CNN NEWS ANCHOR ANDERSON COOPER BEGAN his wrap-up of the New Hampshire presidential primary by observing that it was “a remarkable night.” John McCain, who would refer to himself as “Lazarus,” had risen from the dead. And Hillary Clinton, who let down her guard and showed genuine emotion, defied pollsters and also ended up the winner. It was remarkable.
CNN’s coverage provided yet another resurrection. Ralph Reed, the former director of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and a failed candidate for lieutenant governor of Georgia, was sitting at a CNN news desk.
In hiring Reed as a news analyst, the network demonstrated a uniquely low standard of professional ethics. Reed was close to the center of a criminal enterprise that stole more than $80 million from American Indian tribes and played a large part in the Republican Party’s loss of the House in 2006. The scandal enriched lobbyists and consultants, including Reed, and provided Republican candidates with millions in campaign contributions. It sent a dozen people to jail—and the investigation is not yet over, as Congressman John Doolittle (R-CA) knows all too well.
As chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, John McCain directed the only Congressional investigation of the Indian gaming scandal. A Justice Department investigation of the same scandal sent lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Congressman Bob Ney (R-OH), and a number of other lobbyists and federal officials to prison.
McCain points to his role in putting Abramoff away as proof that he is an “agent of change.” His investigation did, in fact, keep the pressure on the Justice Department while it investigated Abramoff.
Yet McCain limited the scope of his investigation to lobbyists who had given money, gifts and trips to members of Congress. His did not allow the committee to investigate any member of Congress. He busted the pimps and johns but granted immunity to the prostitutes who provided services in exchange for money and favors.
Senator McCain seemed to impose other limits that are hard to explain. He somehow failed to call several major players in the Indian gaming scandal to testify before his committee and never fully explained why.
By the time McCain took control of the investigation started by Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who retired from the Senate in 2005, investigators knew that Ralph Reed had taken large amounts of Indian casino money in more than one state. What Reed and Abramoff did to one small tribe in Texas justified bringing Reed before the committee and putting him under oath, as was done with Abramoff. Perhaps Reed was never called because he was too powerful to confront, or because he was still considered a prospect for elected office. But he got a walk, and the Tigua tribe in El Paso never got a full accounting of what Reed and Abramoff had done to them.
I reported on the story at the time, as did other reporters. Abramoff paid Reed $4 million to organize a Christian evangelical campaign to close a casino that had lifted the Tiguas out of stone age poverty. Reed’s moral crusade was paid for by a Louisiana tribe working to destroy the competition in Texas. He monitored (perhaps influenced) the Texas attorney general’s lawsuit that closed the Tiguas’ casino. Then he directed a campaign to block a bill in the Texas legislature that would have reopened the casino.
Everything was done discreetly, with the principals staying out of the news until Reed and Abramoff shut down the casino. For good reason. As soon as the casino had closed, Abramoff flew to El Paso to sell the tribal council of the Tiguas a $6 million lobbying plan that included a promise to reopen it. (The tribe signed on for only $4.2 million.)
Abramoff took the tribe’s money but never delivered on his promise to reopen the casino, one of several criminal acts that sent him and Congressman Ney to prison.
Reed has said that he accepted money to oppose gambling because he is an evangelical Christian. He insisted that he never knew that he was being paid by one gambling interest working against another.
His story doesn’t even pass the Texas smell test.
THE WHEELER-DEALERS—Abramoff and Reed were friends. By the time Reed signed on to work against the Tiguas, it was widely known that Abramoff was making tens of millions of dollars representing Indian gaming interests. He had been profiled in major newspapers. Other lobbyists knew him as Casino Jack. More to the point, Abramoff had mentioned the Tiguas in an e-mail he’d sent to Reed: “I wish those moronic Tiguas were smarter in their political contributions. I’d love us to get our mitts on that moolah!!” The e-mail was one of many incriminating documents obtained and released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
There were other matters Reed might have been asked to address had McCain brought him before the committee.
What did Reed do with the money that Abramoff gave him? Abramoff paid Reed $4 million to shut down the Tiguas’ casino. But other than radio spots concentrated in East Texas and meetings with a group of pastors in Houston, it doesn’t appear that much money was spent by Reed in Texas. “There was no footprint,” a state senator told me at the time. “At least nothing that looked like $4 million.”
Even Abramoff had doubts about Reed. “Id [sic] like to know what the hell he spent it on,” Abramoff wrote to his (literal) partner in crime, Mike Scanlon. “—he didn’t even know the dam [sic] thing was there—and didn’t do shit to shut it down.”
When Abramoff showed up in El Paso to pitch the $6 million proposal to the Tiguas to reopen their casino, he told skeptical tribal leaders he hadn’t worked with Reed. But as Reed’s friend, he said, he could keep the tribe apprised of Reed’s anti-gambling work. As Abramoff talked, he received a text message on his Blackberry—from Reed. He passed the Blackberry around the table, I was told by a source who was at the meeting, to support the claim that he was hardwired into Reed. The same source wondered if the perfectly timed text message was a coincidence or a setup.
Reed and Abramoff traveled to Scotland’s fabled St. Andrew’s Golf Course, all paid for by Abramoff with $100,000 that he’d asked the Tiguas to put up for the trip. The golfing party included White House procurement official David Safavian, Congressman Bob Ney and Neil Volz, a lobbyist who had once worked for Ney.
Every member of the golf quintet, except Reed, either pled guilty to corruption charges related to Abramoff’s Indian shakedown or was found guilty of same. Bob Ney was the perp who set up the Tiguas for Abramoff. Did these guys talk golf in Scotland, or business?
Reed’s claim that he didn’t know he was taking Indian gambling money was further eroded at a June 2005 committee hearing when Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) quoted an e-mail in which Abramoff told Reed a $10,000 political contribution he was expecting was on the way: “Thanks, Ralph. The firm has held back all payments pending receipt of a check from the Choctaw.” The Choctaws operate one of the biggest casinos in the South. “The recipient,” Dorgan said, “knew exactly where the money was coming from.”
Functionaries, consultants, lawyers and lobbyists testified before McCain’s committee. Yet Reed—like Grover Norquist whose Americans for Tax Reform served as a conduit for more than $1 million in Indian gaming money for Abramoff—was never called to testify.
McCain’s reluctance to get all the way to the bottom of the scandal is understandable. The millions Abramoff and his associates were donating to the Republican Party was building the permanent majority that Texas Congressman Tom DeLay promised would be paid for by lobbyists.
While John McCain is running for president on his success in pursuing Jack Abramoff, some reporter will inevitably ask him why he failed to pursue big funders who were considered too powerful to challenge.
Don’t expect to hear Ralph Reed raise that question as a news analyst for “the most trusted name in news.”
THE LAW’S DeLAY—Cable-news network MSNBC had its own Abramoff perp walk whenHardball‘s Chris Matthews turned to former majority leader Tom DeLay for election commentary, particularly insight into Hillary Clinton’s prospects. No conflict? As Republican majority leader, DeLay staffed a “war room” to run the impeachment of Bill Clinton. He also directed the Judiciary Committee staff to put together what came to be known as the “sex vault,” an archive of documents too thinly sourced to qualify as evidence, many of which contained allegations about Bill Clinton’s sex life. DeLay opened the “vault” to all House Republicans, although only Democrats on the Judiciary Committee had access.
DeLay was also on Fox News, describing John McCain as unfit to serve as president. No disclaimer reminding viewers that McCain’s investigation of Abramoff embarrassed DeLay, who was Abramoff’s collaborator in the House and moved large amounts of Abramoff’s money to Republican candidates. DeLay’s wife is under investigation in the Abramoff scandal, his former aide Mike Scanlon is in jail, and DeLay also took a golfing trip to Scotland paid for by Abramoff’s Indian gambling money. DeLay awaits trial in Texas on money laundering charges. The indictment by the Travis County district attorney forced DeLay to resign his position as majority leader and ultimately to leave Congress. The DA is retiring, but candidates running to replace him say the trial will go on as soon as pre-trial appeals end.