In this program, Bill Moyers untangles the web of relationships, secret deals and political manipulation — including thousands of e-mails, reports and facts on the record — to open a disturbing window on the dark side of American politics.
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BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. Welcome to this report of an extraordinary political scandal. The scale of corruption still coming to light dwarfs anything since Watergate. In one sense it’s the age-old tale of greed, but greed encouraged now by the way our system works. Deep in the plea bargains of Jack Abramoff and his cronies is the admission that they conspired to use campaign contributions to bribe politicians; campaign finance is the core of the corruption. They took great pains to cover their tracks and they might have pulled it off except for a handful of honest people, and the work of some enterprising print reporters, Senate investigators, and the ethics team at the Department of Justice. Following the money in this story leads us through a bizarre maze of cocktail parties, golf courses, private jets, four-star restaurants, sweatshops and the chandeliered rooms frequented by the high and mighty in Washington. Stay with the twists and turns and the pieces fall into place. But keep in mind that what you’re seeing is only a partial picture; we have not seen the end of capitol crimes. Sherry Jones produced our report.
REP. TOM DELAY: (R-TX): I’m Tom DeLay from Texas…
BILL MOYERS: The story begins in 1984 – the year Tom DeLay, a pest exterminator from Sugar Land, Texas, was elected to the US House of Representatives.
REP. TOM DELAY: (R-TX): But I have not had, being a freshman, I have not had the opportunity to speak to the leaders of the Sandanista party.
BILL MOYERS: That same year, a young Jack Abramoff was introduced to the Republican National Convention.
Republican National Convention – Aug. 20, 1984 – Dallas, TX
SPEAKER: One of the ever-growing list of young people who have joined in the Republican cause, the chairman of the College Republican National Committee, Jack Abramoff, for purposes of addressing the convention.
BILL MOYERS: A self-described “rabid right winger,” he now headed the organization that had launched the careers of Republican power brokers from Lee Atwater to Karl Rove.
JACK ABRAMOFF: Fellow Republicans, I come before you today representing American students – the future of our Republican party.
MICHAEL WALLER: I went to work at the College Republican National Committee in 1982 when he was chairman. And we had a great time. And he’s a lot of fun. He’s a nice guy, tough guy. We had a lot of fun. We did a lot of great things. Ronald Reagan was our hero.
INTERVIEWER: “It’s Jack? And it’s A-B-R-A-M-O-F-F? OK.”
SAM HARBEN: When I heard it for the first time, when they mentioned Jack’s name, I said to myself, “He did it.” Because that’s what he did when we were College Republicans. We wanted to entertain Congressmen. That was like winning a football game.
BILL MOYERS: The team headed by Abramoff had lots of connections and lots of plays.
SAM HARBEN: One of the favorite ones was: Can we create a hospitality suite with plenty of liquor and plenty of college girls and see if we could get a Congressman to come to that? And you could.
BILL MOYERS: As college students, Jack Abramoff and another young Republican, Grover Norquist, organized campuses for Ronald Reagan. Now Norquist had become Abramoff’s executive director. Together they intended to remove liberals from power, as Abramoff put it, “permanently.”
SAM HARBEN: We were idealists. We were young people who thought that we were going to save the world for democracy. I mean we were fighting for the liberty of the world. And in that sense, we viewed everything as ideology. It either helps our fight against the Communists or it doesn’t.
BILL MOYERS: They dreamed up headline-grabbing stunts, like this one in the shadow of the Capitol, to support Reagan’s anti-communist foreign policy.
RALPH REED: Good morning. My name is Ralph Reed. I’m the executive director of Students for America…
BILL MOYERS: Ralph Reed, a junior from the University of Georgia, joined the hard-charging team as a $200 a month intern.
SAM HARBEN: It was very simple, very black and white. We used army metaphors. We talked about being “hard core.”
BILL MOYERS: Volunteers sent out to organize the grass roots were told to memorize a speech from the movie Patton. But for the word “nazis” they were to substitute the word “Democrats.” “Wade into them,” the young recruits repeated. “Spill their blood!”
JACK ABRAMOFF: If we’re the party of composure – and not the party that ducks disclosure – then we’re riding our wave. If we equivocate, capitulate, accommodate, negotiate…
BILL MOYERS: From the beginning, Abramoff played fast and loose with the money.
JACK ABRAMOFF: If we try to outspend big, fat Tip O’Neill…
SAM HARBEN: We were bankrupt and we owed thousands and thousands of dollars. And I was going, “There’s no way we…” We had people call us every day… printing companies and …wanting money. And I played that horrible game for six months or three months of going, “I don’t have the bill. Send me a bill.” You know, “What’s it for?” And and so forth, because we were inundated with just tons of debt that Jack had run up.
MICHAEL WALLER: Two of my colleagues and I quit working with him in 1983, because we thought he was completely unethical. And I never went back to talk to him since.
JACK ABRAMOFF: And so it is to our party that they come. It is with us that they trust their dreams. And it is in us that they place their hopes.
SAM HARBEN: He seemed to be very much a man of principle. Until you got into it with Jack and began to see what he did. When it came to money, Jack had no principles.
JACK ABRAMOFF: And it is for them that we must restore liberty and righteousness throughout the world. Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: As the Reagan years came to an end, Abramoff headed home to Hollywood to try his hand at producing movies. His first effort was the anti-communist action flick, Red Scorpion.
ACTOR: Let’s kick some ass.
BILL MOYERS: The plot could have been hatched at the think tank Abramoff had run that tried to polish the image of the apartheid South African government. His movie — like his organization – was reportedly bankrolled by the racist military regime that imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 27 years.
ACTOR: Are you out of your mind?
BILL MOYERS: “Seriously godawful…”
BILL MOYERS: Wrote one critic.
ACTOR: Just out of bullets…
BILL MOYERS: But if Abramoff had a dim future in Hollywood, there was a political tsunami brewing that would carry him back to Washington.
BILL MOYERS: In November 1994, Republicans won eight new Senate seats and a whopping 52 seats in the House. The revolution imagined by Abramoff and his College Republicans was embodied in Newt Gingrich, the new Speaker of the House. Gingrich put Washington on notice: “If you want to play in our revolution,” he said, “you have to live by our rules.”
REP. NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA) on phone: Whatever we’re doing, we’re doing because Barry Goldwater and then Ronald Reagan led the way…
BILL MOYERS: And at the center of the action was Grover Norquist, a chief architect of the revolution.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA): I think Grover is expecting to talk to you for a few minutes and I don’t want to disappoint him so hold on.
BILL MOYERS: Poring over lists of campaign contributions, Norquist concocted a scheme to turn Washington into a Republican town: insist that only Republicans be hired as lobbyists and make sure the lobbyists contribute only to Republicans. The result would be a lucrative money machine for the party. He dubbed it the K Street Project – after the lobbyists’ main drag in downtown Washington.
HILARY ROSEN: One day my Republican head of government relations came back from a meeting at Grover’s shop. And he said that they had distributed a list of the biggest Democratic contributors that year who were registered lobbyists.
BILL MOYERS: Grover’s shop is called Americans for Tax Reform. And it’s the conservative movement’s nerve center. Every Wednesday morning, Norquist commands a strategy session of Congressional staff, party activists, and think tankers.
HILARY ROSEN: And the important fact is they gave out a list with 150 names of lobbyists to Congressional staff who were there, essentially saying, “This is who they’re giving to. Pay attention to that the next time they come to your office and ask you for something.” I’d never seen anything like that before.
BILL MOYERS: On Capitol Hill, Tom DeLay of Texas had moved up to number three in the new House leadership. He became the K Street Project’s enforcer.
LOU DUBOSE: And he called lobbyists in one at a time, and he put this ledger in front of them and said, “Here’s the book. You’ve contributed too much money to Democrats. You’ve got to contribute more money to Republicans. We’re in power now.”
BILL MOYERS: “We keep a very close eye on the money,” DeLay told a reporter. “There can be no revolution in policy without a revolution in fundraising.” In other words, you had to pay to play.
LOU DUBOSE: His ambition was to create a vertically integrated political machine that controlled who was in the lobby at the top, controlled who got big lobby jobs. Some of them a million five a year, some of them a million a year, some of them – the lower paying jobs $250,000 a year. If they could control who got them, then they could control the political contributions that lobbyists and their clients made. So that was the top of this vertically integrated shakedown machine.
R.G. RATCLIFFE: Essentially the K Street Project was a way of consolidating power. If you can force companies to hire only Republicans as lobbyists, if you can force companies into a position where they don’t feel comfortable donating to anyone but Republicans, you have just consolidated your power, and made it all but impossible for the other party to make any kind of a comeback.
LOU DUBOSE: It was new rules for lobbyists. The rules were, “If you contribute to us, we’re going to look the other way at what you do with your clients.” And the other side of that was, “Your clients are going to get what they want out of us.”
BILL MOYERS: Every lobby shop in town was searching for an in with the new GOP majority. Among them was the venerable Seattle firm of Preston Gates.
LAURENCE LATOURETTE: Their old connections weren’t anywhere near as effective. And to sort of have contact and be able to talk with the new crowd, they needed somebody who had the bona fides to talk to them. Jack did.
BILL MOYERS: The K Street Project paved the way for Jack Abramoff. The firm announced its new hire with a press release touting Abramoff’s ties to the Republican National Committee, to the Christian Coalition headed by his old pal, Ralph Reed, and to the new leaders of the House, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay. But there was no one more indispensable to Abramoff’s rise than Grover Norquist.
MICHAEL WALLER: They were probably about as inseparable as two political people can get. Jack had left Washington. He didn’t have a day-to-day contact with his networks. So if Grover vouched for him, then Abramoff was fine.
BILL MOYERS: “What the Republicans need is fifty Jack Abramoffs,” Norquist said. “Then this becomes a different town.” So it did.
MICHAEL WALLER: If it wasn’t for his relations with Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff would never have been able to become the super lobbyist that he became, and to charge the huge rates that he charged because he had this unique relationship with certain Republican leaders.
BILL MOYERS: The hefty fees would enrich Abramoff. And he, in turn, would direct his clients to enrich the conservative political machine. One of his first was the wealthiest gambling tribe in America – the Mississippi Choctaw. To keep their huge casino earnings from being taxed, the tribe needed connections to the right people in Washington.
U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs – Sept. 29, 2004
SEN. BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL (R-CO): It appears from their own words Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Scanlon held their tribal clients in absolute contempt. In an e-mail discussing a dinner meeting with a client, the reason Mr. Abramoff could not attend: “I have to meet with the monkeys from the Choctaw Tribal Council.” Mind you that these “monkeys” had enriched him over a 5-year period with over $7 million in lobbying fees. It is a story of greed run amok.
BILL MOYERS: In 1995, Jack Abramoff had convinced the Choctaw he was their man.
LAURENCE LATOURETTE: He’d be sort of warm and personable and irreverent, and then he’d start talking and getting tense and sort of say, you know, “I can help you. We can win. You know, I’m going to mobilize my forces. We’re going to attack on these three fronts, and we will wipe out the enemy.” You put that together with everything else, and he can be a convincing guy.
BILL MOYERS: And Grover Norquist had just what Abramoff needed to prove his worth to the Choctaw: an organization dedicated to opposing all tax increases “as a matter of principle.” The two old college comrades framed the casino tax as a tax increase that Conservatives should oppose. All of a sudden, activists at Norquist’s weekly meetings found themselves discussing Indian tribes.
MICHAEL WALLER: We didn’t know one tribe from another. So what. Let them have their casino. We didn’t know. Nobody knew they were multi-billion dollar entities. It’s not something anybody paid attention to.
BILL MOYERS: But Norquist was paying attention, and the Choctaw were putting up the money to organize anti-tax groups across the country to lobby their cause.
MICHAEL WALLER: Why in the world would Grover Norquist care about — care so deeply about Indian tribes, unless there was something else going on. We all suspected something pretty fishy.
BILL MOYERS: In fact, the Choctaw became a major contributor to Norquist’s organization. And Norquist in turn was moving much of the money to this man – the third member of the old College Republican troika. In 1989, Ralph Reed had become head of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. His skill at mixing religion with hardball politics landed him on the cover of Time magazine at the age of 33.
RALPH REED: This reflects what we believe is one of the greatest cancers growing on the American body politic, and that is the scourge of legalized gambling.
BILL MOYERS: In the mid-1990’s, Reed left to set up his own political consulting firm, and he sent an e-mail to his old friend Jack Abramoff, who was now known on K Street as “Casino Jack.” This is what Reed wrote:
E-mail from RALPH REED: 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.
BILL MOYERS: And humping they did go. Despite Reed’s long-time opposition to gambling, he and Abramoff set out to protect the Choctaw casino against competition. The scheme called for Reed to organize his fellow Christians on moral grounds – to oppose threats to Abramoff’s client without telling them that that client was actually in the gambling business. E-mails between the two make clear there was no doubt where the money came from. When Reed pushed for a “green light,” for example, to begin organizing devout gambling opponents in Alabama, Abramoff told him approval would first have to come from the Choctaw, and asked:
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: … get me invoices as soon as possible so I can get Choctaw to get us checks ASAP.
BILL MOYERS: Reed wrote back with a list and a total:
E-mail from RALPH REED: We have fronted $100K, which is a lot for us.
BILL MOYERS: Abramoff promised to do what he could:
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: Any chance that a wire from Choctaw directly would be OK?
BILL MOYERS: Just days later, Reed tells Abramoff:
E-mail from RALPH REED: We are opening the bomb bays and holding nothing back.
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: Yeaaaa baaabby!!!
BILL MOYERS: To keep secret the source of the Choctaw money paid to Reed and the Christian groups he recruited, Abramoff turned to their old friend Grover Norquist. When Norquist needed money for his own organization, he turned to Jack.
E-mail from GROVER NORQUIST: What is the status of the Choctaw stuff. I have a $75K hole in my budget from last year. Ouch.
BILL MOYERS: In a reminder to himself, Abramoff notes:
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: Call Ralph re Grover doing pass-through.
BILL MOYERS: And then tells Reed:
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: I need to give Grover something for helping, so the first transfer will be a bit lighter.
BILL MOYERS: But not to worry with the next $300,000. So when Norquist again kept a cut for his cause, Abramoff registers his surprise:
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: Grover kept another $25K!
BILL MOYERS: The money spigot was now wide open. Abramoff was being paid millions as a lobbyist. Reed was being paid millions to dupe his fellow Christians, and Norquist was feeding his political operation by acting as their cover. The three College Republicans first came to Washington to run a revolution. It was turning into a racket.
U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs – Sept. 29, 2004
SEN. BYRON DORGAN (D-ND): And what’s the basis for your tribe making a donation to Americans for Tax Reform?
BERNIE SPRAGUE (Subchief, Saginaw Chippewa Tribe): I have no idea, Senator. I did not understand it then. I opposed it, and I don’t understand it today.
SEN. KENT CONRAD (D-ND): Did you, Mr. Abramoff, you and your partner, colleague, Mr. Scanlon, give $4 million to Ralph Reed?
JACK ABRAMOFF: Senator, I respectfully invoke the privileges previously stated.
BILL MOYERS: To follow Jack Abramoff’s money trail, we will be coming back often to this red door. The town house at 132 D Street S.E. is just three short blocks from Tom DeLay’s office on Capitol Hill. His staff called it his “safe house.” It was bought by the U.S. Family Network – a non-profit outfit that said its mission was to restore “moral fitness” to American life.
JEFFREY SMITH: Tom DeLay, in a letter that was signed by him, which was used for fundraising purposes, claimed that it was one of the most powerful and influential pro-family groups in Washington. And, in fact, it had a single staffer. It operated from a townhouse that was paid for by Jack Abramoff’s client money. A townhouse that was also shared with Tom DeLay’s political fundraising groups and was really an arm of his political machine.
BILL MOYERS: DeLay’s political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority, was housed here. Upstairs, the second-floor master suite was reserved for DeLay to make telephone fundraising pitches – calls that would be illegal if made from Congressional offices. With DeLay’s support, the Family Network had been set up by this man, Ed Buckham. Buckham was DeLay’s chief of staff and spiritual confidante. The two men often prayed together. Buckham, himself a lay minister, recruited his own pastor, an evangelical in Frederick, Maryland, along with his wife, to volunteer as members of the board.
REV. CHRIS GEESLIN: He’d been in my church for 20 years, and we thought, “Well, this sounds like a good thing.” He’s been written up in Roll Call as one of the most brilliant strategists on Capitol Hill, a very good family man, very good husband, you know, strong Christian. We felt, “Hey, here’s Ed who’s really this professional strategist,” you know, and basically Ed ran the whole thing.
BILL MOYERS: The Family Network’s very first contribution had come from Jack Abramoff’s client, the casino-rich Choctaws.
REV. CHRIS GEESLIN: Everybody on this board was opposed to gambling. Nobody on the board, none of the people on this pro bono board believe in gambling.
BILL MOYERS: While the board was kept in the dark, Ed Buckham was thanking Abramoff for the Choctaw money – payments that would eventually total $345,000.
[Graphic – ED BUCKHAM: I really appreciate you going to bat for us. …Pray for God’s wisdom. I really believe this is supposed to be what we are doing to save our team.]
REV. CHRIS GEESLIN: I never asked questions of Ed, you know. Ed’s finding this money, he’s bringing it in, and you know, we’re doing our part to bring America back to God, you know, basically through political means.
BILL MOYERS: When Ed Buckham left DeLay’s staff, he set up his new lobbying shop on the top floor of the “safe house.” Jack Abramoff sent him many of his first clients. But to unravel the hidden ways Abramoff funded DeLay’s political machine, we need to travel far beyond the house with the red door.
Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
BILL MOYERS: American soldiers, sailors and marines fought hard to liberate the Northern Marianas during World War II. Today, this string of islands in the Pacific Ocean is U.S. territory, promoted as a tropical paradise with first class hotels, sandy beaches, and championship golf. But there are other realities here, too. Over the years, tens of thousands of people, primarily Chinese and mostly women, have been lured to the main island, Saipan, told they were coming to a job in America.
PAM BROWN: All the flights arrive in the middle of the night. It’s scary for the workers. They really had no understanding of where they were going to end up. They were coming to America for a job. And most of them back then, they were paying huge recruitment fees.
BILL MOYERS: They soon discovered they were essentially indentured servants, thousands of dollars in debt to the company men who had recruited them and often forced them to sign secret “shadow contracts.”
PAM BROWN: They agreed they wouldn’t date, they wouldn’t go to churches. If they got pregnant, they’d have an abortion.
BILL MOYERS: The factories, many owned by the Chinese Communist government, manufactured clothing for some of the biggest retailers in America – from the Gap to Jones New York – and legally labeled them “Made in the USA.” But workers were paid a pittance. It was a very sweet deal made possible because Congress had exempted the territory from U.S. minimum wage and immigration laws.
ALLEN STAYMAN: It was just a general understanding that if you filed a complaint against your employer that they would have you deported.
BILL MOYERS: At the Interior Department in Washington, Allen Stayman was the point man in efforts to bring the Chinese manufacturers in the Marianas, officially U.S. soil, in line with U.S. law.
ALLEN STAYMAN: They had a tremendous amount of control over these workers, something I think it’s pretty hard for an American to understand. Americans can always just say, “I’ve had enough,” and walk out. These people did not have that opportunity.
BILL MOYERS: They lived behind barbed wire in squalid shacks; the Interior Department called them “labor camps.” Forced to work twelve hours a day, often seven days a week, their pay was barely half the U.S. minimum wage.
ALLEN STAYMAN: It was very tough for me personally, as the senior government official. They would say, “We were told we were coming to America. This is America, why can’t you do anything for me?”
BILL MOYERS: Republican Senator Frank Murkowski, then Chairman of the Committee with Oversight of U.S. Territories, traveled to Saipan with Stayman to investigate.
SEN. FRANK MURKOWSKI (R-AK): How could we have in the United States working conditions like this under the U.S. flag?
ALLEN STAYMAN: We went to where a number of Bangladesh security guards were living.
SEN. FRANK MURKOWSKI (R-AK): A couple of them came out with a handful of checks and they said, “Can you help me? Help me. These checks are for my wages, but I can’t cash the checks. The checks are no good.” You begin to get the impression that this was a scam going on.
ALLEN STAYMAN: They showed us all of their bounced paychecks and described in great detail how difficult it was to live without any money, but that they still had to go to work. That they had borrowed money from friends and family to get these jobs. They went to work every day, and every time they tried to cash a paycheck, it bounced. And it was a very moving story.
INTERVIEWER: And nothing they can do about it.
ALLEN STAYMAN: Exactly.
SEN. FRANK MURKOWSKI (R-AK): It just was unacceptable. And I’m putting it mildly. Those working conditions were tough. I’ll never forget it.
BILL MOYERS: During the 1990’s, pressure mounted in Washington to bring the Marianas in line with U.S. law. The factory owners convinced the government in Saipan they needed some big-time lobbying. Once again, Jack Abramoff was the man. Critics called the faraway garment industry America’s biggest sweatshop. Abramoff set out to paint a different picture, promoting the Marianas to conservatives as a free-market Eden for maximizing profits. He began running all-expense paid tropical junkets for lawmakers, their staff, and conservative activists and journalists.
ALLEN STAYMAN: The first few times that these groups went out there, we asked for meetings, and we were simply blown off.
BILL MOYERS: Abramoff’s marquee guest was Tom DeLay. When DeLay, his wife, and daughter and Ed Buckham arrived to ring in the new year of 1998, DeLay praised Abramoff as “one of my closest and dearest friends.”
ALLEN STAYMAN: They were generally taken on a dog and pony show to one of the garment factories, where everything had been sanitized, and employers were there to monitor the workers and what they said.
BILL MOYERS: DeLay later told a Texas newspaper that contrary to reports that workers were being sexually exploited, he had interviewed them one ONE-on-one and found no such evidence. “It’s a beautiful island with beautiful people who are happy,” he said. Their first night, Abramoff and DeLay were hosted at a party thrown by Willie Tan, a Chinese textile tycoon who had paid the largest labor fine in U.S. history – $9 million for sweatshop conditions in his factories.
REP. TOM DELAY (R-TX): You represent everything that is good about what we are trying to do in America – and in leading the world in the free market system…
BILL MOYERS: But, DeLay warned his hosts, back in America, people wanted to spoil their deal: “You are up against the forces of big labor and the radical left. Stand firm. Resist evil. Remember that all truth and blessings emanate from our Creator.” Later that night, DeLay and Willie Tan went to a cockfight. When he returned to Washington, DeLay called the Marianas a “petri dish of capitalism” and denounced efforts to enforce U.S. laws. And at the weekly meetings of Grover Norquist’s conservative nerve center, a new item appeared on the agenda. Activists were now discussing not only Indian tribes, but the U.S. territory fourteen time zones away.
MICHAEL WALLER: I can’t say it with a straight face. Why Saipan would become a conservative issue was beyond so many of us. Now, to some of us, Saipan is a huge Chinese sweatshop. To those of us getting money from those Chinese sweatshop interests, Saipan was a wonderful experiment in free market and low taxes at work. Every time Grover Norquist would take an issue, if you map it, you can see how Abramoff had a client. And there’s a symbiosis there.
BILL MOYERS: Turning the Marianas into a conservative cause was crucial if Abramoff was to block the growing bipartisan consensus in Congress that U.S. minimum wage and immigration laws should be enforced in the islands.
Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources – March 31, 1998
SEN. FRANK MURKOWSKI (R-AK): Now, the purpose of this hearing is to consider legislation that would alter the federal laws applicable to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
BILL MOYERS: When Senator Murkowski convened hearings on reform legislation, Jack Abramoff and his lobbying team were there. And they had a plan. But just days before the session, Abramoff’s battle plan had been leaked.
SEN. FRANK MURKOWSKI (R-AK): It appears that we’ve got a good deal of media interest in the hearing today. I see one of the notes here, “Lobbying Upstages Marianas Hearings.”
BILL MOYERS: In the rare inside look at big time lobbying, Abramoff bragged he would work his Congressional connections “to impeach Allen Stayman” and “either defund or severely restrict” Stayman’s activities at the Interior Department.
ALLEN STAYMAN: It was a real eye-opener. The idea that they would go in and de-fund the reform program was particularly shocking.
INTERIOR SECRETARY BRUCE BABBITT: Mr. Stayman has been subjected to a massive campaign of intimidation, much of which is being orchestrated by the paid lobbyists for the government of the Northern Marianas.
SEN. FRANK MURKOWSKI (R-AK): We saw living conditions that simply should not exist in the United States of America.
BILL MOYERS: Murkowski’s reform bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent. That’s as far as it went.
SEN. FRANK MURKOWSKI (R-AK) at Hearing:…been induced to come to the Marianas, had not been paid.
SEN. FRANK MURKOWSKI (R-AK): Time went on, it went in a dry hole over in the House. We passed it again, and then nothing was done.
BILL MOYERS: Nothing was done because Jack Abramoff – and the Marianas’ garment industry – had Tom DeLay in their pockets. When Willie Tan met in Saipan with a human rights activist posing as a clothing buyer from New York, a hidden camera recorded their conversation. Tan was confident he had nothing to worry about.
WILLIE TAN: Because Tom DeLay will never let it go.
Q: You’re sure?
WILLIE TAN: Sure. You know what Tom told me? He said, “Willie, if they elect me the Majority Whip, I’ll make the schedule of the Congress. And I’m not going to put it on the schedule.” So Tom told me, “Forget it, Willie. No chance.”
BILL MOYERS: True to his word, DeLay made sure no bill that might threaten the fortunes of the sweatshop owners would ever be debated on the floor of the House. In the end, Abramoff billed the government of the Marianas for more than 200 contacts with DeLay and his staff and collected close to $8 million dollars in fees.
PAM BROWN: Mr. Abramoff is a carpetbagger. He walked away with a lot of money that didn’t need to be paid – that could have been used on the island. We’re begging for federal grants while we’re handing him the equal of a year’s worth of capital improvement projects, which are sorely needed there. And we paid a lot of money for nothing. Other than making sure the garment industry could continue to pay low wages.
BILL MOYERS: And Willie Tan, Abramoff’s sweatshop patron, would contribute $650,000 to DeLay’s “favorite non-profit,” the U.S. Family Network, with its stated mission of restoring America’s “moral fitness.”
BILL MOYERS: To increase his firepower as a lobbyist, Jack Abramoff opened a restaurant featuring $74 steaks just eight blocks from Capitol Hill. He called it Signatures for the signers of the Declaration of Independence displayed in the National Archives just across the street.
MONTY WARNER: Signatures was a place where everybody came for lunch. Members of Congress, lobbyists, CEOs, entertainment folks, everybody knew to go there. It just became sort of a scene. It was the place to hang out.
PETER SOLONO: They were there for lunch. They were there for sushi. They were there for dinner, bar. I’ve never seen so many politicians in one spot in my life. It was amazing.
BILL MOYERS: Signatures advertised “liberal portions in a conservative setting.” And, it turns out, a fair amount of those liberal portions were served free to some conservative members of Congress. In a typical message, Abramoff instructed his restaurant managers not to charge Tom DeLay, his wife, and four guests.
[Graphic –JACK ABRAMOFF: Table of 6. Put where I sit. Their meal is to be comped.]
PETER SOLONO: It’s very blatant. It’s very blatant. I mean, I’ve had some servers chastised for handing a check to certain people because it’s just not done. And how are they to know that a guest doesn’t get a check without being told ahead of time?
BILL MOYERS: So the restaurant kept a customer list of Washington VIPs like Karl Rove. Handwritten notes show who was an “F-O-O” or “Friend of Owner.” Besides DeLay, other powerful Republican members dined on Abramoff’s tab – including Representative Bob Ney. House rules are clear on this: a member cannot accept anything worth more than $50 from a lobbyist.
PETER SOLONO: We had the clientele and the business, but because of all the comps and the, “Buy him dinner, buy him dinner,” just for the sake of it, I think our comps outweighed our profits on a monthly basis.
BILL MOYERS: Abramoff was feeding the political machine – literally.
PETER SOLONO: I made a lot of friends there. I got to know a lot of politicians first-hand. But overall, it’s just amazing how it’s “take, take, take,” and not pay.
BILL MOYERS: Wining and dining was not all. K Street also loves the junket. And globe-trotting excursions are something members of Congress, like Tom DeLay, have come to expect.
JEFFREY SMITH: Somebody said about Tom DeLay that he wasn’t a man of great personal wealth, but he lived the life of a rock star. I said, “What do you mean?” And they said, “Well, like he travels on the record label’s money.”
BILL MOYERS: It was a lifestyle his constituents back in Sugar Land, Texas might find hard to imagine.
JEFFREY SMITH: Lots of golf trips. Lots of vacations spots. And who’s picking up the tab for this? Lobbyists are always picking up the tab. The corporations are flying him around on their private jet. They’re paying for this rock star’s travel and for his high living.
St. Andrews, Scotland
BILL MOYERS: Over the Memorial Day holiday in May, 2000, Jack Abramoff was the lobbyist who arranged for DeLay, his wife and two close advisers to head for the famed St. Andrews course in Scotland on a golfing vacation. On his official report, DeLay listed the purpose of the trip as “educational.” It was an expensive education. The group’s greens fees exceeded $5000 a day. At their stopover in London, Abramoff nabbed the best tickets to one of the hottest plays and arranged for DeLay and his wife to stay in a room at the Four Seasons that cost almost $800 a night. He charged their business class air tickets to his own American Express card.
JEFFREY SMITH: Here you had the most powerful man in the House of Representatives, and he was taking money directly from a lobbyist. A lobbyist was paying his travel tab.
BILL MOYERS: DeLay’s official report also names the conservative non-profit National Center for Public Policy Research as the trip’s sponsor. Sounds innocent enough until you learn this pro-business outfit was run by another Abramoff pal from College Republican days and that Abramoff himself was on the board. He told one colleague that the center:
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: …can direct money at our discretion, anywhere if you know what I mean.
BILL MOYERS: It provided just the kind of cover Abramoff needed to sponsor trips that Congressional rules prohibited him paying for. And on the very day DeLay flew to Scotland, two of his clients, who were trying to stop Congress from outlawing Internet gambling, sent the non-profit $25,000 each.
JEFFREY SMITH: Put yourself in the mind of a lobbyist. And what you want to do is you want to have an influence on legislation, and you know that money helps you have that influence, and so you want to figure out a way to get money to a lawmaker without people knowing about it. Well, Abramoff was good at that, he was really good at that. We were not supposed to be able to catch on. We were not supposed to be able to figure out that this money came from this client and was used to influence this vote. That’s the objective.
BILL MOYERS: Two months after they returned from Scotland, Tom DeLay saw to it that the bill opposed by Abramoff’s clients died in the House of Representatives.
U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs – Sept. 29, 2004
SEN. KENT CONRAD (D-ND): Who did Mr. Abramoff say to you that he had special influence with, if anyone, here in Washington?
BERNIE SPRAGUE (Subchief, Saginaw Chippewa Tribe): The guy, the Senator’s name was… oh yes, it was Representative Thomas DeLay. He was very powerful, and with Jack having access to this guy, he was going to be able to do a lot of things for our tribe.
SEN. KENT CONRAD (D-ND): So Mr. Abramoff was making representations to the tribe that he had special influence with Representative Tom DeLay. Is that correct?
BERNIE SPRAGUE (Subchief, Saginaw Chippewa Tribe): That is correct.
BILL MOYERS: When George W. Bush was elected President, he played a “victory round” with his fellow Texan. “We have the House. We have the Senate. We have the White House,” Tom DeLay declared. “Which means we have the agenda.” And number one on his agenda was a project to keep Republicans in power – permanently. And the old College Republican troika of Jack Abramoff, Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed was also flying high. Abramoff had been a major fundraiser for Bush. He and his wife also made a big contribution to the Florida recount fund. Reed raised more, at least $100,000. And that made him an elite Bush “pioneer.” Abramoff leaned on Reed to get him appointed to the transition team preparing to take over the Interior Department – the government agency that had power over his biggest clients – the Marianas and Indian tribes.
Email from JACK ABRAMOFF: : This would be really key for future clients for both of us. Let’s discuss.
BILL MOYERS: Reed got the point; Abramoff asked for more. He wanted his man appointed to Allen Stayman’s old job overseeing the Marianas.
[Graphic – JACK ABRAMOFF: Do you think we could get this favor from Karl? It would be my big ask for sure.]
BILL MOYERS: A “big ask” from Karl Rove, the new president’s closest adviser.
PETER STONE: Reed responds, it never hurts to try. “What’s the next move?” I believe were his words. Later that day, Reed writes Jack back full of energy and enthusiasm.
[Graphic – RALPH REED: Just let me know who to call, when to call and what to say. And while you’re at it, get me another client! NOW!]
PETER STONE: So Reed is fully into the mercenary spirit here, it appears.
BILL MOYERS: Going back to College Republican days, Grover Norquist also had ties with Rove. Over the next five years, he would log almost one hundred meetings inside the White House – some with guests he invited.
LOU DUBOSE: George Bush was still trying to find out where the linen closets were in the White House, and Grover Norquist suddenly, he’s holding fundraisers in the White House. That’s our White House, right?
BILL MOYERS: Abramoff told his Choctaw clients that Norquist would be: Email from
JACK ABRAMOFF: …launching a new anti-tax campaign… and have asked whether Choctaw could underwrite $25K of this.
BILL MOYERS: Twenty-four hours later, he writes Norquist:
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: Grover, Here is the first of the checks for the tax event at the White House. I’ll have another $25K shortly.
LOU DUBOSE: He’s charging $25,000 a head for American Indians and other legislators to fly to Washington and to have face time with the President.
BILL MOYERS: Abramoff also forwarded an invitation from Norquist to another tribe – the Coushatta of Louisiana, a new casino-rich client:
E-mail from GROVER NORQUIST: We would be honored if a representative for the Coushatta Tribe and you could come to the White House meeting…
BILL MOYERS: The Coushatta cut a check for $25,000. Lou Dubose found it in the tribe’s files.
LOU DUBOSE: And there is a canceled check for $25,000 from Americans for Tax Reform. The chief said he never went. I called Americans for Tax Reform. They said it never happened. But I had the check in hand, and ultimately, they said, “Maybe it did happen, but it’s not what it seemed to be.”
BILL MOYERS: In fact, on May 9, 2001, at least four of Abramoff’s clients met with President Bush. They included Willie Tan’s right-hand man from the Marianas, Ben Fitial. The Coushatta chairman was there, as was a member of another Louisiana tribe. So was the chairman of the Kickapoo. Standing against a wall watching the action was one of the biggest rainmakers on K Street.
U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs – Sept. 29, 2004
SEN. BYRON DORGAN (D-ND): Why would a tribe be making a donation to Americans for Tax Reform?
BERNIE SPRAGUE (Subchief, Saginaw Chippewa Tribe): Because Mr. Abramoff suggested that we make these donations to these various groups and organizations.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN (D-ND): Because it would be helpful to you?
BERNIE SPRAGUE (Subchief, Saginaw Chippewa Tribe): Because they help us.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN (D-ND): They would help you?
BERNIE SPRAGUE (Subchief, Saginaw Chippewa Tribe): Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Jack Abramoff’s fortunes soared. But some at his lobbying firm were getting nervous. After a partner warned that if he didn’t clean up his act, the lobbyist would wind up “dead, disgraced or in jail,” Abramoff moved on to a company called Greenberg Traurig. The Miami-based law firm was hot; one of its senior partners had helped the Bush campaign in its legal battles in Florida in 2000. The team that Abramoff pulled together included seven former top aides to lawmakers – two from DeLay’s office. Working for Abramoff, they could more than double their salaries.
MONTY WARNER: He had guys who were poor, smart, and hungry, and they wanted to be up there, they wanted to be part of a team that was doing something innovative and different. And that’s why everybody loved him, and everybody wanted to work for him.
BILL MOYERS: “Everybody” included Mike Scanlon, Abramoff’s big catch. DeLay’s press secretary was 29 years old and still paying off student loans when he moved from Capitol Hill to hook up with Abramoff. During one of their racquetball games in the spring of 2001, Abramoff and Scanlon hatched a secret kickback scheme. Abramoff would have his clients hire Scanlon’s new public relations firm. Scanlon would charge them far beyond what it would really cost to do the work he promised. And the two would then split the windfall.
JACK ABRAMOFF: How much came in? Tons I hope! 🙂
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: How much came in? Tons I hope! 🙂
E-mail from MIKE SCANLON: Its pretty good 1.5 mil.
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: Ooocha!! So let me see, that’s 700K for each of us and 100K for the effort?
BILL MOYERS: In other words, $100,000 for the actual work and $1.4 million to secretly split between them. E-mail from SCANLON: Not bad:):):)
BILL MOYERS: They nicknamed their scheme “Give Me Five.”
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: By the way, you are a total stud on this effort.
E-mail from MIKE SCANLON: Thanks – I’m having a great time running the give me fives!
BILL MOYERS: The star lobbyist coached his young partner:
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: The key thing to remember with all these clients is that they are annoying, but that the annoying losers are the only ones which have this kind of money and part with it so quickly.
BILL MOYERS: Abramoff would refer to their tribal clients as “morons,” “troglodytes,” “mofos (who) are the stupidest idiots in the land.” U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs – Sept. 29, 2004
SEN. BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL (R-CO): You and Mr. Scanlon referred to tribes as “moron,” “stupid idiots,” “monkeys,” “troglodytes,” which you define as a “lower form of existence,” and “losers.” Why would you want to work for people if you have that much contempt for them?
JACK ABRAMOFF: I respectfully invoke the privileges stated, sir. Kinder, Louisiana
BILL MOYERS: Once upon a time, the Coushatta tribe of Louisiana had subsisted, in part, on pine needle weaving. Then they struck gold with a casino built on farmland between New Orleans and Houston, and each of their 800 members began receiving stipends of $40,000 a year. But in 2001, their casino compact with Louisiana needed a renewed blessing by the Interior Department in Washington. Jack Abramoff and Mike Scanlon came calling.
WILLIAM WORFEL: Jack Abramoff, the first time I met him, he came to a council meeting. Him and Mike Scanlon. Jack was sharp dressed, smooth. And Mike was sharper. Mike was flashy; he was the flashy type.
BILL MOYERS: At their first meeting with the tribal council, the two talked of their success with other Indian clients.
BERTNEY LANGLEY (Secretary-Treasurer, Coushatta Tribal Council, 1999-2003): When they would come here, they were your best friend. They were appreciating your culture and your tradition, and saying that you’re doing a great job for your people and everything.
WILLIAM WORFEL: Jack went to telling us that he understood our cause because he was a Jew, and his people had been, you know, took advantage of, been mistreated, so he understood. Threw a good pitch there.
BILL MOYERS: First off, Abramoff suggested the tribe contribute to one of Tom DeLay’s golf fundraisers. He said they needed some “real stroke” in Washington, because threats to the tribe’s gaming interests were everywhere. That was especially true next door in Texas. Folks from Houston could follow the billboards along Interstate-10 to the Coushatta gambling palace less than an hour across the Louisiana Border. But, Abramoff told the Coushatta, Texas was just “one vote away” from allowing a new casino to open close to Houston.
WILLIAM WORFEL: You never know! And we wasn’t familiar with all the laws in Texas. That’s why we hired experts, so-called experts. Professional people.
BILL MOYERS: Abramoff and Scanlon promised the tribe they could get gambling outlawed in Texas. They didn’t mention that the Texas Attorney General had already filed suit to do just that.
BERTNEY LANGLEY (Secretary-Treasurer, Coushatta Tribal Council,1999-2003):Abramoff was able to convince some people in the council that if we didn’t do this, our whole casino would be shut down and we would hurt our people.
BILL MOYERS: Scanlon told Abramoff:
E-mail from MIKE SCANLON: Coushatta is an absolute cake walk. Your cut on the project as proposed is at least 800K.
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: How can I say this strongly enough: YOU IZ DA MAN.
BILL MOYERS: On the Coushatta’s tab, Casino Jack once again turned to Ralph Reed. The “Right Hand of God” was just the one Abramoff needed to stir up Texas Christians against gambling in the Lone Star State. Mike Scanlon told the Coushatta that paying Reed was crucial:
Memo from MIKE SCANLON: Simply put we want to bring out the wackos …The wackos get their information from the Christian right, Christian radio, the internet, and telephone trees.
BILL MOYERS: “I do guerrilla warfare,” Reed once said of his political tactics. “I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag.” In Texas, his weapons included bogus Christian front groups.
SUZII PAYNTER: It had the earmarks of guerrilla activity, not from a do-gooder faith, commitment perspective, but all the earmarks of just big corporate business and how they operate when they decide to try to smash something.
BILL MOYERS: Reed’s e-mails to Abramoff were insistent – he needed money and he needed it now. At one point, Abramoff responded:
JACK ABRAMOFF: Give me a number.
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: Give me a number. RALPH REED: $225K a week for TV; $450K for two weeks of TV.
E-mail from RALPH REED: $225K a week for TV; $450K for two weeks of TV.
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: Ralph, they are going to faint when they see these numbers.
BILL MOYERS: But Reed claimed he was worth it:
E-mail from RALPH REED: We have over 50 pastors mobilized, with a total membership in those churches of over 40,000…
MARVIN OLASKY: We have one of our reporters based in Dallas who did a lot of calling around and just asking pastors, “Well, were you involved in this?” And lo and behold, no one was.
BILL MOYERS: Marvin Olasky is editor-in-chief of WORLD, the leading national journal of the evangelical right. The magazine spent seven months investigating Reed’s involvement with Abramoff.
MARVIN OLASKY: There was a lot of fooling going on — that Abramoff, in a way, was manipulating Ralph Reed, Ralph Reed was manipulating others, but perhaps Ralph Reed was manipulating Abramoff and saying, “I’m accomplishing these things,” whereas he wasn’t. So, you know, there were millions of dollars changing hands, there were actually hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in this whole thing.
LOU DUBOSE: You know, there’s something ironic and amusing in all that, is that while Abramoff was shaking down these Indians, it’s quite possible that Ralph Reed was shaking down Jack Abramoff.
BILL MOYERS: They were now turning on each other. When Mike Scanlon quizzed his partner:
E-mail from MIKE SCANLON: Did Ralph spend all the money he was given to fight this – or does he have some left?
BILL MOYERS: Abramoff answered:
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: That’s a silly question! He would NEVER admit he has money left over. Would we?
E-mail from MIKE SCANLON: No – but…
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: He is a bad version of us! No more money for him.
SUZII PAYNTER: You know, I think when I read that phrase about Ralph Reed, that he’s “a bad version of us,” I’ve got to tell you my heart hurt. That you could really just disregard the values and the rules that you’ve played by. And for what? We all come to the edge of that shore at some point in our lives and have to ask ourselves, “Am I going to step over that?” And for what? For money? For, you know, raking off money for my own political gains or whatever. That’s what it said to me, that Ralph Reed had stepped across some kind of moral line – even Jack Abramoff would say he’s a bad version of ourselves.
El Paso, Texas
BILL MOYERS: At the far western end of the long highway that is Interstate-10 in Texas, the Tigua Indians of El Paso operated one of only two casinos in the state. Its profits had lifted the tribe out of poverty. But when the authorities did succeed in outlawing casino gambling in Texas, Jack Abramoff saw the unsuspecting Tigua as yet another opportunity. He e-mailed Mike Scanlon:
JACK ABRAMOFF: I’m on the phone with Tigua! Fire up the jet baby, we’re going to El Paso!!
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: I’m on the phone with Tigua! Fire up the jet baby, we’re going to El Paso!! MIKE SCANLON: I want all their MONEY!!!
E-mail from MIKE SCANLON: I want all their MONEY!!!
MIKE SCANLON: This is on the front page of today’s paper while they will be voting on our plan!
BILL MOYERS: In El Paso, Abramoff assured the Tigua that using his connections in Washington, he could get their casino re-opened. He would work pro bono, but on the condition that the tribe hire Scanlon’s PR firm for grassroots support. Abramoff did not tell them he and Scanlon were secret partners or that they had just been paid millions by the Louisiana Coushatta to close down casinos in Texas. The very day the Tigua tribal council met to vote on Abramoff’s proposal, an El Paso newspaper featured a story about the tribe’s dire straits. Mike Scanlon read the report of the tribe’s misfortune as good fortune for the “Gimme Five” scheme.
E-mail from MIKE SCANLON: This is on the front page of today’s paper while they will be voting on our plan!
JACK ABRAMOFF: Is life great or what!!
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: Is life great or what!!
BILL MOYERS: As the first order of business, Abramoff handed the Tigua a list of contributions they must make to a collection of political action committees with hi-falutin’ names: Tom DeLay’s
ARMPAC, “Rely On Your Beliefs” PAC, “Friends of the Big Sky” PAC, and on and on – a total of $300,000. That was just the beginning.
U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs – Nov. 17, 2004
SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): Are tribal members familiar with the Rely On Your Beliefs Funds, or perhaps the Missouri Millennium Fund, or Restore America PAC or Friends of the Big Sky?
CARLOS HISA (Lieutenant Governor, Tigua Tribe): Those contributions were recommended by Jack Abramoff to generate the support to get our bill passed.
CARLOS HISA (Lieutenant Governor, Tigua Tribe): Those contributions were recommended by Jack Abramoff to generate the support to get our bill passed.
SEN. BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL (R-CO): I haven’t seen that list, but as Senator McCain read some of the names of those things, it’s like the Association of God-Fearing Citizens. Who’s that? Did some of these names ring a bell, or did you ask, who are these people that we’re being asked to contribute to?
SEN. BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL (R-CO): If the Senator will yield a moment. I haven’t seen that list, but as Senator McCain read some of the names of those things, it’s like the Association of God-Fearing Citizens. Who’s that? Did some of these names ring a bell, or did you ask, who are these people that we’re being asked to contribute to?
CARLOS HISA: No, I never asked.
CARLOS HISA (Lieutenant Governor, Tigua Tribe): No, I never asked.
SEN. NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL: You took Abramoff’s word at face value that it was something good?
SEN. NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL : You took Abramoff’s word at face value that it was something good?
CARLOS HISA: Yes.
CARLOS HISA (Lieutenant Governor, Tigua Tribe): Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Abramoff’s strategy was to hide language that would re-open the Tigua casino in an unrelated bill already moving through Congress. He e-mailed his team:
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: It will start in the Senate and we’ll protect it in the house.
BILL MOYERS: In the House, Abramoff turned to one of the lawmakers his team called its “champions” – Congressman Bob Ney, the influential Republican chairman of a key committee. Abramoff sent Scanlon the news:
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: Just met with Ney!!! We’re f’ing gold!!!! He’s going to do Tigua.
BILL MOYERS: In other words, Ney had agreed to slip the Tigua provision into a bill called the “Help America Vote” Act – touted as a way to clean up elections. Just six days after the meeting with Ney, Abramoff directed checks totaling $32,000 to be written to the Congressman’s campaign accounts.
JACK ABRAMOFF: Please get us the following checks for him asap: Bob Ney for Congress – $2,000, American Liberty PAC – Federal – $5,000, American Liberty PAC – non-Federal – $25,000.
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: Please get us the following checks for him ASAP: Bob Ney for Congress – $2,000, American Liberty PAC – Federal – $5,000.
MONTY WARNER: You know, I’m sure that there is an understanding, or was an understanding back then, that I help you, and I need you to raise 20 grand for me or 15 grand for me or have someone do a fundraiser for me. And let’s be honest, I mean some of the people in Congress, this is the best job they’re ever going to have, so they’re not leaving any time soon. And so that requires money and lobbyists who have the ability to raise it and pull it together.
BILL MOYERS: Casino Jack was relentless. He soon pressed the Tigua for money for another golf outing in Scotland.
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: Our friend…
BILL MOYERS: That is Congressman Ney.
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: …asked if we could help (as in cover) a Scotland golf trip for him and some staff and members for August. (we did this for another member – you know who).
BILL MOYERS: That was Tom DeLay.
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: I anticipate that the total cost would be around $100K or more.
BILL MOYERS: But the Tiguas were being strung along. Abramoff had told them the Democrat managing the bill in the Senate, Chris Dodd, would work with Ney. But when Ney finally mentioned the Tigua language to Dodd, the Senator flatly refused to include it.
JACK ABRAMOFF: I just spoke with Ney. Dodd looked at him like a “deer in the headlights” and said he has never made such a commitment.
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: I just spoke with Ney. Dodd looked at him like a “deer in the headlights” and said he has never made such a commitment.
BILL MOYERS: The plot had fallen apart. But no one told the Tiguas, even though the tribe was helping finance the golf junket as Abramoff had requested. A week later, Congressman Ney and two members of his staff were among the passengers posing in front of the private Gulfstream jet Abramoff had chartered to fly them to Scotland. Ralph Reed was there, too.
BILL MOYERS: They headed straight for the links. On his official disclosure, Ney said that the purpose of the trip was to give “a speech to Scottish Parliamentarians.” But the itinerary shows no such plans. Maybe because the Scottish Parliament was not in session.
BILL MOYERS: Just days after they returned from the junket, Abramoff arranged a meeting between Tigua tribal leaders and Congressman Ney. “He was red like a lobster from that Scotland trip,” one of them said. Ney told them, “You’re working with the right guy” in Jack Abramoff.
LOU DUBOSE: These guys are flying to Scotland on the tab of American Indians while they’re deceiving them about a bill that they’re never going to have passed.
BILL MOYERS: It would be two more months before the tribe learned their casino would not be re-opened.
LOU DUBOSE: It’s one of the most shameless episodes in American political history.
BILL MOYERS: Today, the Tigua casino is a struggling night club, with a couple hundred video slots that pay off in stuffed animals. The tribal government has cut back programs and services. The annual stipends and insurance coverage are gone. Median income has dropped to $8,000 a year.
U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs – Nov. 17, 2004
SEN. KENT CONRAD (D-ND): What was your reaction when you learned that you had paid the man who had worked to close your casino?
CARLOS HISA (Lieutenant Governor, Tigua Tribe): Outrage. A rattlesnake will warn you before it strikes. We had no warning. They did everything behind our back.
BILL MOYERS: In Washington, Abramoff had transformed a midsized lobbying practice at Greenberg Traurig into one of K Street’s top cash cows. His tribal clients paid an average of $6 million dollars a year in fees to the firm. They were also major donors to Tom DeLay’s Republican Majority Project. And that wasn’t all. Abramoff was also secretly funding DeLay’s political machine through the U.S. Family Network – the non-profit that owned the house with the red door. The group’s tax returns, which we obtained, make clear that almost all of its $3 million dollar-plus income came from Abramoff’s clients. They included not only casino owners and sweatshop tycoons but some Russian oligarchs, as well.
BILL MOYERS: In the mid-1990s, Russia was like something out of the Wild West.
MICHAEL WALLER: These Russian gangster capitalists had a lot of money, and they didn’t care which political party they got involved with. Whether — when it was the Democrats running the White House, they did it with the Democrats, and when they wanted to work with the Republicans in Congress, then they’d buy a Republican, or rent a Republican here and there.
BILL MOYERS: A plum ripe for Abramoff’s picking. This time, he registered as a lobbyist for a mysterious company based in the Bahamas connected to a Russian oil and gas giant called Naftasib.
MICHAEL WALLER: A lot of people were happy to represent Russian interests, and there was no reason to hide it. It wasn’t like before, you were working for the KGB or something and you had to hide this. So these other lobbyists for Russian interests all registered as lobbyists for Russia. Except Abramoff registered as a lobbyist of the Bahamas. Why would you — why conceal that?
JEFFREY SMITH: Abramoff knows the answer to this obviously, but he won’t tell us. We can only say what we’ve heard from others. And that is that Abramoff really thought that these clients in Russia, Russian oil business would be the doorway for him to a whole new revenue stream.
BILL MOYERS: Naftasib – with its headquarters in this unmarked building in the heart of Moscow – was a major supplier to the Russian military. It also advertised the close ties between its Vice President and Russian military intelligence.
MICHAEL WALLER: So, here you have an instructor at Russian Military Intelligence Academy who is one of the top two people in a very sketchy, deceptive-looking, influence operation in Washington where it’s hiring people to identify lawmakers and staffers for free trips to Russia, in hotels that were still equipped the way the KGB had always equipped the hotels. This is not an educational exchange program. This is not a pure person-to-person, understanding-type program. This is potentially a very serious operation.
BILL MOYERS: On the fifth of August, 1997, Tom DeLay and Ed Buckham, DeLay’s Chief of Staff who had recently set up the U.S. Family Network, left for a six-day visit to Moscow. Abramoff joined them there. DeLay’s official report claimed the trip was sponsored by the very same non-profit that paid for his golf vacation in Scotland. In Russia, they were hosted at a lavish dinner and shown around town by the two top Naftasib executives.
JEFFREY SMITH: The oil executives were excited at the possibility that Tom DeLay could help open doors for them in Washington, and they wanted to reward him in some way, and so they asked a colleague of Abramoff’s, you know, what would happen if the DeLays woke up one day and found a luxurious car, like a BMW or a Mercedes on their driveway. And the colleague of Abramoff said, “Well, that would be illegal. This shows a motive and desire by the Russians to reward the DeLays in one way or another for work that they expected him to do for them.
BILL MOYERS: Nine months later, the U.S. Family Network received a wire transfer from a London law firm, now defunct, that the Washington Post has connected to the Naftasib bosses. The amount: one million dollars. Pastor Chris Geeslin questioned Ed Buckham.
REV. CHRIS GEESLIN: He kind of looked at me with some disdain, and he said, “You know where the large money has come from, don’t you?” And I said, “No, I have no idea.” And he said, “Well let me tell you, this is how it works in Washington.” He said, “That money came from Russian oil barons.” And I, you know, I just couldn’t believe it.
BILL MOYERS: One million dollars was an astounding sum. But consider the timing: it arrived just as Washington was beginning to debate legislation critical to Russia and its collapsing economy. Congress was being asked to resupply the International Monetary Fund, the I.M.F., with taxpayer money that would be used to help bail out the Russian economy and oligarchs like the Naftasib bosses.
REV. CHRIS GEESLIN: Then you wonder, “Well, why in the world did they give that money?” I mean, obviously, they did not believe in the pro-family values that we’re talking about. And what did they want from that money? Okay. Was it this IMF vote? You know, obviously, they didn’t just give it. They gave it for some reason.
BILL MOYERS: Long a critic of the IMF, Tom DeLay had disparaged the pending legislation. “The IMF is bailing out the bankrupt,” he said. But by the time the vote came, he had a change of heart and supported the legislation he had scorned.
REV. CHRIS GEESLIN: Did they buy a vote for that money? That is public corruption and that’s wrong.
BILL MOYERS: “Tom DeLay has never taken an official act,” his attorney told The Washington Post, “that was not based on his strongly held principles.”
BILL MOYERS: With Jack Abramoff’s help, DeLay, Incorporated, as his money machine was known, was mining K Street for gold.
JEFFREY SMITH: It was like there was a giant machine. At one end, it vacuumed the pocket of corporations and lobbyists in town, and out of the other end of the machine came legislation that was favorable to their interests, that ensured that they were protected, or that they had tax breaks or whatever. And the man in the center, controlling all the knobs and levers was Tom DeLay.
BILL MOYERS: At least twenty-nine former DeLay aides had moved to K Street, where they continued as part of his power network. Their access made many of them millionaires, while contributions from corporate giants in energy, finance and technology, from the largest health care and pharmaceutical companies, made sure DeLay’s Republican Majority Project never wanted for cash.
JEFFREY SMITH: He was really quite open about saying that, “If you want my ear, if you want access to me, if you expect to get a hearing for your causes in my office, you have got to pay money to these political action committees, or to contribute to other Republicans, or to Republican causes generally.” He was extremely open about that. And I think he thought of this as a perfectly appropriate way of doing business. It was a way of ensuring that the Republicans kept their majority in Congress, and it was a way of making people he regarded as constituents of the party in power, a way of keeping them happy.
Hot Springs, Virginia
BILL MOYERS: Here’s one way DeLay worked it. When he hosted a golf tournament at the Homestead Resort in Virginia, the corporate executives who paid to play could make their $25,000 checks out to a new branch of DeLay’s political machine – this one known as TRMPAC: Texans for a Republican Majority.
R.G. RATCLIFFE: And the concept was it was going to work with other Republican-oriented business groups in Texas to knock off a bunch of Democratic incumbents, and take over the Texas House of Representatives for the Republican Party for the first time in over 100 years.
BILL MOYERS: Much of the money to finance the attempted takeover of the Texas Legislature would come from donors with no interest in Texas, but big reasons to keep Tom DeLay happy in Washington. So the Homestead fundraiser, for example, was scheduled during negotiations on a huge energy bill.
R.G. RATCLIFFE: It was within days of the conference committee meeting on the energy legislation, and Tom DeLay was on that conference committee.
BILL MOYERS: A Kansas utility, Westar, had several billion dollars riding on getting a provision into the bill. One Westar executive questioned why the company was giving tens of thousands of dollars to a Texas political action committee.
E-mail – ACTOR: DeLay is from Texas – what is our connection?
R.G. RATCLIFFE: And the answer was, “Well, because we want this bill in Congress, and we need Tom DeLay’s support on this bill, and so we’ve got to give to this Texas committee that he likes.”
LOU DUBOSE: Westar is shaken down for $25,000 to contribute to Tom DeLay. Westar is a Kansas utility. It ain’t in Texas.
R.G. RATCLIFFE: Definitely the people giving money thought they had to give money to get close to Tom DeLay.
BILL MOYERS: That money greased DeLay’s Republican Majority Project. In Texas, Republicans did take control of the state legislature and re-drew, gerrymandered, the state’s congressional districts. That meant a near certainty that Republican seats would be added to DeLay’s majority in the House of Representatives in Washington.
College Republican National Committee Convention – July 25, 2003 Washington, DC
JACK ABRAMOFF: Never before has an individual who has been steadfast to our principles risen as high as Tom DeLay.
LOU DUBOSE: They moved money in circles, and the circles moved. Money went from Abramoff, who would order – he would send out directives, saying, “Cancel this $20,000 check to this PAC and move it to this PAC.” DeLay would say, “I don’t want – I don’t want this money sent to TRMPAC. Return it, tell the Indians to return it and to move it to this PAC.” It was an enormous money laundering scheme.
JACK ABRAMOFF: I’ll just add one more piece to it because I think we really need to hear from Mr. DeLay. But Tom DeLay is who all of us want to be when we grow up.
BILL MOYERS: Far from K Street, trouble was brewing for Jack Abramoff. In Louisiana, the Coushatta tribal council had shut out Bertney Langley when he began to question how much the tribe had been paying Abramoff and Scanlon.
BERTNEY LANGLEY (Secretary-Treasurer, Coushatta Tribal Council, 1999-2003): I was saying, “These figures don’t match.” And I said, “There are no documentation for some of the fees that we’re paying out.”
LOU DUBOSE: Bert Langley smelled a rat, and it was a big one.
BILL MOYERS: Langley insisted on an audit.
BERTNEY LANGLEY (Secretary-Treasurer, Coushatta Tribal Council, 1999-2003): I said, “You’re the CFO, I’m the Secretary-Treasurer of this tribe.” I said, “One day, if something comes out of this, we’ll be in trouble because we didn’t do our part to protect the tribe.”
LOU DUBOSE: And then when he got his audit, he knew something was wrong.
INTERVIEWER: Roughly, the number?
BERTNEY LANGLEY (Secretary-Treasurer, Coushatta Tribal Council, 1999-2003): About 32 million.
INTERVIEWER: How much?
BERTNEY LANGLEY (Secretary-Treasurer, Coushatta Tribal Council, 1999-2003): Thirty-two million. I almost fell out of my chair when I read that.
LOU DUBOSE: This is a scheme that unraveled because of a couple of genuine American heroes. And Bert Langley is one of them.
BILL MOYERS: When the audit leaked to a small Louisiana newspaper, the word was out: the Coushatta had paid more than any other tribe into the “Gimme Five” scam.
BERTNEY LANGLEY (Secretary-Treasurer, Coushatta Tribal Council, 1999-2003): I’m sure if the papers hadn’t gotten a hold of this memo, it would have been swept under the rug. Nothing would have taken pace.
BILL MOYERS: On Sunday morning, February 22nd, 2004, the capital awoke to a front-page headline in The Washington Post. Abramoff and Scanlon had been paid at least $45 million, the story reported, in a secret scheme to defraud four Indian tribes. Abramoff’s team sent e-mails flying.
E-mail from KEVIN RING: Now what do you think of my partner Jack? Not too shady, eh?
E-mail from MATT DEMAZZA: So are these redskins just blindly paying these exorbitant fees largely based on Jack’s PAST successes?
E-mail from KEVIN RING: He talks tribes into hiring Scanlon.
E-mail from MATT DEMAZZA: That’s what I gathered from the story.
E-mail from strong>KEVIN RING: I know more than the article and the truth is worse.
BILL MOYERS: Abramoff scrambled. He wrote one client:
E-mail from JACK ABRAMOFF: …this hit piece was in yesterday’s Post. The reporter was a real racist and bigot.
WILLIAM WORFEL: He’s kind of panicking, you know, you could tell. Jack would call me four or five times a day; he’d never called me that much, and finally when my phone would ring, I’d answer, like I would say, “Hello?” Like I said, “I can’t hear you.” You know, “I’m in a bad service area.” But I could hear him. That was just the way to get him off. You know, I said, it works good. You ever run into something like that, you don’t want to talk, you say, “I can’t hear you, you know, I’m in a bad area.” So he kept calling. Then he would leave me voicemails, voicemails for about ten days that went on, just every day called, and I just quit answering. So finally I had to get a new cell phone.
U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs – Nov. 17, 2004
SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon preyed upon the tribe and its members when they were most vulnerable. They played upon their hopes and fears. They went to El Paso selling salvation and instead delivered snake oil.
BILL MOYERS: It was snake oil sold with claims of some very high-powered connections.
SEN. KENT CONRAD (D-ND): Did Mr. Scanlon ever suggest that he had special influence here in Washington as a reason to pay him that much money?
CARLOS HISA (Lieutenant Governor, Tigua Tribe): Yes.
SEN. KENT CONRAD (D-ND): And, in what way did he indicate that he had special influence?
CARLOS HISA (Lieutenant Governor, Tigua Tribe): He used to work, I believe, with Tom DeLay.
SEN. KENT CONRAD (D-ND): Did he say that to you?
CARLOS HISA (Lieutenant Governor, Tigua Tribe): Yes. He did.
SEN. KENT CONRAD (D-ND): What representation did he make as to what special influence he might have with Mr. DeLay?
CARLOS HISA (Lieutenant Governor, Tigua Tribe): That’s all he said. He had special interest and that he would try to convince him to work in our benefit, try to get us open. And others as well, and using DeLay’s credibility to contact and get to other representatives.
SEN. KENT CONRAD (D-ND): Did Mr. Abramoff ever suggest that he had special influence with anyone here in Washington, DC?
CARLOS HISA (Lieutenant Governor, Tigua Tribe): Yes.
SEN. KENT CONRAD (D-ND): He did as well?
CARLOS HISA (Lieutenant Governor, Tigua Tribe): Yes, sir.
SEN. KENT CONRAD (D-ND): Who did he say that he had special influence with?
CARLOS HISA (Lieutenant Governor, Tigua Tribe): A majority of people, from Bob Ney all the way to the President of the United States of America.
SEN. KENT CONRAD (D-ND): He suggested he had special influence with the President of the United States?
CARLOS HISA (Lieutenant Governor, Tigua Tribe): Yes.
BILL MOYERS: In the fall of 2004, even as the Senate hearings were unveiling a story of front groups, secret kickbacks and political payoffs, DeLay’s Republican majority was beginning to look pretty permanent. Five Democrats were ousted from gerrymandered Texas districts and five Republicans replaced them in the House of Representatives in Washington.
BILL MOYERS: But an attorney in the Austin office of Texans for Public Justice also smelled a rat.
CRAIG McDONALD: Chris Feldman had the bright idea to go to the IRS site and just searching around for whatever he could find, and he came across a filing from TRMPAC at the IRS.
BILL MOYERS: The Texas PAC had reported to the Texas authorities, as required by state law, but federal law also required that it report to the IRS.
CRAIG McDONALD: He opened up that filing and lo and behold, what fell out was twenty-seven corporate donors that were not in the Texas database, that is, had never been disclosed to the Texas regulatory authorities. Twenty-seven donors who had given approximately $600,000.
BILL MOYERS: For a century, it has been illegal to spend corporate money on elections in Texas.
R.G. RATCLIFFE: They took for granted that they could raise corporate money, and spend corporate money on just about anything they wanted to.
BILL MOYERS: Once the attorney discovered the corporate contributions and what looked like two sets of books, he started searching for how the corporate money had been spent. And he found:
CRAIG McDONALD: This check. Republican National State Elections Committee in the amount of $190,000. This is the largest expenditure, if you will, that was hidden from public view.
BILL MOYERS: There was a back story to that hidden expenditure – a big one. As the Texas state elections had approached in 2002, a critical moment for DeLay’s Majority Project, the head of TRMPAC wrote an urgent e-mail to the group’s accountant. He asked that a blank check be sent overnight to the chief fundraiser for DeLay’s political operation in Washington. The fundraiser made the check payable to an arm of the Republican National Committee. And filled in the amount: $190,000. Three weeks later, he met with DeLay for half an hour in the Majority Leader’s office in the Capitol. The day after that, the Republican National Committee cut seven checks payable to seven candidates for the Texas State Legislature. Together, the checks totaled $190,000 – exactly the amount that TRMPAC had paid.
LOU DUBOSE: What happened in Austin was pretty simple. It was – $190,000 went to Washington to the RNC and $190,000 came back to Texas. It was soft money, illegal to spend going up. And it was hard money, legal to spend coming back to Texas.
BILL MOYERS: The endgame picked up speed.
REP. TOM DELAY (R-TX): Good afternoon. Thank you all for attending. This morning, in an act of blatant political partisanship, a rogue district attorney in Travis County, Texas named Ronnie Earle charged me with one count of criminal conspiracy, a reckless charge wholly unsupported by the facts.
R.G. RATCLIFFE: They just kind of looked at the Texas rules and said, “They don’t apply to us.”
BILL MOYERS: In October, 2005, Tom DeLay was indicted in Texas for conspiracy to violate the state’s campaign finance laws. Two weeks later, he flew to Houston in a corporate jet provided by R. J. Reynolds, a company that had once contributed to the U.S. Family Network, and surrendered to the authorities. “I said a little prayer before I did the fingerprint thing and the picture,” DeLay said. “My prayer was basically, ‘let people see Christ through me. And let me smile.'” The smiles would not last long. A month later, on November 21, 2005, DeLay’s former press secretary, Mike Scanlon, pled guilty to joining in a fraud and bribery scheme with Jack Abramoff and agreed to turn state’s evidence.
REPORTER: Sir, are you satisfied with the open-ended requirement of Mr. Scanlon to continue cooperating with the government?
PLATO CACHERIS: He’s not concerned about cooperating, and he’ll continue to do so.
REPORTER: Do you have anything to say to the tribes who were involved?
PLATO CACHERIS: He’s regretful for what happened to the tribes. But he has nothing to say now.
BILL MOYERS: On January 3, 2006, Jack Abramoff pled guilty to defrauding his tribal clients – as well as bribing lawmakers to take actions on behalf of the very tribes he and Mike Scanlon were bilking. Abramoff’s guilty plea shook up the Capitol.
JEFFREY SMITH: What he did is not that different from the way other people behave in town. You look around and you see all the same problems in other lobbying work that cropped up in Abramoff’s work. You see the use and abuse of non-profit organizations to funnel money to lawmakers, you see payments to lawmakers’ spouses. You see legislators doing favors for big donors. These are not rare events in Washington. Unfortunately, they’re very common.
BILL MOYERS: All over town, members of Congress raced to return campaign contributions connected to Abramoff and his clients. Bob Ney – “Representative #1” in the lobbyist’s guilty plea – claimed that he, like the Indian tribes, was “duped by Jack Abramoff.” In a handwritten note, Tom DeLay told his Texas constituents, “the reality is, Jack Abramoff and I were not close personal friends. I met with him only occasionally.” But four days after Abramoff’s plea, DeLay gave up his post as the Majority Leader of the House.
REP. TOM DELAY (R-TX): As you know, I am still a candidate for re-election this November, and I plan to run a very vigorous campaign and I plan to win it.
BILL MOYERS: And then on April 3, 2006, just days after he was referred to as “Representative # 2” in the guilty plea of another former top aide, DeLay made the sudden announcement that he would retire from the Congress.
REP. TOM DELAY (R-TX): I am sustained by my lord and savior. When you go through this kind of adversity, I got to tell you, if you know Him and He’s on your side, there ain’t nothing but joy.
R.G. RATCLIFFE: I think TRMPAC laid the groundwork for Tom DeLay’s political demise, but it was Jack Abramoff that pushed him off the cliff.
BILL MOYERS: The influence-peddling scandal has led prosecutors back to the house with the red door. Even though the U.S. Family Network has gone out of business, the FBI has subpoenaed its records. Pastor Chris Geeslin now tells a story of betrayal.
REV. CHRIS GEESLIN: We were supposed to be presenting, you know, this moral value to the country, and bringing the country back to God in supporting these programs. And we did some of that. But you know, really I feel now that was kind of a charade, and the real purpose of this USFN was a shell organization, whether it was Jack Abramoff’s shell organization out of his concepts, or whether it was Ed Buckham’s, you know, doesn’t really matter. We, you know, we were just used.
BILL MOYERS: Subsidized by Jack Abramoff’s clients, the non-profit outfit that promised to restore America’s “moral fitness” spent some half million dollars, illegally, on radio ads attacking Democrats. It rallied to Tom DeLay’s side to lobby against campaign finance reform. And Ed Buckham, DeLay’s political and spiritual adviser, pocketed more than a million dollars in consulting fees paid to his lobbying shop – Alexander Strategy Group. Buckham, in turn, paid DeLay’s wife more than $3,000 a month and set up a retirement account in her name. In all, the money machine operating out of the “safe house” paid almost half a million dollars to the family of Tom DeLay.
JEFFREY SMITH: You’ve got money flowing from Abramoff’s clients to nonprofits, nonprofits hiring Buckham to be their representative or consultant, Buckham paying money to Christine DeLay. These paths are meant to be indirect. That’s how it works.
R.G. RATCLIFFE: The kinds and ways that dollars have flowed into the system in recent years have led to something of a form of institutional corruption. And the kind of thing that you want to watch for is it’s not a very big step from a campaign contribution to a bribe.
BILL MOYERS: Jack Abramoff is headed for jail. Ralph Reed lost his campaign to be the Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia. Bob Ney is pleading guilty to charges that he put his office up for sale. Grover Norquist still presides over weekly meetings of Washington’s conservative nerve center. While Tom DeLay awaits trial before a Texas jury, he has been speaking at religious and political rallies. DeLay’s successor as House Majority Leader is John Boehner of Ohio. Ten years ago, when Congress was considering legislation that would have cut tobacco subsidies, Boehner moved around the House floor handing out campaign checks from the tobacco industry. He has long been a player in the K Street project, holding weekly meetings with powerful lobbyists, flying on corporate jets, and now raising more than $10,000 a day from drug companies, health insurers, the oil industry, military contractors – and Indian tribes. On K Street, business goes on – as usual.
Round Table Discussion
BILL MOYERS: With me now are two seasoned observers of Washington. Thomas Frank is an historian by training who edits the occasional journal, The Baffler. His book on politics What’s the Matter with Kansas? was a best seller. He recently was a guest columnist for The New York Times. Tom Frank lives in Washington, where he’s now writing another book on conservative governance. Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. And he is admired across the political spectrum for his devotion to Congress as an institution. Most recently, he co-authored this book with Thomas Mann The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How To Get IIt Back On Track.
Thank you both for joining me.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Sure.
BILL MOYERS: Just this morning, the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS says, and I quote, because I couldn’t make this up, “there is so much political corruption on Capitol Hill that the FBI has had to triple the number of squads investigating lobbyists, lawmakers and influence peddlers.” What does all this tell you?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It tells me that this is not entirely business as usual. We have ratcheted this up to a level that frankly I have not seen before in 37 years in Washington. This is not simply Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff, who are the limiting cases, or Bob Ney, now set to serve more than two years in a penitentiary. This is a lot of other members, a lot of staffers, a number of people in executive agencies. It’s something where the closest analogy that I can come up with is the famous Gilded Age of the 1870s coined by Mark Twain for a period of unprecedented corruption. And now we have a precedent that brings us to the modern day.
BILL MOYERS: You must have a strong stomach after 37 years in Washington. You’ve seen a lot there. But as I’ve been reading your columns this year in Roll Call, the journal on the Hill, I sense an anger in what you’re saying that I haven’t felt before.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: There is a real anger there that I haven’t felt. I mean, I do have a strong stomach. I’ve seen how politics works. Politics has plenty of messy elements to it. And I’m willing to tolerate a lot. This is different. And as somebody who loves Congress, loves the legislative process, believes that it’s the first branch of government for a reason — to watch this body descend to these depths at a time when the country’s at a crossroads in so many ways, leaves me shaking at times when I see what’s going on.
And this has been building for more than a decade. You know, there were stories about Abramoff in the Seattle paper back when he was with Preston Gates, about the Marianas Islands. That didn’t make the Washington press corps. There were stories about his ties to the South African government during apartheid.
But there have also been all kinds of stories about the way the K Street Project operated in a much broader way, to try and create this self-reinforcing loop of bringing in the interests, giving them what they want, and getting the money; larding the companies and trade association lobbying offices with your people, who then contribute money back to you, so that you can ensure that you can stay in power and that everybody can get enriched. It just takes it to a level we haven’t seen before. And to watch the indifference to it for so long, and then see the outcome, which is bad policy for the American people and for others around the world, just leaves me very frustrated.
BILL MOYERS: There are no victimless crimes in politics. Somebody’s always paying for this, right? And it’s usually the taxpayer.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yeah. And it’s not simply that, you know, you get a few members of Congress or staffers who suddenly are able to live lavish lifestyles – big deal in some ways – it is that they’re doing things that make them perpetrators with all kinds of other people victims. Now, the Indian tribes, you know, they’re victims in a sense. They also said, jeez, we’re making money here. Let’s put some back because that’s the way Washington works. So that they were in a sense willing victims. But a lot of us were victims from what was going on there. And we’re victims in a host of ways through policies that are made — from the Medicare prescription drug bill to a bankruptcy bill — that are lousy policy, done because these people who are running government don’t care. Their goal is to stay in power and to live nicely while doing it.
THOMAS FRANK: And not caring– you’re getting right at the heart of it here. Because this is the irony. This is the thing that really gets me upset. I mean, what Norman just said is very important, and everybody should hear that. But the really creepy thing is going to be the aftermath to this, three years, four years, five years down the road.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
THOMAS FRANK: And that is, who’s going to profit from all this politically? And the deep irony is that the party that has a lock hold on the position of being cynical about government, it’s the very same people that are doing this stuff.
BILL MOYERS: So these are men who all presented themselves as men of conservative values?
THOMAS FRANK: Right, right. And this is one of the things that’s just so disturbing about it is… just the rank hypocrisy of what was it — Tom DeLay hoping that people would see Jesus in his mug shot? That’s unbelievable. You can’t make that up. That’s–
BILL MOYERS: But Norman described a process that has taken place with the K Street Project — Grover Norquist would tell the two of you it was simply his way of replacing the permanent power of the Democratic Party with the perpetual power of the Republican Party. I mean, is it more of the same?
THOMAS FRANK: No, because, well, I mean, in a very, very broad sense, sure. But in a very specific sense, no. Because the power that they are enthroning in Washington is corporations. That’s whose money they’re taking, that’s whose favors they’re doing. You know, this has all come to light through the, you know, through what’s happened to these Indian casinos. But the broader picture of K Street, K Street is corporate lobbying.
BILL MOYERS: So that’s why the Medicare bill you talked about would be a bad bill, because it was driven by money to give business what it wants?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yeah. But I would take slight issue with Tom here. When the Democrats were in power, they had a lot of people who were running companies or doing lobbying. They were getting campaign contributions. They allowed access. They were sensitive. It wasn’t one side’s for corporate America and the other side is not. That’s not basically how it worked. A lot of what goes on was done in a more subtle way. It has always been the case. You get campaign contributions at some subsequent point. There are actions taken that benefit those who have given the campaign contributions. And everybody said it’s just coincidence.
This was more blatant. And this was taken to a level that we have not seen before. And it was an attempt to hijack the political process as well. Remember, they weren’t just getting the money so that Abramoff could channel it through to Republican campaign committees. They were actively trying to defund those sources who were giving money to Democrats so that they could perpetuate themselves in power. They were sending this money in a laundered, illicit fashion, to Texas, to provide a firewall with an additional level of seats, so that even if there were a wave of discontent in the country, the House wouldn’t change hands. The framers- –you know, to use the old line – if the framers were alive today, they’d be spinning in their graves at the notion that the House was insulated from public disapproval. It was supposed to be the body that would be responsive to this. So this is taken to a different level.
But you know, it’s not entirely a new process, and it’s not just that one side’s protecting one set of interests against the others who are for the good guys.
BILL MOYERS: I remember ads about ten years ago saying, in effect, only Democrats need apply for jobs as lobbyists. But you keep saying this is deeper and different?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And, Democrats didn’t set up a process where if you hire a Republican, you’re going to be punished here. We’re going to shut you out from the legislative process and coerce people into hiring not just Democrats, but specific people. They had a list. They wanted specific people put into specific posts, so that then they could go to these people and say, you know, you were making $50,000 as a staffer on Capitol Hill. We got you a job making $200,000. Now you’re going to max out in contributions coming back. That’s a different level.
BILL MOYERS: What does it say that in the last few years, some 50 former members of the Congressional staff of the Appropriations Committees left Congress and took jobs, and registered as lobbyists? What does that say to you?
THOMAS FRANK: Well, this is just more about the role of money, you know, in Washington and in our society generally. One of the statistics- I’m sure you know the actual numbers about this, Norman-but that lobbyists as a rule make considerably more than congressmen. Even you know, congressmen that have been around for a very long time. This is where the money is at in Washington. And you know, when you’re done working on Capitol Hill or you only need to serve a few years there, whatever it is, that’s where you go nowadays. You go and work for these people.
And, by the way, I don’t think it’s that the Democrats have been particularly wonderful on this. I, you know, I may sound like a partisan guy, but I don’t mean to be. I don’t think that they’re going to solve the problem or anything like that. In some ways, I think they don’t understand it. They really missed the boat as well. I mean, the Republicans, in some ways, are so much of the perpetrators, or most of the perpetrators are. But the Democrats, you know, they talk about the culture of corruption. But they can’t understand what is essentially conservative about what’s been going on. You know, they cannot link all the things that you’ve been describing – the K Street Project, the Abramoff affair- they can’t link that to conservatism in any way larger than the fact that these people are big conservative players.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And there are a number of conservatives who find this process loathsome, and who have spoken out about it. So you’ve got people on both sides actually, who are stalwarts in trying to stop this process from moving forward. They’ve been in the minority. A lot of members don’t want to get discomfort. They’ve lived kind of nicely the way that things have been
You know, I would add, having been in Washington for 37 years, now I see a level of spending and conspicuous consumption that I just didn’t see before. The fact is when you’ve got a three trillion dollar economy, and now you take 30, 40, 50 billion dollars out of that, you know, chump change in a way, and say to every member of Congress, you’ve got a few hundred million you can play with. You are the king over a few hundred million dollars.
BILL MOYERS: These are the earmarks?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: The earmarks.
BILL MOYERS: Earmark, as I understand it, means that a member of Congress, can direct that money be given directly to a project without going through a public agency.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And without going through any kind of vetting or cost benefit analysis, in effect. And it’s done through appropriations. It’s done through authorizations. It’s done– -there’s academic earmarking, getting money going to a particular university. It’s also surreptitiously steering contracts, like defense contracts. That’s what Randy “Duke” Cunningham did in return for $2.4 million in bribes.
THOMAS FRANK: There’s a book that came out a few years ago called THE CHEATING CULTURE. This is well before the Abramoff affair. He focused a lot on things like Enron and WorldCom, where you see a lot of the same kind of forces at play, and a lot of people rationalizing the things that they were doing. And what he keeps coming back to is that these things are the product of…they are intrinsically related to the kind of society we are, the inequality that you’re seeing in America nowadays. I mean, the vast change that has actually been worked by conservative economic policy in the last 30 years.
That and when you talk about D.C. that way, I mean, and I could add anecdotes as well to talk about the kind of money that you see in that town. I used to go up there when I was in college 20 years ago, and it was, you know, it was a kind of a middle class town. And now, everybody has a BMW. I read in the Washington Post just a few weeks ago, according to the latest census data, five of the suburban counties in D.C. or outside of D.C. are among the seven wealthiest counties in America.
BILL MOYERS: So does this excuse the loss of a moral compass?
THOMAS FRANK: Of course not. Of course not.
BILL MOYERS: What has happened to the moral compass?
THOMAS FRANK: Well, it’s, you know, it’s been demagnetized by the money. And then you’ve got to remember one other thing. What I’m trying to supply here are ways in which this scandal is linked to a certain political way of looking at the world. It’s not just a bunch of guys that saw a chance and took it. I mean, it is that, obviously, in the same way that Enron was. These are guys gaming the system. Or WorldCom, or all the accounting stuff that you saw in the 1990s. Guys that figured out how they could do it and they did it. But it’s also the product of contempt for government. Okay?
BILL MOYERS: Do you agree with that?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Part of it is Congress basically took their ethics process and threw it out the window more than a decade ago, partly because we were into these wars between the parties where we were criminalizing policy differences.
When you lose an ethics process, you lose a sensitivity to some of these questions of what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis. And everybody or lots of people became a part of that. And there are Democrats, just as there are Republicans, who have gone so far over to the dark side that they’re going to end up serving very long prison sentences. It happens when you don’t have any kind of boundaries in place. And these guys were happy to remove the boundaries because they could stay in power that way.
BILL MOYERS: But the Speaker of the House removed the boundaries on the Ethics Committee when it started getting close to Tom DeLay.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: That I found one of the most outrageous things I have ever seen.
THOMAS FRANK: Can I compound the outrage? Apparently, Michael Scanlon you — I’m sure you know this– has written a master’s thesis at–
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Johns Hopkins. Yes.
THOMAS FRANK: –at Johns Hopkins about how the Ethics Committee is always already compromised.
BILL MOYERS: So you wrote recently that the leaders of Congress have shown they don’t really care if their colleagues are taking bribes or using hookers or whether there’s oversight of crooked contracting. I mean, has this become a culture of corruption?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It has become a culture of corruption. In a way, I cringe when Democrats have used it as a campaign phrase, because I don’t want it to become a partisan element here. This is a culture of corruption. It’s wrong-headed. It’s bad for the country. And we’re only now starting to see some corrective mechanisms in place. And look what happened the day that Bob Ney is, in effect, working an arrangement with prosecutors which will involve a 27-month prison term. That day the Republicans in Congress effectively declared the end to any lobbying or ethics reform other than a completely sham earmark proposal just to get people off their backs. What chutzpah, even now, in the face of all of this.
But a part of it is look around us in the campaign. Do we have a public expressing outrage at this point? No. The cynicism is great enough that they think this is just business as usual. When Abramoff was sentenced, right after that, Speaker Hastert said, “Oh, we’re gonna go for sweeping reforms.” And as soon as the public attention drifted away, it was deep sixed.
BILL MOYERS: Do we have the DeLay team without DeLay?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: We have something very close to it. Tom DeLay was sui generis. But others have followed in his path and have been more than willing to take advantage of the cover that he provided and the extra seats he managed to bring in to give him a majority.
BILL MOYERS: What’s at stake for democracy?
THOMAS FRANK: I think that in a lot of ways what we’re seeing is a reversion to an older philosophy of government, where…Look, one of the things about having a totally free market, laissez-faire society, which is the direction in which all of these people, when they were, you know, being idealistic, that’s the direction in which they wanted to move this country, is that, you know, when you let the market, you know, free to do whatever it wants, one of the things that it’s going to do is try to work its way government. That’s what it’s all about. You know, this is what Hamiltonian theory of government — government serves those who own. That’s the old, old, old school conservative way of viewing government in America. And bribery is — if you look at this kind of big picture, big economic perspective. Bribery is, well, how would you say this? It’s you know–
BILL MOYERS: Cost of business.
THOMAS FRANK: Yeah. Exactly. It’s the cost of doing business. It’s insignificant. Of course it’s going to keep going. Of course it’s going to keep going. And listen, the reforms have to be far more sweeping—
BILL MOYERS: What’s to be done?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: There are some reforms that would make a difference. Primarily, in this case, we need an Ethics Committee and an ethics process that has some outside involvement to have–
BILL MOYERS: So it’s not members in Congress running.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: –not just members of Congress. The Constitution says they make the ultimate decisions. But you’ve got to have some better vetting process. There are states like Florida and Kentucky that manage to do this reasonably effectively. We’ve got to change this earmarking process and bring some honesty to it. And we’re far from being able to do that. And we’ve got to have—
BILL MOYERS: In other words, you could publicize who is sponsoring the earmark so that I would know Norman Ornstein has sent an earmark over to a campaign contribution.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And so that you can look into the behavior of individual members and staffers, which may be related to those earmarks.
BILL MOYERS: But if reform has to come from the people who are benefiting from the system, are we going to get reform?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: We’re going to get reform if and when they believe that the public will have the tar cooking and the feathers waiting if they don’t do reform. We’re not there yet, Bill.
THOMAS FRANK: Can I say two things about this question? First of all, the people who are in charge now have a vested interest in increasing our cynicism. They are the party of cynicism against government. And when they do these things, that’s just an added benefit that they’ve managed to get the cynicism numbers up where they have. That’s good for the Republican Party, the party that tells you that what? Remember what President Reagan used to say about government, you know? It was a joke, the idea that they were here to help you, all that stuff.
The second point I want to make is go back to the 19th century, the sort of parallel experience to what we’re going through now. You had a series of reformers come up in the 19th century. And every single one of them from, you know, Horace Greeley all up to the 1890s failed miserably, you know, were rejected in huge sweep. I mean, the corruptionists just whipped these guys. It was a piece of cake. It was easy. The only thing that– what really changed it is when reform became a broader thing, when it became Progressivism. And when it became, you know, look at society as a whole. We’re going to change the entire direction that we’re moving in. When– I’m talking about here people like Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. That’s when this stuff started to abate. Not before that.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You know, one problem we have here is what we really need is politicians. Politicians understand the nature of politics and the importance of the institutions. How to do give and take and compromises in an effective fashion. What’s happening now is where this flame of cynicism in the public, somebody pops up and says, “I’m not a politician.” And we say, “Okay, great. We’ll elect you.” And what we get are people who are on an ideological crusade, people who have a contempt for politics and believe that it is all sleaze, everybody does it. So bribery is a way of life.
BILL MOYERS: Is there hope when money trumps everything else today?
THOMAS FRANK: You don’t want to ask me that. I’m, you know, I’m a very pessimistic guy. And I don’t think there is because, you know, earlier we were talking about the Democrats and their reaction to all this, and I think their reaction has been lukewarm to feeble. No, they want that money, too. You know, they want to turn this around—
BILL MOYERS: I saw the other day a very powerful House member, Democrat, saying, you know, “We’re going after some uncharted sources of money in the financial community. And we’re telling them that the next majority leader might be a Democrat.”
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yeah. You know, we’ve had a telecommunications bill that’s been up and pending in Congress for a long time, and they’re going to keep it pending for a long time. And every once in a while they say, “It’s going to pass, going to pass.” So then each side keeps throwing more money into it. Some of this stuff is difficult to deal with. It’s an ages-old problem. We have to constantly be at it to keep the money system from careening out of control.
In the short run, we’ve got a big problem here. We have a sharply polarized political system. We called the book The Broken Branch because Congress is thoroughly dysfunctional. It isn’t going to change overnight. We need new leadership, including a presidential campaign that may bring it. But we’ve got a process that’s going to take us years to reconstruct. I have long-term hope. We’ve always done it before. But short term, I’m very pessimistic.
BILL MOYERS: Does history, Mr. Historian, give us any reason for hope?
THOMAS FRANK: Sure. Absolutely. But in the very long term, I’m sorry to say.
BILL MOYERS: George Bush came to office in 2000, vowing to clean up Washington. And I just looked at one of his speeches this morning. “We’re going to clean up Washington,” he said. What happened?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: They cleaned up in Washington.
BILL MOYERS: Norman Ornstein and Tom Frank, thank you very much. The books are What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America and The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track. Thank you both very much.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Thanks, Bill.