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Houses of cards

With Jack Abramoff pleading guilty to illegal lobbying activities and pledging to talk about his fraudulent deals, questions grow for evangelical leaders who-wittingly or unwittingly-became part of a strategy to "bring out the wackos to vote against some

Houses of cards

When the Coushatta Indian Tribe of Louisiana wanted to squelch competition to its Grand Casino's $300-million-a-year enterprise in 2001, tribal leaders knew just where to turn: Jack Abramoff, a Washington lobbyist with a history of protecting powerhouse tribal casinos. When Mr. Abramoff wanted a shrewd way to protect his client's massive gaming interests, he turned to Ralph Reed-former executive director of the Christian Coalition and a consultant who had a history of rallying evangelicals against legalized gambling.

Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Reed worked together to urge Christians and evangelical leaders to oppose casino openings and pro-gambling legislation in Louisiana. Behind the scenes, the pair's campaign succeeded, bolstering the Coushatta Tribe's casino business by eliminating competition. Now, five years later, Mr. Abramoff is at the center of one of the most sweeping political corruption scandals in Washington history. And though Mr. Reed has not been accused of illegal activity, the scandal has snared him and other prominent evangelicals associated with campaigns financed by Mr. Abramoff and his clients.

Mr. Abramoff, 46, pleaded guilty on Jan. 3 to three felony counts of conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion as part of a settlement with federal prosecutors. The deal sets the stage for Mr. Abramoff to testify against members of Congress, congressional staffers, and former business contacts in an expansive criminal investigation into lobbying efforts on behalf of Indian tribes and other gambling interests.

While some politicians raced to create distance from Mr. Abramoff and return his contributions, evangelicals who became part of his elaborate pro-gambling schemes are hesitant to explain fully their connections with the lobbyist. Mr. Reed repeatedly has refused to give WORLD an on-the-record interview, but has maintained that though he knew funds for his anti-gambling work came from tribal sources, he believed what Mr. Abramoff's firm told him: that the money came from the tribe's "non-gambling funds." (Anti-gambling leaders in Alabama, such as Dan Ireland of the Alabama Citizens Action Program, have called that distinction illegitimate.)

Mr. Abramoff first hired Mr. Reed, a prominent evangelical who once called gambling "a cancer," to leverage his evangelical contacts to defeat pro-gambling legislation in Alabama in 1999. Mr. Abramoff hatched the campaign to protect the gaming interests of one of his clients, the Choctaw Tribe of Mississippi. While Mr. Reed worked to rally Christians for campaigns that benefited Mr. Abramoff's clients, Mr. Abramoff's partner, Michael Scanlon, wrote an e-mail to Kathryn Van Hoof, a former lawyer for the Coushatta Tribe, describing the plan to use Christians: "Simply put we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them. The wackos get their information [from] the Christian right, Christian radio, mail, the internet, and telephone."

To that end, Mr. Reed worked on at least three separate projects for Mr. Abramoff from 1999 to 2002. E-mails released by the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee suggest Mr. Reed worked with Mr. Abramoff to funnel tribal money through intermediary organizations to anti-gambling groups and to his own consulting firm, Century Strategies.

Mr. Reed has admitted funneling $1.15 million from the Choctaw Tribe to two anti-gambling groups in Alabama, including the Christian Coalition of Alabama (CCA), in 2000. In 2001, Mr. Abramoff hired Mr. Reed to rally evangelicals to oppose casino openings and pro-gambling legislation in Louisiana to protect the interests of the Coushatta Tribe. E-mails released by a Senate committee late last year show that Mr. Reed knew the Coushatta Tribe was Mr. Abramoff's client. (In his plea agreement, Mr. Abramoff has admitted charging the Coushattas $30 million for his work, and pocketing nearly $11.5 million without the tribe's knowledge.)

Other e-mails and faxes released by the Senate show that Mr. Reed organized TV and radio ads, as well as a letter-writing campaign, enlisting prominent evangelicals to help in the Abramoff-orchestrated campaign, including Focus on the Family's James Dobson and Tom Minnery, former presidential candidate and family-values guru Gary Bauer, Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly, and American Family Association head Don Wildmon.

Mr. Bauer, Ms. Schlafly, and Mr. Wildmon wrote letters to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton asking her to prevent a new casino opening in Louisiana. Each told WORLD that they had no knowledge of Mr. Reed's connections to Mr. Abramoff at the time, nor did they recall, they said, being asked by Mr. Reed to write the letters. "I'm against gambling anyway, and it wouldn't have mattered who asked me to write the letter," Ms. Schlafly said. A Feb. 19, 2002, e-mail from Mr. Reed to Mr. Abramoff stated that Mr. Reed "called Dobson this a.m. . . . letters are going to Norton, copied to others, from . . . Jim Dobson, Gary Bauer, Phyllis Schlafly." The correspondence also indicates Mr. Reed solicited and received help from Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

Mr. Wildmon acknowledged that for evangelicals the scandal "certainly hurts all of us. . . . Once you follow gambling down to the core you're always going to find corruption." A Focus on the Family spokesman said neither Mr. Dobson nor Mr. Minnery was available for an interview about their involvement.

Congressional documents also show Mr. Reed had contact with Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council. In a June 2001 e-mail to Mr. Abramoff about a Louisiana pro-gambling bill, Mr. Reed wrote: "Tony Perkins had requested money last month to kill this bill." The e-mails did not include any further details.

Mr. Perkins told WORLD, "I never had a conversation with Ralph Reed about this issue." Mr. Perkins did acknowledge discussing the bill with Louisiana GOP operative Rhett Davis, who contacted Mr. Perkins-at that time a Louisiana state representative-to ask how to spend money "from donors" to defeat the measure. Mr. Perkins said he knew Mr. Davis, director of the Committee Against Gambling Expansion, was working with Ralph Reed to lobby against the bill. He said he suggested the group could fund phone banks.

While Mr. Reed has maintained that his work was legitimate, in a speech last month before a TeenPact conference, he briefly admitted remorse for the Abramoff connection, saying, "Had I known then what I know now, I would not have undertaken that work. On reflection and with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear it associated my longstanding opposition to gambling with those who did not share it and has caused difficulty for the faith community with whom I worked, which I deeply regret." Nearly five years after the Alabama project, Mr. Reed in a June 2005 letter to the Christian Coalition of Alabama told its board members that he "should have explained that the contributions came from the Choctaws."

But Mr. Reed has refused to address publicly the details of his work for Mr. Abramoff, including allegations that he agreed to accept payment through intermediary organizations in an attempt to obscure the tribal source of the funds.

Mr. Reed's consulting firm accepted payments in excess of $400,000 from the American International Center, a bogus group set up by Mr. Scanlon, Mr. Abramoff's associate, Senate documents show. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Coushatta leaders testified that they wrote checks to Southern Underwriters, a company operated by a tribal leader, which then wrote checks to the center, which in turn wrote checks to Mr. Reed's firm. "The payments were made to Ralph Reed. This was done with the whole council's approval," William Worfel, a former tribal official, testified.

American International Center's former "director," part-time lifeguard David Grosh, testified before a Senate committee that Mr. Scanlon asked him to house the "international corporation" in the basement of his house. "I asked him what I had to do, and he said, 'Nothing,' so that sounded pretty good to me," Mr. Grosh testified.

Meanwhile, a March 2001 e-mail from Mr. Abramoff to Mr. Reed discussing wire payment for services shows the circuitous flow of funds: "The originating entity had to transfer to a separate account before they transferred it to the entity which is going to transfer it to you."

If the nature of Mr. Abramoff's payoffs to evangelical leaders appears nebulous, federal prosecutors are making headway on uncovering Mr. Abramoff's political favors. They say Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Scanlon defrauded tribal clients of millions of dollars and illegally lobbied members of Congress on behalf of the tribes. Mr. Scanlon pleaded guilty in November to conspiring to bribe a member of Congress and other public officials. Mr. Abramoff's plea agreement implicates Rep. Robert Ney (R-Ohio), the chairman of the House Administration Committee, saying he accepted lavish gifts and campaign contributions and then awarded congressional contracts and favors to Mr. Abramoff's clients. Mr. Ney denies the charges and says he will return contributions from Mr. Abramoff.

The plea agreement also indicates that prosecutors are investigating other public officials, and it refers to gifts and contributions Mr. Abramoff offered to officials "in exchange for agreements that the public officials would use their official positions and influence." According to an analysis of federal election records by the Center for Responsive Politics, Mr. Abramoff and his clients have donated more than $4.4 million to lawmakers and political groups since 2000. About $2.9 million of that total went to Republicans.

The revelations are leading lawmakers at the beginning of an election year to scramble to distance themselves from the lobbyist. At least two dozen lawmakers have returned money they received from Mr. Abramoff or his clients. Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, who received $150,000-the largest individual donation-returned the contributions before Christmas. Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, who sits with Mr. Burns on the congressional committee overseeing the Abramoff investigation, returned $67,000 a few days earlier. Both senators maintain that the contributions were legitimate, but that they wanted to remove any appearance of impropriety.

Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa)-both longtime advocates for evangelicals-also received contributions: Mr. Brownback received $44,500, which he returned in December. Mr. Grassley received $31,500.

Hours after Mr. Abramoff entered his guilty plea, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) announced he would donate to charity tens of thousands of dollars he received from Mr. Abramoff and his clients. Officials for President Bush's reelection campaign also announced they would return $6,000 donated directly to the campaign by Mr. Abramoff, his wife, and one of Mr. Abramoff's tribal clients.

Mr. Abramoff in his Jan. 3 courtroom plea invoked God's name: "I only hope that I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and from those I have wronged or caused to suffer. I will work hard to earn that redemption," he told U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle.

Abramoff investigation timeline

1999

  • Choctaw Tribe of Mississippi hires Abramoff to protect itself from competition from neighboring states. Abramoff hires Ralph Reed to mobilize evangelical Christians to oppose pro-gambling legislation in Alabama.
  • Reed helps funnel $1.15 million of Choctaw money to two anti-gambling groups in Alabama, including the state's Christian Coalition.

2000

  • Gambling services company eLottery hires Abramoff to help defeat the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act. Abramoff hires Reed to help defeat the bill.
  • Reed urges evangelicals to oppose the legislation, saying it contains exceptions allowing certain types of gambling.
  • James Dobson and other evangelical leaders support the anti-gambling bill, but the legislation is defeated.
  • Abramoff partner Michael Scanlon sends e-mail to Coushatta Tribe lawyer outlining strategy to "bring out the wackos" to defeat gambling competition.

2001

  • Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana hires Abramoff to protect its gambling interests from competition. Abramoff hires Reed to lobby Christians to oppose casino openings and expanded gambling laws in Louisiana. Several evangelical leaders-including James Dobson and Tony Perkins-write letters to Interior Secretary Gale Norton opposing a casino opening in Vinton, La.

2004

  • Abramoff refuses to answer questions from the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, but a seven-month committee investigation concludes that Abramoff and Scanlon, a former aide to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), charged six tribes in six states at least $66 million for pro-casino lobbying and may have manipulated tribal elections to ensure contracts with tribes.

2005

  • Nov. 21: Scanlon pleads guilty in Washington to conspiring to bribe public officials in connection with his lobbying work on behalf of Indian tribes and casinos.
  • Dec. 13-22: Republican and Democratic lawmakers return or give away campaign donations they received from Abramoff and his associates.

2006

  • Jan. 3: Abramoff pleads guilty in Washington to mail fraud, conspiracy, and tax evasion charges in federal court in connection with his lobbying work.
  • House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) announces he will give money received from Abramoff to charity.
  • Jan. 4: Abramoff pleads guilty in Miami to conspiracy and wire fraud charges in relation to the 2000 purchase of SunCruz casinos.
  • The Republican National Committee announced that President Bush's reelection campaign will give $6,000 of Abramoff contributions to charity. Republican Reps. Tom DeLay, Roy Blunt, and Bob Ney announce they will return or give money they received from Abramoff to charity.

- Source: Associated Press and WORLD interviews

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.