Not Kosher: The Ralph Reed - Jack Abramoff Connection
Mounting evidence suggests that former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed Jr., along with a former leader of the Texas Christian Coalition, may have illegally lobbied Texas state officials on behalf of crooked federal lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his clients. While Reed seems likely to elude criminal prosecution, the Abramoff scandal already has taken a toll on his current campaign to be lieutenant governor of Georgia. By early 2006, Reed's opponent for the July 18 Republican primary had overtaken him in fundraising and poll numbers, and the Reed campaign acknowledged in January that it was paying people to attend a campaign event.
Last December, three Texas reform groups - Common Cause Texas, Public Citizen Texas and Texans For Public Justice - urged prosecutors in Austin to investigate whether Reed violated Texas' lobby-registration laws four years ago. Correspondence between Abramoff and Reed suggests that the former Christian Coalition leader lobbied Texas officials on behalf of Abramoff's Indian gambling clients without registering as a Texas lobbyist. The $5 million in gambling money that Abramoff reportedly paid Reed for his services would make it one of the largest lobby contracts ever made public in Texas.
The Reed campaign, which did not respond to three requests for comment for this story, previously issued a statement saying that Texas' lobby registration law does not cover the kind of "grassroots" organizing that Reed's firm conducted in Texas.
Travis County Attorney David Escamilla ultimately determined that the statute of limitations had expired on potential wrongdoing by Reed, and so will not be further investigating the complaint.
During Jack Abramoff's reign as chair of the College Republican National Committee in the early 1980s, Ralph Reed and GOP operative Grover Norquist each did stints as that committee's executive director. Abramoff, a practicing orthodox Jew, later helped Reed organize the remnants of evangelist Pat Robertson's failed 1988 presidential bid into the politically potent Christian Coalition in 1989. Reed and Norquist resurfaced a decade later to help Abramoff extract tens of millions of dollars from Indian gambling interests and other clients. Now Abramoff has promised to walk federal prosecutors through his vast web of political corruption, thereby endangering the careers and reputations of members of Congress, other lobbyists and Ralph Reed - just as the preternaturally young-looking evangelist makes his first bid for public office. Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed records from Reed but have not identified him as a target of their investigation.
Reed may not have been the only Christian Coalition leader secretly working for Abramoff's gambling clients. Reed-Abramoff correspondence indicates that Chuck Anderson, then head of the Texas Christian Coalition, also helped lobby Texas officials on behalf of Abramoff's Indian gaming clients. Anderson, who is now a campaign spokesperson for Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, also appears to have worked on Texas gambling issues without registering.
Additionally, Ralph Reed secretly lobbied Texas school officials on behalf of the in-school television network Channel One in 2002 - when Channel One's parent company was paying Abramoff a $320,000 annual retainer. Texas law generally requires people to register as lobbyists if they receive more than $500 a quarter to directly communicate with a state official on public policy. Ralph Reed never registered as a Texas lobbyist despite evidence that he called at least one member of the State Board of Education in 2002 to influence a board resolution.
In 2002, the Texas State Board of Education considered passing a non-binding resolution to urge schools to ban Channel One from their campuses. Liberal opponents of in-school, commercial television included Texans for Public Justice and Commercial Alert, an Oregon-based group that opposes commercial exploitation of children. Conservative opponents of Channel One included Alabama-based Obligation, Inc., which mirrors Commercial Alert's agenda, and the Texas Eagle Forum. All of these groups objected to public schools using teaching time to expose captive children to ads, especially those promoting junk food or violent films. To make this case, Birmingham-based Obligation, Inc. showed the conservative-dominated board a sampling of Channel One's own ads.
Channel One responded by flying CEO Jim Ritts to Austin to work with local company lobbyist Demetrius McDaniel of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. These company representatives, neither of whom responded to requests for comment, had their own video. It included a snippet in which First Lady Laura Bush appeared to endorse the company. In the end, the board dropped the resolution against Channel One and passed a weak substitute that urged PTA types to educate themselves about marketing in schools.
There is evidence that Ralph Reed worked behind the scenes to help enable this Channel One lobbying coup. A brief Austin American-Statesman article in September 2002 reported that Channel One postponed a vote on the resolution thanks to "an impromptu lobbying effort by Channel One Communications - including phone calls from Ralph Reed." Commercial Alert's Gary Ruskin blames Reed's lobbying for ensuring that "Texas school children are still forced to watch ads for junk food, violent entertainment and movies that portray smoking."
When the Channel One resolution came before the board, 10 of its 15 members had at least one thing in common with Ralph Reed: a Republican Party affiliation. Six of the 10 GOP members who sat on the board in 2002 said that Ralph Reed never contacted them. One of these, Dan Montgomery, said that he was present when then-board member Chase Untermeyer took a call from Ralph Reed. "He said it was Ralph Reed calling on behalf of Channel One," and he was somewhat surprised, Montgomery recalls. Montgomery added that he does not think Reed's intervention influenced the board's vote on the resolution.
Untermeyer, now the U.S. Ambassador to Qatar, acknowledged Montgomery's account in a written statement. "Reed's sole request, to which I was sympathetic, was that Channel One should be allowed to defend itself," Ambassador Untermeyer wrote.
Board member David Bradley declined to say if Reed had contacted him, saying, "I cannot help you." Asked if this meant that Reed never contacted him, Bradley repeated, "Sir, I cannot help you." Another Republican Board member could not be located.
Finally, Republican Geraldine Miller, who now chairs the board, did not return repeated requests for comment. Miller's role is intriguing. At the time that the Channel One controversy was before her in 2002, Miller's spouse - big GOP donor Vance Miller - was soliciting Primedia on behalf of Tom DeLay's now-indicted Texans for a Republican Majority PAC [see "DeLay, Inc. On the Brink," Multinational Monitor, April 2004]. Primedia obliged with a $2,500 corporate contribution to DeLay's TRMPAC in November 2002. TRMPAC did not report this contribution, as required by law. Details about it only became public in February 2006, when DeLay prosecutor Ronnie Earle subpoenaed Primedia for more information about the transaction.
Several Republicans who sat on the board at that time expressed disappointment with Reed's involvement. "I always really liked Ralph Reed," says Texas Eagle Forum activist Judy Strickland, who sponsored the failed Channel One resolution when she sat on Texas' state school board in 2002. "But when people use our children for their gains - monetarily or otherwise - they need to be called on the carpet."
"I am surprised that the Christian Coalition would support that kind of endeavor [Channel One]," adds board member Cynthia Thornton. "There was programming [on Channel One] that I wouldn't allow in my classroom."
On Channel One's behalf, Reed appears to have engaged in just the kind of paid, direct contact with public officials that drives Texas' lobby-registration law. Yet Reed long has prided himself on his ninja stealth. "I want to be invisible," the then-Christian Coalition leader told Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot in 1991. "I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don't know it's over until you're in a body bag."
When it comes to lobbying, Reed has mastered stealth. The state ethics commission websites in Texas and Georgia, where Reed's Century Strategies lobby shop is based, list no lobby registrations for this operative. The only federal lobby registration listed for Reed is as a Christian Coalition lobbyist in 1998.
Conservative Channel One critic Jim Metrock of Obligation, Inc. says that Reed resorted to covert tactics in Alabama in 1999, when a Channel One front group popped up that ultimately was traced back to Reed. The so-called Coalition to Protect Children churned out advertisements in a failed effort to stop U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, from holding Channel One hearings.
"The senator was disappointed and surprised to learn of the advertising campaign against his efforts," says a spokesperson for Senator Shelby. Reed "hurt the Christian Coalition in Alabama," Metrock adds. "People really believed in him."
Reed's policy work in Texas assumed greater significance in January 2006, when Abramoff pled guilty to three felonies in a plea bargain with federal prosecutors investigating a vast web of political corruption. At the time of the Texas Channel One vote in 2002, Abramoff's Greenberg Traurig was the top federal lobby firm for Channel One's parent, Primedia. The firm billed Primedia and another one of its subsidiaries $380,000 that year. Other Greenberg Traurig lobbyists on the Primedia account included Tony Rudy and Neil Volz, who previously worked for two of Abramoff's closest congressional allies: Texas Representative Tom DeLay and Ohio Republican Representative Bob Ney, respectively. Rudy and Volz figure prominently in the Abramoff indictment.
Abramoff alleges in his plea deal that soon after he hired Volz, Volz contacted his old boss to help one of Abramoff's clients land a lucrative federal telecommunications contract. The indictment alleges that this action violated a revolving-door law that bars certain federal officials from lobbying their old offices for one year.
Abramoff also told prosecutors that he paid Rudy's wife $50,000 as a reward for Rudy using DeLay's office to help Abramoff defeat legislation. The Washington Post reported last fall that Rudy helped derail the 2000 Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, which would have hurt Abramoff's client, eLottery, Inc. eLottery also paid Reed $300,000 to work this contract, the Post reported, routing some of the payments through Grover Norquist and the Virginia-based Faith and Family Alliance. The director of the Alliance at the time, Robin Vanderwall - since imprisoned for soliciting sex with minors on the Internet - told the Post that it was Reed's firm, Century Strategies, that asked him to pass the funds along.
A Reed spokesperson told the Post that Abramoff had promised Century Strategies that it would not be paid with gambling funds. In a 1999 e-mail to Reed, however, Abramoff explicitly identified a casino-owning tribe as the paying client. "[G]et me invoices as soon as possible so I can get Choctaw to get us checks ASAP," Abramoff wrote.
Moreover, if Reed is innocent as his spokesperson suggests, he surely must have wondered why his payments were routed through Byzantine channels. In one example of this shell game in March 2001, Abramoff explained to an anxious Reed why one of his payments was delayed. "The originating entity had to transfer to a separate account before they transferred to the entity which is going to transfer to you," Abramoff explained. "All will be fine."
Standard ninja operating procedure.
Just as he enlisted Abramoff to get the Christian Coalition off the ground, Reed turned to his friend to help him start a lobby shop after he left the Coalition in 1997. "I need to start humping in corporate accounts," Reed wrote Abramoff in 1998. "I'm counting on you to help me with some contacts."
Reed had left the Christian Coalition under fire. At that time, the IRS and the Federal Election Commission were investigating the Coalition, even as the Coalition's chief financial officer accused Reed of awarding inflated contracts to a crony. When the IRS revoked the Coalition's tax-exempt status in 1999 - owing to overtly political activities - the national group transferred its remaining assets to the Texas Christian Coalition. This Texas chapter was headed by then-Executive Director Chuck Anderson, who appears to have helped Abramoff, Norquist and Reed implement their Texas gambling agenda in 2001. Like Reed, Anderson did not register as a Texas lobbyist.
In 2001, legally questionable Texas casinos operated by the Tigua tribe in El Paso and East Texas' Alabama-Coushatta tribe competed with tribal gambling operations in Louisiana. Facing legal threats from then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, who soon would persuade the courts to shut down these casinos, the Texas-based tribes backed state legislation to legalize their casinos. Defeating this bill was a top objective of the rival Louisiana Coushatta tribe, which paid Abramoff's lobby firm $1.8 million in 2001. Abramoff-Reed correspondence reveals that Abramoff paid Reed to work on this effort. As he previously did for Channel One in Alabama, Reed created a front group, the Committee Against Gambling Expansion, to run attack ads against this legislation.
Abramoff-Reed e-mails also suggest that Reed and his shop may have engaged in the kind of paid contact with Texas officials that can trigger a legal obligation to register as a lobbyist. In a January 2002 e-mail exchange discussing the state's litigation to shut down the Tiguas' casino, Reed assured Abramoff that "we are discussing this with the head of the [attorney general's] criminal division today."
Perhaps illustrating how toxic Abramoff's name has become, nobody would admit to being deputy attorney general of criminal justice in January 2002. The preponderance of evidence pointed to Michael McCaul, who was elected in 2004 to represent one of Tom DeLay's newly minted congressional districts. When asked, Representative McCaul's spokesperson said that his boss had been replaced by that time by Shane Phelps. Phelps countered that McCaul had succeeded him, not vice versa. Confronted with a contemporaneous attorney general document that again pointed to McCaul, the spokesperson admitted that his boss was the deputy attorney general at the time. He added, however, that Representative McCaul "never had any contact with" Ralph Reed, Century Strategies or the Christian Coalition.
In another January 2002 message, Abramoff directed Reed to recruit cooperative Texas and Alabama lawmakers, dubbed "tigers," to introduce legislation that would exclude companies that do business with Indian casinos from state contracting. "Easy to get our tigers to introduce them [bills] in both places," Reed responded. What such correspondence fails to establish, however, is if Reed and Century Strategies directly lobbied Texas officials, as the e-mails suggest, or if Reed was bearing false witness to rationalize millions of dollars in gambling fees.
The e-mails also indicate that Abramoff and Reed relied on then-Texas Christian Coalition leader Chuck Anderson to help defeat the casino-legalization legislation. Reed reported to Abramoff in a March 2001 e-mail on efforts to stop the bill by bottling it up in a House committee. "Chuck Anderson at the Coalition is calling Representative Kim Brimer and other members of the Calendars Committee," he wrote. Reed added that he could flood the committee with phone calls if the client would approve Reed's $397,200 "Texas Anti-Gambling Project Budget."
In an update several days later, Reed told Abramoff, "You are waiting to hear from Chuck" about whether Governor Rick Perry would signal his intention to veto the gambling bill. (Perry generally opposed gambling until he returned from a 2004 Bahamas junket with GOP powerbrokers including Abramoff-Reed crony Grover Norquist. After that trip, Governor Perry proposed using slot machines to finance Texas schools.)
A triumphant April 6, 2001 e-mail from Reed to Abramoff appears under the heading "from a TX operative," suggesting that Reed may have forwarded this message from a Texas colleague. "Yesterday we succeeded in keeping HB 514, the Indian Casino bill, bottled up in the Calendars Committee," the message reads. "According to Chuck at the Texas Christian Coalition, he has received many calls from offices of the committee members. We patched through 4,000 phone calls between Friday and Thursday, blitzed Christian and conservative talk radio, and mailed 50,000 anti-gambling action alerts."
Less than two weeks later, on April 18, the Texas Christian Coalition announced Anderson's resignation.
One reading of the Abramoff-Reed correspondence suggests that, under Anderson, the Texas Christian Coalition operated as an arm of Reed's Century Strategies. It is unclear if the Texas Christian Coalition or Anderson were paid for this work, a key factor in determining if Anderson was required to register as a lobbyist.
Asked about the Abramoff-Reed correspondence, Anderson - now a spokesperson for Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst's re-election campaign - said, "I am not going to have any comment at this time."
Texas generally requires political operatives to register as lobbyists if they spend more than $500 a quarter directly communicating with a state official to influence state policies, or receive more than $1,000 a quarter for such communications. Violating this law is a misdemeanor subject to up to a year in jail and a civil fine of up to three times an individual's lobby compensation.
Reed might have faced a huge fine had the Travis County Attorney proceeded with the case against Reed (the groups that filed the complaint against Reed argued that the clock on the statute of limitations should only have started in late 2004, when the U.S. Senate first revealed Reed's advocacy in Texas). Reed reportedly received as much as $4 million just to help the Louisiana Coushatta shut down the Tigua casino in El Paso.
The Reed campaign said in a written response to the complaint that Greenberg Traurig hired it "to contact grassroots citizens in Texas and encourage them to oppose illegal casinos in the state," activities that it said did not require lobby registration. The statement said that the "specious" complaint against Reed "has more to do with politics than the facts."
In one such direct-contact reference during the casino-legalization fight in early 2001, an apparent Century Strategies memo says, "Eric Criss, Century Strategies VP, is flying to Texas on Monday morning to meet with the staff of the governor and attorney general, as well as the Christian Coalition Executive Director [Chuck Anderson] and Director of Public Policy for the Baptist State Convention of Texas." Criss, now an unregistered staff lobbyist for Home Depot in Washington, did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Gambling opponent Suzii Paynter, the Baptist lobbyist whom Criss reportedly was going to meet in 2001, did visit the attorney general's office that year. Yet Paynter said, "I was never in contact with or had meetings with Eric Criss of Century Strategies." Paynter said Abramoff and Reed sometimes appeared to rationalize their extravagant fees by claiming credit for things they never did.
Ralph Reed has declined to discuss his work on Texas gambling issues with the media personally. One week after the lobby complaint was filed, he told a Christian youth group that he had been aware that Greenberg Traurig's tribal clients "had their own reasons for opposing new casinos." Reed added in his defense that, "I was assured by the law firm … that the funds contributed to our efforts would not derive from gambling activity."
In this case either Ralph Reed lied about his knowledge of who was paying his bills, Abramoff's lobby firm lied, or they both prevaricated. As prosecutors continue to investigate the roles that DeLay, Ney, Reed and other politicians played in the mushrooming Abramoff scandal, voters - and perhaps even jurors in some cases - will get a formal chance to decide whom they believe.
Andrew Wheat is research director for the Austin-Based Texans for Public Justice.
© Multinational Monitor January/February 2006