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Bill Berkowitz: Abramoff Affair Ripples Outward

Abramoff Affair Ripples Outward

The house that Jack Abramoff built begins to crumble
Bill Berkowitz

On Saturday, January 7, Tom DeLay, the powerful Texas Republican, became the biggest political casualty thus far of L'Affaire Abramoff, as he was forced to resign his post as majority leader of the House of Representatives amid mounting evidence of widespread corruption and influence peddling on Capitol Hill.

While not yet specifically named in the ongoing Abramoff investigation, DeLay has been dealing with his own legal troubles. In September, he was indicted by a Texas grand jury for allegedly violating campaign finance laws to help the Republican Party win control of that state's legislature in the 2002 elections.

Delay, who will retain his House seat, has already declared his intention to run again in the fall congressional elections. The timing of his resignation as majority leader coincided with the guilty plea last week of longtime associate and friend -- the high-powered GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who over the years has forged relationships with dozens of powerful politicians, mostly Republicans, but a smattering of Democrats as well.

"The government says Abramoff and former business partner Michael Scanlon, a one-time aide to... DeLay, pocketed tens of millions of dollars from four Indian tribes; set up a foundation that financed a trip to Scotland for public officials and Abramoff's colleagues; and provided money, meals, trips and entertainment to entice public officials to help the lobbyist and his clients," reported.

If convicted on felony charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion, Abramoff could face up to 30 years in prison. However, since he has agreed to cooperate with an ongoing Justice Department investigation, which could ultimately corral dozens of lawmakers, the government will reportedly recommend a 10-year sentence -- depending on the usefulness of his information.

To say that Abramoff had a full plate would be a bit of an understatement. The Abramoff story has touched dozens of top-shelf politicians, and involved a number of Indian tribes, a gaggle of political consulting firms and consultants -- including Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition and who is now running for lieutenant governor of Georgia -- as well as what now appears to be a number of phony charities.

According to several reports in the Washington Post, Abramoff established an organization called the Capital Athletic Foundation (CAF). During a four-year period, it took in six million dollars which was to be earmarked for "needy and deserving" sportsmanship programs.

In reality, CAF used "less than one percent of its revenue on sports-related programs for youths." Several of Abramoff's tribal clients -- the Choctaws, Coushattas, and Saginaws -- "contributed a total of 2.02 million dollars to the foundation."

The Washington Post reported that in 2002, CAF "reported it had given away more than 330,000 dollars in grants to four organizations," but these organizations "said they never received the money."

It appears that Abramoff used the organization for his own pet projects, which included a $4.03 million Jewish school, and $248,742 for a house in Silver Spring, Maryland. Abramoff also used the money to fund sniper training in Israel.

Abramoff apparently tried to cover all of his bases. Late last month, BusinessWeek Online revealed that the lobbyist had paid Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the fiercely libertarian Cato Institute and a columnist with Copley News Service (now resigned from both), and Peter Ferrara, of the Lewisville, Texas-based Institute for Policy Innovation, to produce op-ed pieces in support of issues of interest to Abramoff and his clients.

(According to Tom Giovanni, President of the Institute for Policy Innovation, who has been peppering the mainstream media with letters of clarification and denial since the BusinessWeek Online story first appeared, Ferrara began working at the Institute for Policy Innovation after the period during which he wrote the op-ed pieces for Abramoff.)

While many of the columns Abramoff paid for were related to Indian gambling, they also celebrated the free-market system, especially as it involved his interests in the Northern Mariana Islands.

Some are calling the Abramoff Affair the biggest political scandal in the nation's history. Democrats, hoping to seize the political moment, are calling Abramoff's cushy relationship with the Bush Administration and example of the "culture of corruption" that they maintain is pervading the White House.

Doing his part to take the focus away from only tainted Republicans, President Bush told the Fox News Channel on December 14, that Abramoff was "an equal money dispenser."

According to numerous press reports, however, Abramoff raised at least 100,000 dollars for the Bush-Cheney '04 re-election campaign, earning the honorary title "pioneer" from the campaign.

And while some in the media have accurately pointed out that politicians on both sides of the aisle were involved with Abramoff and/or his clients, federal records show that between 2001 and 2004 Abramoff gave over 127,000 dollars to Republican candidates and committees and nothing to Democrats.

"At the same time," reported, Abramoff's "Indian clients were the only ones among the top 10 tribal donors in the U.S. to donate more money to Republicans than Democrats."

According to Larry Noble, the former top lawyer for the Federal Election Commission, who directs the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, there is no doubt that "Abramoff's big connections were with the Republicans.'

"It is somewhat unusual in that most lobbyists try to work with both Republicans and Democrats, but we're already seeing that Jack Abramoff doesn't seem to be a usual lobbyist,' Noble said.

In the pre- and now the post-plea period, some politicians who had received money from Abramoff and his clients seem to have settled on two tacks: They have denied any wrongdoing; and they have rushed to either return the tainted money, or pawn it off on some charitable group. On January 4, President Bush, former House Majority Leader DeLay and his potential successor Rep. Roy Blunt joined the latter group. The Bush campaign, however, did not give back any of the "pioneer" money Abramoff was responsible for raising.)

Given, as longtime Republican political consultant Rich Galen has acknowledged, that there is "the smell of blood in the water," what's next?

It will likely take a fair amount of time to ferret out all of the seamy details that encompass this monumental scandal. Who, if anyone, in the Bush administration might be implicated is anybody's guess.

In a few weeks, despite the buzz from the Abramoff Affair droning on in the background, an already wounded president must stand before Congress and deliver his State of the Union Address.

It is clear that the Bush Administration and its surrogates will continue to try and spin the Abramoff Affair as a scandal that has touched both political parties. In addition, Bush officials will likely refuse to comment on any of the details while the matter is still "under investigation," as it did with the scandal surrounding the "outing" of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame.

And, wouldn't this be the perfect time (think the Enron Scandal and its aftermath) for the Bush Administration to offer to work with Congress to craft some type of lobbying "reform" legislation.

If this sounds like business as usual, that's because it is.


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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