Reed, Redemption, and Revival

“E-mails released by a Senate committee painted him as too hungry for money and trying to conceal that his lobbying against new Indian casinos was paid for by tribes protecting their own lucrative casinos.

“Mr. Reed was not accused of crimes and asserts that the work was ‘legitimate,’ but admits to lapses in judgment.”

I attended the Faith & Freedom event, where six Republican presidential candidates, 17 members of Congress, four preachers, and a predictable mix of Republican Party consultants and activists preached the gospel of small government and reduced taxes.

Most of the Evangelicals in the basement ballroom of the Washington Renaissance Hotel were from outside the Beltway. Most were white (at one point I counted two African Americans in an audience of about 600). All of them were angry.

At 50, Reed, who in the 1980s had worked with Pat Robertson to build the Christian Coalition, was all enthusiasm… introducing speakers (“John Boehner, a man of great faith”), popping into breakout sessions, chatting up reporters, and standing before a videographer for one-on-one interviews with prominent speakers.

Reed told the Times that the coalition intends to spend $15 million to $18 million in 2011 and 2012 to mobilize voters, with half its income raised from 250,000 small donors and half from a few large donors (whom he refuses to name). His plans include paid staffers in 45 states before the 2012 elections.

Speakers opened with encomia recognizing Reed’s service to God and country. Preachers praised Reed’s success at moving religion into the public square. And fans pursued him for iPhone photos they could e-mail home. All the while I could not stop thinking about the e-mails briefly described in the Times. And wondering how — when the public was obsessed with one pathologically narcissistic member of Congress engaged in debased social networking — these guys get away with it.

Seven years ago I wrote extensively about Reed’s role in the scandal that landed Jack Abramoff and 14 others in federal penitentiaries. Abramoff’s elaborate criminal enterprise is still somewhat misunderstood. He stole millions from American Indian tribes desperate to open new casinos or to protect existing gambling enterprises. He got rich, his associate Michael Scanlon got rich, and Reed was richly rewarded (in the millions). But much of the money they stole from six Indian tribes was diverted to Republican organizations and candidates, as part of the “K Street Project” dreamed up by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.

Their $84 million scam transferred wealth from Indians who received monthly dividends from their tribal casinos to millionaire lobbyists and politicians in the nation’s capital. (Median income for adult Tigua Indians at the time was $8,000.)

I dug into my Abramoff files and found the content of the e-mails between Reed and two felons, Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, every bit as squalid as I had recalled. And a reminder of what an attorney working with the Tiguas told me at the time… “Ralph Reed is an amoral son of a bitch.”

How amoral?

Nothing quite compares to what Abramoff and Reed did to the Tigua Ysleta del Sur Pueblos, most of whom live on a small, dirt-poor reservation downriver from El Paso.

A casino whose legality was always in question had opened in 1993, lifting the Tiguas out the mud-hut poverty in which they had lived for generations. Democratic Governor Ann Richards declared it illegal when it opened, as did the state’s Democratic Attorney General Dan Morales.

When Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn, who succeeded Morales as attorney general in 2002, resolved to shut down the Tiguas’ Speaking Rock Casino, anyone who could read a statute recognized that once the state filed suit, Indian gaming on the Tigua reservation would end.

Yet Abramoff persuaded one of his clients, the Coushatta Tribe in southwest Louisiana, to pay him millions to ensure that the Tigua casino would be closed. Abramoff offered Reed $4.2 million to set up a front group, which included a large contingent of Texas pastors who would create a public groundswell to close the Tiguas’ casino.

The day after a federal judge ordered the casino closed in 2002, Abramoff offered his services to the tribe, promising to get a bill through Congress that would make gambling on the Tigua Reservation legal. He would work for free and make his money later as a consultant to the Tiguas — if the tribe would hire his colleague, Mike Scanlon, for $5.4 million.

In brief, Jack Abramoff took $5 million of the Coushattas’ money to pay Ralph Reed to organize a “grassroots” campaign to shut down the Tiguas’ casino, which was already scheduled to be shut down by a federal judge. When the casino was shut down, Abramoff sold the Tiguas a $5 million deal to reopen it, although he knew he could never deliver. One of the charges that sent Ohio Congressman Bob Ney to prison was directly related to Abramoff’s Tigua scam.

Reed professed that he had no idea that the money Abramoff paid him was derived from gambling interests, which Reed, as a Christian, and the pastors he was leading, could never have accepted because gambling is sinful. E-mails released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee suggest that Reed was lying.

Consider this exchange between Reed and Abramoff, which began with Reed commenting on an Associated Press account of a federal judge’s ruling against the Tiguas.

From[…] Ralph Reed Sent… Monday, February 11 2002, 1…56 PM To… Jack Abramoff Subject… Texas

major victory. now it’s on to Livingston [home of the Alabama Coushattas, another Texas tribe with a casino]. but note they [the Tiguas] plan a legislative battle now that they have lost in the courts.

From[…] Jack Abramoff Sent… Monday February 11, 2002 8…03 PM To… Ralph Reed Subject… RE… Texas

Ultimately, as you can imagine, the main target is the AC [Alabama Coushatta]. I wish those moronic Tiguas were smarter in their political contributions. I’d love us to get our mitts on that moolah!! Oh well, stupid folks get wiped out. Now let’s get AC.

From[…] Ralph Reed Sent… Tuesday, February 12, 2002 9…24 AM Subject… RE… Texas

got it. we’re talking to our contacts today.[…]A consultant describes the clients he billed $5 million as “moronic,” and his Christian front man responds “got it.” That two-word response defines the content of Ralph Reed’s character.

As does the fact that Abramoff and Scanlon came to believe that Reed was scamming them. There never was, as a Texas lobbyist told me at the time, anything suggesting Reed had spent $4.2 million in Texas… “There was no footprint.”

“No more money for him,” Abramoff wrote of Reed. “He’s a bad version of us.”

But Reed’s conduct is even more squalid than the above e-mails suggest. In 2003, Abramoff approached the Tigua Tribal Council with a novel proposition. Free term-life insurance for all elder members of the tribe.

Abramoff would pay the premiums. But there was a catch. The death benefits from the term-life policies that Abramoff paid for would not be paid to the families of the tribal elders, but to a private school in Washington, D.C. The school, founded and directed by Abramoff, would use the money to pay Tigua lobbying fees to Abramoff’s law firm.

Reed wasn’t in the Tigua life-insurance deal. But he and Abramoff were working on a similar scheme in the black community.

Reed, who was well known to pastors from his work with the Christian Coalition, would front the operation. The “Black Churches Insurance Program” offered free lobbying to African-American congregations — if the congregants allowed Reed and Abramoff to buy term-life insurance polices on church elders. When the old folks died, Abramoff would collect the benefits.

Reed was an eager collaborator.

Abramoff e-mailed him on July 22, 2003.

“Per our previous discussion. Let me know how we can move forward with folks who can set this up with African American elders. It can be huge. Thanks.

Reed responded three days later.

“yes, it looks interesting. i assume you’ll set up a meeting in DC as a next step, or whatever we should do next. let me know.”

Interesting? Short-selling aged African Americans and Native Americans to maintain a revenue stream. The schemes fell through, in part because the subjects backed out.

Okay, it’s an old story. You can get a sense of where Ralph Reed is today from what he says on his Faith & Freedom website (http[…]//ffcoalition.com/about/)[…]

“We believe that the greatness of America lies not in the federal government but in the character of our people — the simple virtues of faith, hard work, marriage, family, personal responsibility, and helping the least among us. If we lose sight of these values, America will cease to be great.”

MAN PASS BY—Grover Norquist wasn’t exactly a fit with Reed’s Evangelical congregants. Norquist is a member of the advisory board of GOProud, a gay Republican organization. His wife, who is Palestinian, is Muslim. He doesn’t share the Evangelicals’ absolutist position on Israel; that is, a state that would include Judea and Samaria (which most of the world recognizes as Palestinian territories).

But he recently joined the board of an anti-reproductive-rights group targeting young Latinas in California. So he went one-for-three on the doctrinal positions required of each of the presidential candidates who spoke at the Faith & Freedom conference…

Life begins at conception Marriage is a union between a man and a woman Israel belongs exclusively to the Jews

If Norquist is lacking in religious fervor, he is the Republican Party’s ideological leader on taxation.

Norquist is the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, an anti-tax group that Ronald Reagan asked him to organize in 1984. ATR pressures Republicans to sign a pledge committing state and federal elected officials, and candidates, to “vote against and work against new taxes.”

Norquist boasts 235 members of the House and 41 senators who have taken the pledge, along with 95 percent of Republican candidates for federal offices. (Only seven Republican senators and seven Republican House members have not signed.)

And Norquist had Reed’s blessing. As the Republican Party’s big thinker on fiscal issues, Norquist was essential to a conference whose purpose was to get social conservatives in harness with fiscal conservatives.

The unifying document to achieve this objective seemed to be Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap to Prosperity.” Ryan’s budget plan calls for a drastic makeover of Medicare and cuts in taxes and spending — despite the hard arithmetical fact that the deficit cannot be addressed without raising taxes, or making cuts most Americans find unacceptable.

Norquist explained the party’s ideological commitment to the Ryan plan. The post-Reagan Republican Party has been opposed to raising taxes; now the Tea Party has forced Republicans into a similar commitment to spending cuts. The Ryan plan embraces both tax cuts and reduced spending.

No-new-taxes and reduced spending are now the party brand, and it is critically important that Republicans protect their brand. Norquist used a corporate analogy to make his point. The Coca Cola company works hard to ensure the quality of its product, because product defines brand.

Were someone to discover “a rat head in the bottom of the bottle,” Norquist said, “Coke’s brand would be ruined for everyone.

“Republican elected officials who vote to increase taxes are rat heads in a Coke bottle.”

Newt Gingrich briefly forgot the rat-head rule and questioned the Ryan plan. Since Newt recanted his initial opposition to the Ryan Roadmap, every Republican candidate for the presidency is now committed to it.

“Gingrich made the stupid mistake of thinking the Ryan plan was optional. Now we’ve got all the Republican presidential candidates behind the plan,” Norquist said. “We don’t need a president with ideas.”

The Faith & Freedom Coalition Conference was billed as a religious event. But the theme, reiterated by John Boehner, Paul Ryan, and each of the presidential aspirants, was secular. The deficit is an existential threat to our nation. Taxes must be cut. And federal spending must be reduced.

This, in fact, will be the theme at every gathering of Republicans as the country moves toward the 2012 election.

ABRAMOFF’S LAUNDERER—Norquist has his own Jack Abramoff backstory. Shortly after George W. Bush was inaugurated, Norquist was selling Abramoff’s Indian clients face-time with the president for $25,000 a ticket.

Norquist worked through Abramoff, who leaned on tribal leaders for $25,000 tickets to White House events, which went to Americans for Tax Reform. (I found a cancelled $25K check in the Coushatta files in 2004.)

Norquist also helped Abramoff hide money, by moving it through ATR accounts, for a $25,000 transaction fee.

North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan addressed both transgressions at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing in June 2005…

It appears to me that Mr. Abramoff and others, ATR, Mr. Norquist and others, were putting together events, trying to put together events at the White House — one apparently must have happened in 2001 — and seeking $25,000 contributions for the cost of those events and promising meetings with the president. … There are numerous memos between Mr. Abramoff, Reed, ATR, Mr. Norquist — how to move more money through (c)4s to obscure or deceive the source of the money. Sometimes that’s called laundering, but that has a criminal connotation. I don’t know that this is criminal.

Reed, Norquist, and Abramoff began their political careers in the College Republicans and worked together during the G.W. Bush presidency.