his boss Pat Robertson's frequent loopy commentaries. Reed was smart, media savvy and a remarkable political strategist. Time magazine called him "the right hand of God" in a 1995 cover story.

These days Time readers might be wondering which God Reed was really worshipping. He is locked in the grip of a scandal focused on his longtime friend, lobbying titan Jack Abramoff, involving taking money from one Indian tribe to kill the gambling operations of another tribe. At the same time Reed is now being urged by a former Georgia Republican state representative and House minority leader to withdraw from the race for lieutenant governor.

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Despite playing a soft-spoken, conciliatory spokesperson during many of his public appearances, Reed occasionally revealed what he and his Christian right colleagues were set on achieving, and how they would go about it:

“It's like guerrilla warfare. If you reveal your location, all it does is allow your opponent to improve his artillery bearings,” he told the Los Angeles Times in March 1992.

“It's better to move quietly, with stealth, under cover of night. You've got two choices: You can wear cammies and shimmy along on your belly, or you can put on a red coat and stand up for everyone to see. It comes down to whether you want to be the British army in the Revolutionary War or the Viet Cong. History tells us which tactic was more effective.”

A few months earlier, he told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot:

“I want to be invisible. I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don't know it's over until you're in a body bag. You don't know until election night.”

During a routine speech to the Montana Christian Coalition in the mid-1990s, Reed suggested that the group pay attention to the words of the ancient Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu. "The first strategy and in many ways the most important strategy for evangelicals is secrecy," Reed suggested. "Sun Tzu says that's what you have to do to be effective at war and that's essentially what we're involved in, we're involved in a war. It's not a war fought with bullets, it's a war fought with ballots."

Going for the Jugular

In 1997, Reed was prescient enough to read the tea leaves and move on from the Christian Coalition. He founded the Duluth, Georgia, based Century Strategies, a political consulting firm.

At Century Strategies, Reed has been a tenacious operator:

According to a recent posting at the A La Gauche blog, the Washington Post reported that “In the 1998 Georgia Lt. Governor’s race between Mark Taylor and Mitch Skandalakis, Reed ‘ran controversial ads showing his Democratic candidate Mark Taylor, with Atlanta's black mayor Bill Campbell as an announcer said: ‘First, Taylor...fought to preserve discriminatory racial quotas. Then, he was solidly endorsed by the homosexual newspaper, Southern Voice.’ That race was called "possibly the most negative campaign in Georgia's political history." His client even had to pay $50,000 fine for libel.”

During the rough GOP presidential primary campaign in 2000, when George W. Bush needed a smashing victory in South Carolina over a hard-charging Sen. John McCain, Reed came through for the Bush. He delivered the necessary ground troops and votes to defeat McCain and do away with his challenge.

Reed continued to serve the Bush-Cheney team in 2000, and was a senior official during the 2004 presidential campaign.

Reed was serving as Chairman of the Georgia Republican Party when Saxby Chambliss ran for U.S. Senate in 2002, a campaign that will be remembered for its vicious slandering of Democratic incumbent Senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam War hero. According to A La Gauche, “the low point was a Chambliss TV ad that showed an image of...Cleland together with those of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and implied the three were made of the same cloth.”

The Tide Turns

These days, Ralph Reed is not only being investigated for his connection to Jack Abramoff, who himself is under a series of investigations, but he recently was read the riot act from Bob Irvin, a former Republican state representative and House minority leader from Georgia, who urged him to “withdraw” his “candidacy for Georgia lieutenant governor.” Irvin said that Reed should drop out of the election -- which is more than a year away -- “in order to avoid a grievous, majority-wrecking split in the [state’s] Republican Party.”

In the intervening years between resigning from the Christian Coalition and his current run for the GOP’s nomination for lieutenant governor, Reed has managed to garner headlines on a regular basis.

The Gambling Scandal: Perhaps the most damaging recent revelations about Reed revolve around his relationship with Jack Abramoff. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s deputy editorial page editor and columnist Jay Bookman, “In 2001 and 2002, Abramoff secretly hired gin up a morality-based ‘grassroots coalition’ to pressure Texas officials to close an Indian casino in El Paso. The casino, run by the dirt-poor Tigua tribe, competed with casinos in Louisiana and Mississippi that were clients of Abramoff. He wanted the Tigua casino closed, and he paid Reed $4 million to do the hit.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Alan Judd recently filled in some of the details: “Reed, a longtime gambling opponent, apparently mounted a radio campaign in 2001 that prompted Texans to inundate their legislators with anti-casino telephone calls. He organized pastors in 2002 to provide what he called ‘cover" for the Texas attorney general, who had filed a lawsuit to close the Tiguas' casino. Reed once wrote an e-mail to Abramoff suggesting they ‘budget for an ataboy’ for the attorney general.

“As the Tigua campaign unfolded, Abramoff and Reed exchanged e-mails that paint an unvarnished picture of their work together."

“‘I wish those moronic Tiguas were smarter in their political contributions,’ Abramoff wrote to Reed in a 2002 message that since has been widely circulated.”I'd love us to get our mitts on that moolah!! Oh well, stupid folks get wiped out."

"’Got it,’ Reed replied."

“Nothing, however, raises more questions among Reed's critics than the trip to Scotland.”

According to Judd, Reed, Abramoff and four others, including Ohio Republican congressional representative, Bob Ney, flew to Scotland where they shared meals and played golf. Reed denies knowing anything about Abramoff’s “effort to reopen the casino, an assertion that leaves his critics incredulous.”

Is it possible that Reed, “as one of just six travelers on a trans-Atlantic golf trip, could have been oblivious to Abramoff's plan to reopen the casino he had allegedly helped close”?

"How could he not know?" Carlos Hisa, lieutenant governor of the Tiguas' tribal council, said of Reed. "I'm pretty sure in conversation it had to come up once or twice."

Given the nature of the company, Suzii Paynter, a lobbyist for Texas' Southern Baptists who oppose expanded gambling, figures that Reed must have known what the trip was really about.

"I'm nowhere near as sophisticated a political operative as Ralph Reed is, and I know better than to go too far down the road with an unknown source of money," Paynter told the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Judd. "I do not believe somebody walks up to you with $4 million and you don't ask the question, 'Where is this money coming from?' That is just unbelievably naive."

Enron: In a January 26, 2002 story, CNN reported that, “The White House acknowledged...that in 1997, as George W. Bush was deciding whether to run for president, his senior political adviser Karl Rove recommended GOP strategist Ralph Reed for a consulting job with Enron Corp.” According to the New York Times, Reed made from $10,000 to $20,000 a month while working for Enron. The Associated Press reported that Reed might have taken in as much as $300,000 before the energy company's collapse.

Stand for Israel: In late-May 2002, Reed joined forces with Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), to found "Stand for Israel."

The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported that "Stand for Israel" hoped to become a "Christian version of the pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).” One of the group's primary activities will be to counter what they see as media bias against Israel-a long-held belief shared by both Israelis and Christian right activists.

Microsoft: Earlier this year, it was revealed that Bill Gates’ Microsoft had paid Reed a $20,000 monthly retainer. Reed’s work with the company dovetailed neatly with the company’s temporary refusal to support a gay-rights bill in Olympia, Washington, which failed.

In early June, the Seattle Weekly reported that if Reed “ever had anything to do with Microsoft's role, or lack thereof, in this state's gay-rights debate, he won't next time....[since] [h]e's being deleted from the Redmond software giant's payroll.” Although Microsoft wouldn’t “confirm” Reed's termination, company spokesperson Ginny Terzano conceded that Reed’s firm was "no longer on retainer.”

Involvement with Jack Abramoff: While Reed’s stint at, and ultimate dismissal from Microsoft, brought the company and lobbyist unwelcome headlines, those stories pale next to the pounding Reed is taking for his alleged involvement with Jack Abramoff -- the lobbying titan under investigation in a number of cases.

According to the Seattle Weekly:

Reed is “now caught up in the influence-peddling scandal in D.C., which includes accusations he worked in concert with two other top Republicans also once engaged by Microsoft. One of them, Jack Abramoff, lobbied for Microsoft in the late 1990s while a member of the Seattle law and lobbying firm Preston Gates Ellis -- the firm of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates' father, William H. Gates II. Abramoff is under investigation for possibly bilking millions of dollars from former Indian tribal clients and improperly using his friendship with House Speaker Tom DeLay, who is facing ethics charges and is the subject of federal investigations. Abramoff's questioned activities include a suspected money-laundering scheme that involves both Reed and fellow Microsoft adviser and lobbying superstar Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform.

Reed, Abramoff and Norquist “go way back,” the Seattle alternative newspaper reported.

They met during the 1980s as leaders of the College Republicans. Norquist was Abramoff's campaign manager in a successful election as chair of the national campus organization. Later, Reed led the group. Abramoff, a self-described ultraconservative Orthodox Jew, and Norquist began ascending with the 1994 Republican revolution in Congress. They launched what was called the K Street Project to persuade lobbying firms to increase their Republican connections; Abramoff lived across the street from a Preston Gates partner, who quickly hired him. Norquist, a close ally of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, that year helped draw up the GOP's (ultimately voided) "Contract With America." Reed, meanwhile, became a Bush campaign official and private consultant after leaving the Christian Coalition in 1996...

Norquist also worked with Abramoff to lobby for the sweatshop industry in the Northern Marianas, a Preston Gates Ellis client, according to a report in The New York Times last week. That work is a target of several investigations. Senate investigators also want to know about the roles of Reed and Norquist in an alleged 1999--2001 scheme by Abramoff to funnel Indian casino gambling money through Norquist's organization to pay for an anti-gambling campaign run by Reed in Alabama. According to Senate testimony and reports in The Boston Globe and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Norquist confirms he passed the money to Reed. Reed, who says gambling is a sin, thought the money came from tribal industries, he says, not casino operations. Reed and Abramoff have turned over some records to Senate probers while Norquist's documents had to be subpoenaed.

Seeking a Political Foothold

In his op-ed piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bob Irvin made his case for Reed’s withdrawal based on his observation that “Reed is four things that Georgians do not elect”:

  • A professional contract lobbyist, someone who is available for hire to influence political outcomes;
  • A Washington man, not a Georgia man;
  • An ideologue; and
  • A person whose only career is politics.
  • Reed was no doubt looking ahead to future electoral challenges when he decided to run for the lieutenant governor’s position. Marshall Wittmann, who worked with Reed at the Christian Coalition but now works for the Democratic Leadership Council, told the Associated Press that he thinks Reed wants to be president.

    "He knew he couldn't go from the Christian Coalition, so he became a political consultant, then Georgia GOP chairman, then coordinator for the Bush campaign. The next logical step is to win a political office. This is what's available, but it's clearly a stepping stone to higher office," Wittmann said.


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