Writers' Bloc

by Franklin Foer | May 16, 2005

In August 1997, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay traveled to Russia in the company of his frequent companion, the now-infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff. For six days, he huddled with government ministers and oil executives and golfed at the Moscow Country Club. Any pleasant memories of this tour of post- communist prosperity, however, have surely vanished. The trip now threatens the Texan's political career and has placed Abramoff at the center of congressional inquiries. DeLay, though, was not the only prominent conservative to see Russia the Abramoff way. Two months before DeLay touched down there, Abramoff's firm shepherded a contingent of Washington journalists and thinkers around Moscow-- an itinerary of meetings and meals designed to please the trip's funder, a Russian energy concern called NaftaSib. This journey included Tod Lindberg, then-editor of The Washington Times editorial page; Insight magazine's James Lucier; and Erica Tuttle, The National Interest's assistant managing editor at the time. Such trips were essential prongs of Abramoff's lobbying campaigns. The conservative movement's think tanks, newspapers, and little magazines are filled with junketeers who have traveled the world on his dime. "It was like, you weren't cool if you didn't go," remembers Marshall Wittmann, former legislative director of the Christian Coalition. And that's precisely as Abramoff planned it. In a draft of a 2000 proposal to represent the Malaysian government, he and his colleagues boasted, "Our firm is one of the most expert in organizing effective trips to distant destinations, having already brought literally hundreds of such notables [as think-tank scholars and journalists] to destinations ranging from Pakistan to Russia to Saipan and within the U.S. mainland." They told the Malaysians that these trips produce a "certain outcome": "timely and powerful editorials and articles" conveying his clients' messages. "Our firm has facilitated hundreds of such articles and editorials." It's one thing to imagine that politicians, with their need for campaign cash, could be swayed by a lobbyist. Journalists and intellectuals, on the other hand, even those who admit their ideological predispositions, aren't supposed to be so susceptible to influence-peddlers. Abramoff, however, proved otherwise. He understood how the universe of thinkers and activists associated with the Republican Party operated, how to manipulate them with ideological buzzwords, and how to influence them with access and money. Jack Abramoff didn't just corrupt Tom DeLay. He helped corrupt the whole conservative movement. Abramoff was perfectly poised to accomplish this feat. In large part, that's because, 25 years ago, he befriended the man who became one of the movement's field marshals, Grover Norquist. In 1980, the two teamed to organize Massachusetts campuses for the Reagan-Bush campaign, helping bring home Ted Kennedy's state for the Gipper. The following year, Norquist ran Abramoff's triumphant nationwide campaign for chairmanship of the College Republicans. They owed their bond to a shared affinity for bomb-throwing, hardcore conservatism. At College Republicans, they instructed organizers to memorize a speech from the movie Patton. Only, they insisted that their minions replace references to Nazis with references to Democrats. As in, "The Democrats are the enemy. Wade into them! Spill their blood! Shoot them in the belly!" Despite this penchant for partisan bloodlust, Abramoff left Washington in the mid-'80s and remade himself as a movie producer. It wasn't until 1994 that he returned to the capital to join a lobbying practice--a return that happily coincided with the Gingrich revolution. For an aspiring lobbyist like Abramoff, it helped hugely to have such a strong tie to Norquist, who, by that time, had established Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), a group dedicated to imposing the conservative economic agenda on the Republican Party. As Newt Gingrich's protg, Norquist shaped the strategy that guided the GOP's unlikely ascendance, and, in the process, acquired enormous power. He presided over packed weekly meetings that served as the movement's nerve center, where such disparate groups as the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association coordinated their efforts. Abramoff understood the potential value of these meetings to a lobbyist. They were his ultimate gateway to the right, an opportunity that he exploited masterfully. The textbook example involved the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (cnmi). An archipelago of Pacific islands captured by the United States in World War II, the cnmi acquired a unique status in the U.S. economy. Even though U.S. labor and minimum wage laws didn't apply in the cnmi, manufacturers had permission to stamp cnmi products with made in the usa labels and to evade trade quotas. Taking advantage of this loophole, Chinese entrepreneurs flocked to the island, bringing with them 32,000 workers, many of them indentured and forced to live in horrifying camps. According to a 1997 federal report, "Violations of labor standards and other abuses appear common... . Chinese contract workers allegedly work under 'shadow' contracts signed in their home country that subvert their rights under the U.S. Constitution.... Foreign contract workers report being victims of such crimes as rape, assault, and forced prostitution by those who have recruited them to work in the cnmi." To protect the $1 billion per year garment industry and stave off legislation that might correct some of these conditions, the cnmi and its business interests hired Abramoff in 1995, paying him more than $7 million over the next seven years. It's hard to imagine that the Islands would be worthy of a conservative crusade. Yet Abramoff, with Norquist's help, managed to make the Marianas a right-wing cause clbre. Patrick Pizzella, a lawyer at Abramoff's firm, Preston Gates, paraded a string of Marianas functionaries through the Wednesday meetings. "It felt like you couldn't avoid them," says Wittmann. According to one conservative journalist, Norquist would use the meetings to extend invitations for Abramoff-arranged junkets to the cnmi. In the end, more than 100 Hill staffers, journalists, and think-tank denizens attended such trips-- from the editorial writers of The Washington Times, to the managing editor of The Public Interest, to the staff of the Traditional Values Coalition. And, after spending a few days at a beachfront Hyatt resort and touring the Islands, those conservatives came back to town and churned out agitprop. Writing in The American Enterprise, Ron Bailey pronounced the Islands "a true free market success story." The Cato Institute's Doug Bandow called them a "laboratory of liberty." The Heritage Foundation's Daniel Mitchell decried the proposed regulations as the "modern siege of Saipan." Clint Bolick, a school vouchers proponent, touted the Islands in columns for The Wall Street Journal and Human Events. There is, indeed, a libertarian case to be made for the cnmi's exemption from federal regulation, although it's hard to imagine such a case attracting so many fervent believers. The Mississippi Band of the Choctaw Indians, another Abramoff client, is an entirely different story. While the Choctaw have built casinos and attracted manufacturing, they have also masterfully lobbied for federal money. According to the best estimates, the tribe receives approximately $50 million per year. This cash has gone toward the creation of a quasi-socialist society, providing free college educations and computers and semi-annual payments of $500 to every tribe member. It's exactly the type of government spending conservatives decry. The Choctaw did, however, believe in one libertarian goal: They didn't want the federal government to tax their lucrative casinos. So they hired Jack Abramoff to press their case. In the first six months of 1999 alone, the tribe paid his firm $2.3 million. And he didn't just earn money for himself. He boasted to the Journal, in 2000, that the Choctaw had scattered millions across the conservative movement, with ATR as a "leading recipient." Or, as Abramoff and his associates artfully noted in a 2002 letter to the Saginaw Chippewa tribe, "Americans for Tax Reform is respectfully requesting a contribution of $25,000 to fund organization activities that advocate Tribal sovereignty and prevention of unwarranted federal taxation of Tribal revenues." Indeed, ATR was ultimately able to look beyond any ideological qualms with the Choctaws' subsidized existence. In 1998, it awarded the tribe's chief, Phillip Martin, its Taxpayer Hero Award. The group published a 191-page hardbound book titled The Choctaw Revolution, portraying the tribe as loyal followers of Jack Kemp and Friedrich Hayek. And, according to the Journal, ATR organized a nationwide coalition of 500 groups to oppose the taxation of Indian gaming. As money-for-influence scandals unwind, pundits usually invoke Deep Throat's famous aphorism, "Follow the money." But, to understand Abramoff's success, you must follow the byline. Seemingly every time Abramoff acquired a client, Norquist or ATR's chief counsel, Peter Ferrara, would write a Washington Times column making that client's case. In the mid-'90s, Channel One, a TV network beamed into schools, paid Abramoff several hundred thousand dollars. Meanwhile, Norquist argued, "Channel One has come up with a brilliant free-market innovation that can translate into lower taxes." In 1998, the Puerto Rican statehood movement shelled out $400,000 for Abramoff's services. That year, Ferrara made the conservative case for that client's cause: "Moreover, unlike the United States, Puerto Rico has school vouchers and school prayer. Polls indicate it would be another bastion for the religious right." After Abramoff reportedly began working with the Malaysian government, a Ferrara op-ed argued, "The U.S. should reaffirm its relations with Malaysia and collaborate closely with it in the global war against terror." Successfully enlisting Americans for Tax Reform and attendees of its Wednesday morning meetings to write on behalf of his clients' causes was an important accomplishment for Abramoff, but it was only half the battle. As every aspiring editorialist knows, it is one thing to submit a piece to a newspaper. It is another to see that piece end up in print. Opinion pages are deluged with solicitations, and they typically make an ethical point of rejecting pieces that shill for an author's client. So, to set Abramoff's accomplishment in relief, here are some raw data: Over six years, The Washington Times ran seven op-eds and four editorials making the case for preserving the cnmi's unique status; during that same period, four opinion pieces in the paper venerated the Choctaw Indians. (By contrast, The Washington Post ran a single column tangentially touching on the Marianas and nothing on the Choctaws.) These totals may have less to do with the merit of the pieces than with Abramoff's courtship of the conservative press, especially The Washington Times. It is a courtship that, like his relationship with Norquist, started long ago. Under his tenure, the College Republicans bought several thousand copies of the 1983 cold war pulp thriller Monimb, ostensibly to distribute across college campuses as propaganda that would buck up the anti-Soviet cause. But, in truth, the books languished in boxes in a basement. Why would Abramoff buy so many books if he didn't intend to distribute them? Perhaps to ingratiate himself with Monimb's co-author, Arnaud De Borchgrave, an eminence of conservative journalism. Not long after Abramoff made his bulk purchase, De Borchgrave ascended to the editorship of The Washington Times. (He claims to have no knowledge of the purchase.) Over time, Abramoff's media management grew more sophisticated, and he dispensed largesse across conservative journalism. His junkets didn't just comprise meetings and site visits, they also included plenty of recreation time. Trips to the Choctaw Reservation, for instance, featured gambling at the Silver Star resort and rounds on a lush new golf course. Clint Bolick recalls, "I left the trip early, because it seemed to be so much about golf and gambling, activities I'm not much into." As an artful Washington schmoozer, Abramoff would go even further that. One former Washington Times staffer told me that Abramoff's practice invited his family to watch the circus and a Bruce Springsteen concert from its box at the MCI Center. (By my count, six Washington Times editors and writers attended Abramoff trips.) Abramoff spent so much time cultivating the press not because these op-eds had a demonstrable effect on policy, but because they served as tangible evidence to clients that he could influence opinion--and therefore justified his eye-popping fees. In correspondence with clients, he expended ink touting his op-ed trophies. Abramoff wrote in a 1995 fax to a Marianas official, obtained by the Associated Press: "The Ferrara article hit yesterday with great fanfare ... [M]y message counter was over the top with calls from Hill staffers saying they have seen the article." Abramoff's note goes on to describe the lobbyist's conversations with The Boston Herald's Don Feder, "one of the nation's leading columnists." "We might have to arrange a phone interview for him. Please let me know, if I can offer such an interview." Before signing off, he announced that he was heading off to an event honoring Tom DeLay, "where I shall give him a copy of the [Ferrara] article!" Abramoff's collaboration with Americans for Tax Reform and compilation of clips, however, can't compare to his true masterwork of subversion, in which he took a legitimate conservative think tank and turned it into a front for his clients and his own financial chicanery. In fact, he moved so deftly that, for many years, nobody noticed his achievement, questioned the think tank's credibility, or stood in his way. The National Center for Public Policy Research (ncppr) began in 1982 as an earnest proponent of the Reaganite crusade against communism. As the group's co- founder and president, Amy Ridenour, described in an interview with Insight magazine, "The fact is that, back in those days, corporations and foundations were funding most of the conservative movement, and there was a tremendous bias in favor of concentrating on domestic policy tax issues, for example. It happened that mainstream foreign-policy issues were under-funded, so we took up foreign policy." Ridenour shared Abramoff's theatrical approach to politics, participating in street demonstrations and training students to heckle politicians. But the group was serious enough to attract grants from the Olin and Bradley foundations for meaty projects, such as a campaign to swing student opinion behind the anti-communist cause. The end of the cold war deprived the ncppr of its founding mission. It didn't, however, kill the group. Ridenour shopped around for new niches and found a large opportunity for growth in the battle against federal regulation. For think tanks like the ncppr, the regulatory arena promised a pile of cash while posing an ethical conundrum about the surrender of intellectual and ideological independence. And yet, if they believed sincerely in free enterprise, then why shouldn't the ncppr and others take money from specific firms to promote their specific regulatory battles? After all, they would have supported their goals anyway, wouldn't they? Ridenour decided there was no conflict. A 1995 memo from a Philip Morris executive obtained in the court battles against the tobacco companies describes how Ridenour contacted him, volunteering her group's services. "I just got a call from Amy.... [We] are awaiting [her] proposals for use of an Internet website as an accessible repository of PM-related information." Ncppr might not have liked trial lawyers or anti-smoking groups any more than Philip Morris did. But it didn't hurt that Big Tobacco tended to send large checks to its defenders. Jack Abramoff arrived back in Washington just as the ncppr began getting comfortable in this anti-regulatory niche. Out of mutual necessity, Abramoff and Ridenour fell into one another's arms. Ridenour's group spent an enormous percentage of its resources on shrill direct-mail fund-raising and needed cash to keep its operation running, while Abramoff needed an organization to sponsor junkets that congressional ethics rules prohibited him from paying for directly. The arrangement worked well for both parties. Abramoff's clients made stunningly large contributions to the ncppr. The Choctaw, for instance, wrote a check for $1 million; an Internet gambling group in Gibraltar paid $1.5 million. In return for these contributions, the ncppr carried Abramoff's water. It "sponsored" trips to the Marianas and Russia. On at least one occasion, Ridenour teamed with a lawyer from Abramoff's firm to press cnmi's case before a meeting of conservative foreign policy hands. She also proved to be a prolific publicist, writing her own copy extolling Abramoff clients like the Malaysian government and Channel One. But this relationship ultimately took its toll, turning the group into something resembling a Bahamian bank account from which Abramoff could withdraw seemingly at will. In 2002, the ncppr sent $450,000 to Abramoff's Capital Athletic Foundation, which, in turn, largely spent the money on a Rockville, Maryland, religious school he and his wife funded. Another $500,000 went to the p.r. firm owned by Abramoff's business partner, Michael Scanlon. The next year, ncppr paid $1.28 million to a company called KayGold LLC, which, as it turns out, was owned by Abramoff. Confronted with these facts by Newsweek's Michael Isikoff in March, Ridenour pleaded ignorance. Two years ago, she told Isikoff, she began worrying about Abramoff's transactions and asking probing questions about them. "We're disappointed and frustrated," she lamented. A federal grand jury has already subpoenaed ncppr's records. If prosecutors follow the news media's lead in their investigation of this scandal, they will focus overwhelmingly on illuminating the role of one man: Tom DeLay. He is, after all, the most powerful Republican on Capitol Hill. But, as maddening as it is to watch the venality of lobbyists and politicians, it is hardly unexpected. On the other hand, by waving cash and luxurious junkets in front of intellectuals, journalists, and activists, and watching them get snapped up, Abramoff has produced a far more tragic conclusion: He has exposed the corruptibility of true believers.

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