An Obama ad in Georgia ties McCain to former Christian Coalition executive Ralph Reed and the Abramoff lobbying scandal. It doesn’t give a full picture.
- The ad says that Reed "is now raising money for McCain’s campaign." But McCain has said, "I neither seek nor want his support."
- It says McCain, as a committee chairman, "never even called Reed to testify" about Abramoff, which is true. But McCain’s public report embarrassed Reed and damaged him politically nonetheless.
Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign released a new ad Aug. 20 attacking Sen. John McCain for supposed ties to former Christian Coalition executive Ralph Reed, whose reputation was tarnished by his involvement with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The ad is running in Georgia, where Reed lost a bid for state office in 2006 in part because of unfavorable publicity over his Abramoff ties.
Narrator: It was one of Washington’s biggest scandals. And the Republican power broker Ralph Reed was in the middle of it. In deep with convicted felon and lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
But when the Senate investigated, the senator in charge never even called Reed to testify.
And that senator? John McCain. And who’s now raising money for McCain’s campaign? Ralph Reed. For 26 years in Washington, John McCain’s played the same old games. We just can’t afford more of the same.”
The ad says that Reed is "now raising money for McCain’s campaign." That is true. The Hill newspaper reported that Reed sent out an e-mail to friends and associates urging them to contribute to McCain’s campaign and attend a fundraiser for him. But there isn’t any formal connection between McCain’s campaign and Reed’s activities. McCain flatly told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that, "I neither seek nor want his support." Reed appears to have gotten the message. He didn’t even appear at the fundraiser he told friends to attend.
The ad calls Reed a "power broker" who was "in the middle" of "one of Washington’s biggest scandals," the Jack Abramoff affair. And it says that McCain, as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, "never even called Reed to testify" in the Abramoff investigation.
That’s all true, but what’s not said is that McCain’s report caused Reed political embarrassment, making public evidence that contradicted Reed’s claim that he hadn’t known that his lobbying activities among anti-gambling Christian activists had been paid for by casino-owning Indian tribes who wanted to suppress competition.
McCain’s Committee on Indian Affairs held a series of three "Tribal Lobbying" hearings in 2005 on Abramoff’s lobbying for tribes with gaming interests. The result of those hearings was a damning 373-page report.
Journalists had uncovered Reed’s activities as a "stealth lobbyist" for tribal casino interests the year before and had traced $4 million in fees to Reed’s company from the Coushatta tribe of Louisiana and the Choctaws of Mississippi. But Reed denied knowledge that he’d been working for gambling interests. "I have worked for decades to oppose the expansion of casino gambling," he told The Washington Post in August 2004. "And at no time was Century Strategy [Reed's company] ever retained by, or worked on behalf of, any casino or casino company."
When McCain’s report was issued, however, it contained evidence that Reed was a willing and knowing partner, stirring up anti-gambling Christians to oppose gambling operations that might have competed with the tribes who were Abramoff’s clients.
The report described, for example, how Reed reached out to his old college friend Abramoff in 1998 seeking paid lobbying work after leaving the Christian Coalition. It quoted one e-mail in which Reed said to Abramoff: "Hey, now that I’m done with electoral politics, I need to start humping in corporate accounts! I’m counting on you to help me with some contacts." For a $20,000 monthly retainer, Reed promised to stir up anti-gambling sentiment among a network of 3,000 pastors and 90,000 religious conservative households in Alabama. The object: to kill legislation that would have legalized video poker games at dog tracks in Alabama, which would have competed with the Silver Star casino in neighboring Mississippi, owned by Abramoff’s client, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. He also worked against a bill to create an Alabama state lottery.
Later on, in 2001, Reed worked to support the efforts of the Texas attorney general to shut down casinos owned by two tribes in that state, while working secretly on behalf of the Coushatta tribe, which owned the Grand Casino across the state line in Louisiana. Overall, the report said, "Reed conducted a variety of grassroots activities in support of the interests of Abramoff gaming clients, including, telemarketing (patch-through, tape-recorded messages and call-to-action phone calls), targeted mail, legislative counsel and local management, as well as rallies and petitions."
When McCain’s report was released, reporters mined it for additional details and found evidence contradicting Reed’s claims of ignorance:
Washington Post, June 23, 2005: Material released yesterday also appeared to undermine assertions by former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed. … Reed has said he did not know where the funds were coming from, but e-mails suggest that he was aware that some of the money he was getting came from the casino-rich Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
Should McCain have been tougher on Reed, as Obama’s ad suggests? Perhaps. But we should note that Reed was never the main focus of the federal criminal investigations that were under way at the same time that McCain was holding his Senate hearings. Both Abramoff and his partner Michael Scanlon were charged and then pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy charges, Scanlon on Nov. 21, 2005, and Abramoff on Jan. 3, 2006. Reed, on the other hand, was not charged with any criminal wrongdoing.
McCain’s investigation focused primarily on how Abramoff and Scanlon fleeced tribes by charging them millions in lobbying fees for lobbying work they never performed. But as the report details, Reed actually performed the lobbying work he was paid to do. In fact, Abramoff and Scanlon eventually pushed Reed aside, so they could keep for themselves the money they might otherwise have paid Reed.
The report quotes a Dec. 18, 2001, e-mail in which Abramoff wrote to Scanlon, “Next year, we need to give [Reed] a pittance and we need to keep most of this
ourselves." And it says that after February 2002, "most of the money … went into Abramoff’s and Scanlon’s pockets – with only a fraction going to the underlying grassroots effort."
So what could Reed have told the committee if McCain had called him as a witness? We don’t know, and the Obama ad doesn’t say.
– by Justin Bank and Brooks Jackson
Frieden, Terry. "DeLay ex-aide pleads guilty in Abramoff case." CNN, 21 Nov 2005.
Schmidt, Susan and Grimaldi, James V. "Abramoff Pleads Guilty to 3 Counts Lobbyist to Testify About Lawmakers In Corruption Probe." Washington Post, 4 Jan 2006.
Schmidt, Susan and Grimaldi, James V. "Panel Says Abramoff Laundered Tribal Funds; McCain Cites Possible Fraud by Lobbyist." Washington Post, 23 June 2005.
Newfield, Jack. "Once a Foe, Now a Casino Lobbyist." New York Sun, 8 Sept. 2004.
Gould-Sheinin, Aaron. "Obama TV Ad to Highlight McCain’s Link to Ralph Reed." Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 21 Aug. 2008.
Crabtree, Susan. "McCain ignoring calls to cancel controversial fundraiser." The Hill, 12 Aug. 2008.
Holmes, Elizabeth. "A No-Show Looms Over McCain Fund-Raiser." Wall Street Journal, 18 Aug. 2008.