Monday, January 23, 2006

Evidence is mounting that former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed Jr., along with a former leader of the Texas Christian Coalition, may have illegally lobbied Texas state officials on behalf of crooked federal lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his clients. Three Austin-based reform groups—Common Cause Texas, Public Citizen Texas, and Texans For Public Justice, the latter of which employs the author of this article—urged Travis County prosecutors last December to investigate whether Reed violated Texas’ lobby-registration laws four years ago. Read the article at the Texas Obsever

Thin Reed: Will Abramoff's Deep Throat Swallow God's Mouthpiece?

Andrew Wheat | January 27, 2006 | Features

Evidence is mounting that former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed Jr., along with a former leader of the Texas Christian Coalition, may have illegally lobbied Texas state officials on behalf of crooked federal lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his clients.

Three Austin-based reform groups—Common Cause Texas, Public Citizen Texas, and Texans For Public Justice, the latter of which employs the author of this article—urged Travis County prosecutors last December to investigate whether Reed violated Texas’ lobby-registration laws four years ago. Correspondence between Abramoff and Reed—the ex-Christian Coalition leader now running for lieutenant governor of Georgia—suggests that Reed lobbied Texas officials on behalf of Abramoff’s Indian gambling clients without registering as a Texas lobbyist. The $5 million in gambling money that Abramoff reportedly paid Reed for his services would make it one of the largest lobby contracts ever made public in Texas.

The Reed campaign, which did not respond to three requests for comment for this story, previously issued a statement saying that Texas’ lobby registration law does not cover the kind of “grassroots” organizing that Reed’s firm conducted in Texas. Travis County Attorney David Escamilla told the Observer at press time that his office was still investigating the complaint.

During Jack Abramoff’s reign as chair of the College Republican National Committee in the early 1980s, Ralph Reed and GOP operative Grover Norquist each did stints as that committee’s executive director. Abramoff, an Orthodox Jew, later helped Reed organize the remnants of evangelist Pat Robertson’s failed 1988 presidential bid into the politically potent Christian Coalition in 1989. Reed and Norquist resurfaced a decade later to help Abramoff extract tens of millions of dollars from Indian gambling interests and other clients. Now Abramoff has promised to walk federal prosecutors through his vast web of political corruption, thereby endangering the careers and reputations of members of Congress, other lobbyists and Ralph Reed—just as the preternaturally young-looking evangelist makes his first bid for public office. These prosecutors have subpoenaed records from Reed but have not identified him as a target of their investigation.

An Observer investigation reveals that Reed may not have been the only Christian Coalition leader working secretly for Abramoff’s gambling clients. Reed-Abramoff correspondence indicates that Chuck Anderson, then-head of the Texas Christian Coalition, also helped lobby Texas officials on behalf of Abramoff’s Indian gaming clients. Anderson, who now works for Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, also appears to have worked on Texas gambling issues without registering.

Additionally, the Observer has found evidence that Ralph Reed clandestinely lobbied Texas school officials on behalf of the in-school television network Channel One in 2002—when Channel One’s parent company was paying Abramoff a $320,000 annual retainer. Texas law generally requires people to register as lobbyists if they receive more than $500 a quarter to directly communicate with a state official on public policy. Ralph Reed never registered as a Texas lobbyist despite evidence that he called at least one member of the State Board of Education in 2002 to influence a board resolution.

In 2002, the Texas State Board of Education considered passing a non-binding resolution to urge schools to ban Channel One from their campuses. Liberal opponents of in-school, commercial television included Texans for Public Justice and Commercial Alert, an Oregon-based Naderite group that opposes commercial exploitation of children. Conservative opponents of Channel One included Alabama-based Obligation, Inc., which mirrors Commercial Alert’s agenda, and the Texas Eagle Forum. All of these groups objected to public schools using teaching time to expose captive children to ads, especially those promoting junk food or violent films. To make this case, Birmingham-based Obligation, Inc., showed the conservative-dominated board a sampling of Channel One’s own ads.

Channel One responded by flying CEO Jim Ritts, a University of Texas alum, to Austin to help local company lobbyist Demetrius McDaniel of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. These Channel One representatives, neither of whom responded to requests for comment, had their own video that included an apparent endorsement of the company by First Lady Laura Bush. In the end, the board dropped the resolution against Channel One and passed a weak substitute that urged PTA types to educate themselves about marketing in schools.

There is evidence that Ralph Reed contributed to this Channel One lobbying coup behind the scenes. A brief Austin American-Statesman article in September 2002 reported that Channel One postponed a vote on the resolution thanks to “an impromptu lobbying effort by Channel One Communications—including phone calls from Ralph Reed.” Indeed, Channel One critic Gary Ruskin, of Commercial Alert, continues to blame Reed’s lobbying for ensuring that, “Texas school children are still forced to watch ads for junk food, violent entertainment and movies that portray smoking.”

When the Channel One resolution came before the board, 10 of its 15 members had at least one thing in common with Ralph Reed: a Republican Party affiliation. One Republican board member, Dan Montgomery (R-Fredericksburg) told the Observer that he was present when then-board member Chase Untermeyer (R-Houston) took a call from Ralph Reed. “He said it was Ralph Reed calling on behalf of Channel One,” and he was somewhat surprised, Montgomery recalls. Montgomery added that he does not think Reed’s intervention influenced the board’s vote on the resolution. Untermeyer is now the U.S. Ambassador to Qatar. Another board member, David Bradley of Beaumont, declined to say if Reed had contacted him, telling the Observer, “I cannot help you.” Asked if this meant that Reed never contacted him, Bradley repeated, “Sir, I cannot help you.”

Six of the 10 GOP members who sat on the board in 2002 said that Ralph Reed never contacted them (Don McLeroy, Dan Montgomery, Grace Shore, Judy Strickland, Cynthia Thornton, and Richard Watson). Ambassador Untermeyer and current board Chair Geraldine Miller did not return repeated requests for comment. Former GOP board member Richard Neill could not be located.

Several Republicans who sat on the board at that time expressed disappointment with Reed’s involvement. “I always really liked Ralph Reed,” said Texas Eagle Forum activist Judy Strickland, who, as a state school board member in 2002, sponsored the failed Channel One resolution. “But when people use our children for their gains—monetarily or otherwise—they need to be called on the carpet.” “I am surprised that the Christian Coalition would support that kind of endeavor [Channel One],” added board member Cynthia Thornton. “There was programming [on Channel One] that I wouldn’t allow in my classroom.”

Reed appears to have engaged in just the kind of paid, direct contact with public officials that drives Texas’ lobby-registration law. In fact, Reed long has prided himself on his ninja stealth. “I want to be invisible,” he told Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot as the leader of the Christian Coalition in 1991. “I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag.”

When it comes to lobbying, Reed has mastered stealth. The state ethics commission websites in Texas and Georgia, where Reed’s Century Strategies lobby shop is based, list no lobby registrations for this operative. The only federal lobby registration listed for Reed is as a Christian Coalition lobbyist in 1998.

Conservative Channel One critic Jim Metrock of Obligation, Inc., said that Reed resorted to covert tactics in Alabama in 1999, when a Primedia front group popped up that ultimately was traced back to Reed. This so-called Coalition to Protect Children churned out advertisements in a failed effort to stop U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), from holding Channel One hearings. Reed “hurt the Christian Coalition in Alabama,” Metrock said. “People really believed in him.”

Reed’s policy work in Texas assumed greater significance this past January 3, when Abramoff pled guilty to three felonies in a plea bargain with federal prosecutors investigating a vast web of political corruption. At the time of the Texas Channel One vote in 2002, Abramoff’s Greenberg Traurig was Primedia’s top federal lobby firm, billing Primedia and a subsidiary $380,000 that year. Other Greenberg Traurig lobbyists on the Primedia account included Tony Rudy and Neil Volz, who previously worked for two of Abramoff’s closest congressional cronies: Texas Rep. Tom DeLay and Ohio Rep. Bob Ney, respectively. Rudy and Volz figure prominently in the Abramoff indictment.

Abramoff alleges in his plea deal that soon after he hired Rep. Ney’s aide Neil Volz, Volz contacted his old boss to help one of Abramoff’s clients land a lucrative federal telecommunications contract. The indictment alleges that this action violated a revolving-door law that bars certain federal officials from lobbying their old offices for one year.

Abramoff also told prosecutors that he paid the wife of then-DeLay aide Tony Rudy $50,000 as a reward for Rudy using DeLay’s office to help Abramoff kill legislation. The Washington Post reported last fall, for example, that Rudy helped snuff the 2000 Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, which would have hurt Abramoff’s client, eLottery Inc. eLottery also paid Reed $300,000 to work this contract, the Post reported, routing some of the payments through Grover Norquist and the Virginia-based Faith and Family Alliance. The director of the Alliance at the time, Robin Vanderwall—now imprisoned for soliciting sex with minors on the Internet—told the Post that Reed’s firm directed him to pass the money on to Century Strategies.

Abramoff's Whirlpool - Illustration by Mike Krone of a whirlpool coming out of Abramoff's mouth with Tom DeLay, clutching a war chest, and Ralph Reed, holding a cross high in the air, being sucked into the vortex

A Reed spokesperson told the Post that Abramoff had promised Century Strategies that it would not be paid with gambling funds. In a 1999 e-mail to Reed, however, Abramoff explicitly identified a casino-owning tribe as the paying client. “[G]et me invoices as soon as possible so I can get Choctaw to get us checks ASAP,” Abramoff wrote. Moreover, if Reed was as innocent as he would have us believe, he surely must have wondered why his payments were routed through Byzantine channels. In one example of this shell game in March 2001, Abramoff explained to an anxious Reed why one of his payments was delayed. “The originating entity had to transfer to a separate account before they transferred to the entity which is going to transfer to you,” Abramoff explained. “All will be fine.”

Standard ninja operating procedure.

Just as he enlisted Abramoff to get the Christian Coalition off the ground, Reed turned to his friend to help him start a lobby shop after he left the Coalition in 1997. “I need to start humping in corporate accounts,” Reed wrote Abramoff in 1998. “I’m counting on you to help me with some contacts.”

Reed had left the Christian Coalition under fire. At that time the IRS and the Federal Election Commission were investigating the Coalition, even as the Coalition’s chief financial officer accused Reed of awarding inflated contracts to a crony. When the IRS revoked the Coalition’s tax-exempt status in 1999—owing to overtly political activities—the national group transferred its remaining assets to the Texas Christian Coalition. This Texas chapter was headed by then-Executive Director Chuck Anderson, who appears to have helped Abramoff, Norquist, and Reed implement their Texas gambling agenda in 2001. Like Reed, Anderson did not register as a Texas lobbyist.

In 2001, legally questionable Texas casinos operated by the Tigua tribe in El Paso and the Alabama-Coushatta tribe in Livingston competed with tribal gambling operations in Louisiana. East Texas’ Alabama Coushatta lacked the autonomy that comes with formal federal recognition, making them subject to a state law prohibiting casino gambling. The Tiguas did obtain federal recognition in 1987, but only after they mollified critics by pledging to obey Texas gaming laws. The Tiguas later argued that Texas cleared the way for a tribal casino in 1991, when voters approved racetracks and a state lottery. The courts ultimately shot down the tribe’s legal theory. Facing legal threats from then-Attorney General John Cornyn, who soon would persuade the courts to shut down these casinos (see “No Picnic at Speaking Rock,” December 17, 2004), the Texas-based tribes backed state legislation to legalize their casinos. Killing this bill (House Bill 514) was a top objective of the rival Louisiana Coushatta tribe, which paid Abramoff’s lobby firm $1.8 million in 2001. Abramoff-Reed correspondence reveals that Abramoff paid Reed to work on this effort. As he previously did for Channel One in Alabama, Reed created a front group to run attack ads against this gambling legislation. Last year the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Reed secretly hired Houston lobbyist Andrew Biar to create this so-called Committee Against Gambling Expansion.

Abramoff-Reed e-mails also suggest that Reed and his shop may have engaged in the kind of paid contact with Texas officials that can trigger a legal obligation to register as a lobbyist. In a January 2002 e-mail exchange discussing then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn’s litigation to shut down the Tiguas’ casino, Reed assured Abramoff that, “we are discussing this with the head of the [attorney general’s] criminal division today.”

Perhaps illustrating how toxic Abramoff’s name has become, the Observer could not find anyone who would admit to being deputy attorney general of criminal justice in January 2002. The preponderance of evidence points to Michael McCaul, who was elected in 2004 to represent one of Tom DeLay’s newly minted congressional districts. Yet Rep. McCaul’s spokesperson said that his boss had been replaced by that time by Shane Phelps, a one-time opponent of Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle. Now a Brazos County prosecutor, Phelps told the Observer that McCaul succeeded Phelps in that post, not vice versa. The Observer then found a December 2002 attorney general release announcing the replacement of “acting Deputy for Criminal Justice” Don Clemmer, who had served in that post “since Michael McCaul joined the U.S. Attorney’s for the Western District of Texas.” A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney said that McCaul joined that federal office in October 2002—nine months after Reed’s team reportedly met with Cornyn’s deputy attorney general. At press time, a spokesman for Rep. McCaul called and admitted that the congressman in fact had been the deputy attorney general at the time but had “never had any contact with” Ralph Reed, Century Strategies, or the Texas or national Christian Coalition.

In another January 2002 message Abramoff directed Reed to recruit cooperative Texas and Alabama lawmakers, dubbed “tigers,” to introduce legislation that would exclude companies that do business with Indian casinos from state contracting. “Easy to get our tigers to introduce them [bills] in both places,” Reed responds. What such correspondence fails to establish, however, is if Reed and Century Strategies directly lobbied Texas officials, as the e-mails suggest, or if Reed was bearing false witness to rationalize millions of dollars in gambling fees.

The e-mails also indicate that Abramoff and Reed relied on then-Texas Christian Coalition leader Chuck Anderson to help defeat the casino-legalization legislation. Reed reports to Abramoff in a March 2001 e-mail on efforts to kill the bill by bottling it up in a House committee. “Chuck Anderson at the Coalition is calling Rep. Kim Brimer and other members of the Calendars Committee,” he writes. Reed adds that he could flood the committee with phone calls if the client would approve Reed’s $397,200 “Texas Anti-Gambling Project Budget.”

In an update several days later Reed tells Abramoff, “You are waiting to hear from Chuck” about whether Governor Rick Perry would signal his intention to veto the gambling bill. (Perry generally opposed gambling until he returned from a 2004 Bahamas junket with GOP powerbrokers including Abramoff-Reed crony Grover Norquist. Governor Perry then proposed using slot machines to finance Texas schools.)

A triumphant April 6, 2001, e-mail from Reed to Abramoff appears under the heading “from a TX operative,” suggesting that Reed may have forwarded this message from a Texas colleague. “Yesterday we succeeded in keeping HB 514, the Indian Casino bill, bottled up in the Calendars Committee,” the message reads. “According to Chuck at the Texas Christian Coalition, he has received many calls from offices of the committee members. We patched through 4,000 phone calls between Friday and Thursday, blitzed Christian and conservative talk radio, and mailed 50,000 anti-gambling action alerts.” Less than two weeks later, on April 18, the Texas Christian Coalition announced Anderson’s resignation.

One reading of the Abramoff-Reed correspondence suggests that, under Anderson, the Texas Christian Coalition operated as an arm of Reed’s Century Strategies. It is unclear if the Texas Christian Coalition or Anderson were paid for this work, a key factor in determining if Anderson was required to register as a lobbyist. Asked about the Abramoff-Reed correspondence, Anderson—now a spokesperson for Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst’s re-election campaign—said, “I am not going to have any comment at this time.”

Texas requires political operatives to register as lobbyists if they: Spend more than $500 a quarter directly communicating with a state official to influence state policies; or Receive more than $1,000 a quarter for such communications (unless less than 5 percent of a person’s total compensated time is spent on such lobbying). Violating this law is a misdemeanor subject to up to a year in jail and a civil fine of up to three times an individual’s lobby compensation.

In Reed’s case, such a fine could be huge. He reportedly received as much as $4 million just to help the Louisiana Coushatta shut down the Tigua casino in El Paso. To Reed’s advantage, Texas lobby-registration laws are subject to a two-year statute of limitations. Invoking a legal theory called “tolling,” the groups that filed the Reed complaint argue that this two-year period should not be clocked from when the alleged lobbying occurred in 2001, since the public was unaware of the alleged offense as a direct result of Reed’s failure to register. Instead, the complainants argue that the two-year limit should be clocked from late 2004, when the U.S. Senate first revealed Reed’s advocacy in Texas.

The Reed campaign said in a written response to the complaint that Greenberg Traurig hired it “to contact grassroots citizens in Texas and encourage them to oppose illegal casinos in the state,” activities that it said did not require lobby registration. The statement said that the “specious” complaint “has more to do with politics than the facts.” Complainant Suzy Woodford of Common Cause countered that Reed’s “own correspondence appears to indict him” by suggesting that he directly lobbied Texas officials.

In one such direct-contact reference during the casino-legalization fight in early 2001, an apparent Century Strategies memo says, “Eric Criss, Century Strategies VP, is flying to Texas on Monday morning to meet with the staff of the governor and attorney general, as well as the Christian Coalition Executive Director [Chuck Anderson] and Director of Public Policy for the Baptist State Convention of Texas.” Criss, now an unregistered staff lobbyist for Home Depot in Washington, did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Gambling opponent Suzii Paynter, the Baptist lobbyist whom Criss reportedly was going to meet in 2001, did visit the attorney general’s office that year. Yet Paynter told the Observer, “I was never in contact with or had meetings with Eric Criss of Century Strategies.” Paynter said Abramoff and Reed sometimes appeared to rationalize their extravagant fees by claiming credit for things they never did.

Ralph Reed has declined to discuss his work on Texas gambling issues with the media personally. One week after the lobby complaint was filed he told a Christian youth group that he had been aware that Greenberg Traurig’s tribal clients “had their own reasons for opposing new casinos.” Reed added in his defense that, “I was assured by the law firm… that the funds contributed to our efforts would not derive from gambling activity.”

In this case, either Ralph Reed lied about his knowledge of who was paying his bills, Abramoff’s lobby firm lied, or they both prevaricated. As prosecutors continue to investigate the roles that DeLay, Ney, Reed, and other politicians played in the mushrooming Abramoff scandal, voters—and perhaps even jurors—will get a formal chance to decide whom they believe.

Andrew Wheat is research director for the Austin-based Texans for Public Justice.