"A Swashbuckling Spectacle of Corruption" - Bill Moyers Investigates Abramoff Lobbying Scandal
Monday, October 2nd, 2006http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=06/10/02/1321259
Veteran journalist Bill Moyers examines the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal in detail in the new PBS documentary, "Capitol Crimes." Moyers untangles thousands of emails, documents and facts to reveals the web of relationships, secret deals and political manipulation that went on between some of the most powerful men in Washington D.C. Moyers says, "The men who came to Washington in the 1980's to lead the conservative revolution wound up running a racket. Abramoff was their outside man, outside the White House, outside the infrastructure but he was very welcome inside the government. [Abramoff had] very good ties with Karl Rove, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform - it was all part of an apparatus that was designed to launder money." [includes rush transcript - partial]
The fallout continues from the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. A new bi-partisan House report released on Friday details extensive lobbying contacts between convicted lobbyist Abramoff and the Bush White House. Investigators found that between January 2001 and March 2004, Abramoff and his associates had more than 400 contacts with White House officials. The committee conducting the investigation noted that the records showed "an unusually detailed glimpse into a sordid subculture of fraud and attempted influence peddling."
"Capitol Crimes," a new documentary by veteran journalist Bill Moyers examines the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal in detail and reveals the web of relationships, secret deals and political manipulation that went on between some of the most powerful men in Washington D.C. Moyers and his team untangle thousands of emails, documents and facts to report on what he calls a "swashbuckling spectacle of corruption." The report airs on Wednesday night on PBS.
- Bill Moyers, was the host of the PBS show "NOW with Bill Moyers" for three years. He was one of the organizers of the Peace Corps, a spokesperson for Lyndon Johnson, a publisher of Newsday, senior correspondent for CBS News and a producer of many groundbreaking series on public television. He is the winner of more than 30 Emmy Awards and the author three best-selling books. His new three-part investigative series, Moyers on America, debuts on PBS this Wedensday.
AMY GOODMAN: Capitol Crimes, a new documentary by veteran journalist Bill Moyers, examines the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal in detail and reveals the web of relationships, secret deals and political manipulation that went on between some of the most powerful men in Washington D.C. Moyers and his team untangled thousands of emails, documents and facts to report on what he calls a “swashbuckling spectacle of corruption.” The report airs Wednesday night on PBS. This is an excerpt.
BILL MOYERS: Jack Abramoff was a forlorn figure at the Senate hearing that sealed his downfall.
JACK ABRAMOFF: I respectfully invoke the privileges stated, sir.
BILL MOYERS: Again and again, he invoked the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: The tribe was never told that $10,000 of their money would be sent to “Reed for Chairman” when Ralph Reed was seeking the chairmanship of the Georgia Republican Party. This tribe was never told about the secret scheme that allowed Jack Abramoff to skim $5 million from the money --
BILL MOYERS: The evidence kept piling up, of money, politics, and the buying and selling of influence, a sordid betrayal of democracy.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Those two men walked away with money that would have gone and should have gone to the children and elders of the tribe. Why? Because Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon were all about the money.
BILL MOYERS: For years he had been a major domo of Republican Washington. He took lawmakers on junkets around the world, fed them free meals in his own restaurant, turned over his luxury sports sky boxes to politicians with their hands out, and raked in millions of dollars for himself at the same time that he directed millions more to favorite politicians and conservative causes.
JEFFREY SMITH: Put yourself in the mind of a lobbyist. 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.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Why would a tribe be making a donation to Americans for Tax Reform?
BERNIE SPRAGUE: It's because Mr. Abramoff suggests that we make these donations to these various groups.
BILL MOYERS: He was no lone ranger. Lawmakers, corporations and contributors were joined in a spectacle of corruption. Much of it centered around one of the most powerful men in Congress.
JEFFREY SMITH: It was like there was a giant machine, and the man in the center controlling all the knobs and levers was Tom DeLay.
BILL MOYERS: Jack Abramoff's most marketable asset was his connection to the House majority leader, Tom DeLay.
R.G. RATCLIFFE: Definitely the people giving money thought they had to give money to get close to Tom DeLay.
JACK ABRAMOFF: Tom DeLay is who all of us want to be when we grow up.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Here, here!
LOU DUBOSE: Without Tom DeLay, there's no Jack Abramoff, and without Jack Abramoff, there is no Tom DeLay. They move money in circles, and the circles moved. It was an enormous money laundering scheme.
JEFFREY SMITH: 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.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Even in this town, where huge sums are routinely paid as the price of political access, what sets this tale apart, what makes it truly extraordinary, is the extent and degree of the apparent exploitation and deceit.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the new Bill Moyers documentary Capitol Crimes, the first of a three-part investigative documentary series called “Moyers on America,” that's airing on PBS over the next three weeks. Bill Moyers joins us now in the firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!
BILL MOYERS: Good to see you again.
AMY GOODMAN: It's great to be with you, Bill. Why did you choose to start the series with Abramoff?
BILL MOYERS: A year ago, I saw the dots adding up, and very few people at that time in broadcasting were connecting them. And I’ve spent a lot of time in Washington, and I’ve followed the money for 25 years now as a journalist, and I saw this was something different, of a magnitude larger than I had seen before, bigger than Abscam, bigger than the money laundering of the 1980s. And I realized that we needed to put this together for the American people so that they could see that these isolated stories out of Washington represented a larger pattern of corruption that defies the imagination.
AMY GOODMAN: Washington's report on Friday, the report of Abramoff and his colleagues’ 400 contacts with the White House.
BILL MOYERS: We knew there were more than we report in our documentary, but we couldn't -- the Freedom of Information Act request had not been issued yet. So we put together on the record what we had, and we knew that there were about a hundred or more, but now this official report from the bipartisan report says there were over 400. You know, the men who came to Washington in the 1980s to lead the Republican conservative revolution wound up running a racket. And Abramoff was their outside man, outside the White House, outside the infrastructure, but he was very welcome inside the government. He had very good ties with Karl Rove, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. It was all part of an apparatus that was designed to launder money.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that beginning, how Jack Abramoff made his way in, his college years, and his cohorts and how they came together.
BILL MOYERS: In 1982, he was elected president of the College Republicans. This is the organization that had catapulted Lee Atwater to power and Karl Rove to begin his ascent in the Republican Party. And they were all -- they came together, Abramoff and Norquist and Ralph Reed. There's a wonderful shot in the documentary of Ralph Reed leading a demonstration against the government of Nicaragua on the Capitol streets and Capitol Mall in 1983 or ’84. They were all virulent anti-communist, virulent anti-liberals. I mean, in a car ride after his first visit to the White House, Jack Abramoff told someone, “Our job is to get rid of the liberals in power permanently.”
I mean, these were ideologically driven obsessed young men, who were buying into the, quote, “Reagan revolution,” out of a strong desire to quash dissent and opposition. He was tied up -- they were all -- many of them were tied up with the apartheid regime in South Africa. Abramoff ran a think tank that had money coming in part from the apartheid regime. He went out to Hollywood and made movies designed to make the apartheid regime look good. I mean, these were -- there's no other term for it. They were obsessed with ideology. They were obsessed with crushing all opposition to them. And that was the beginning.
AMY GOODMAN: When we come back from break, we're going to talk about the relationship between Ralph Reed, Jack Abramoff, Native Americans, also Grover Norquist who is absolutely key in Washington today. We're talking to Bill Moyers. We'll be back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: As we turn now back to Capitol Crimes, this next clip details how Jack Abramoff bilked the Choctaw Indian tribe. The tribe paid Jack Abramoff over $7 million in lobbying fees over a five-year period. It also looks at powerful Republican operatives Grover Norquist’s and Ralph Reed's involvement in the scheme.
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. We’d just, you know, “So what? Let them have their casino.” We didn't know, nobody knew they were multi-billion dollar entities. Just, 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: But in the mid-1990s, Reed left to set up his own political consulting firm, and he sent an email to his old friend Jack Abramoff, who was now known on K Street as “Casino Jack.” This is what Reed wrote:
EMAIL 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 longtime 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. Emails 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:
EMAIL 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.
EMAIL FROM RALPH REED: We have fronted $100K, which is a lot for us.
BILL MOYERS: Abramoff promised to do what he could.
EMAIL FROM JACK ABRAMOFF: Any chance that a wire from Choctaw directly would be OK?
BILL MOYERS: Just days later, Reed tells Abramoff:
EMAIL FROM RALPH REED: We are opening the bomb bays and holding nothing back.
EMAIL 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.
EMAIL 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:
EMAIL FROM JACK ABRAMOFF: Call Ralph re Grover doing pass-through.
BILL MOYERS: And then tells Reed:
EMAIL 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.
EMAIL 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.
AMY GOODMAN: A clip of Capitol Crimes from “Moyers on America.” Bill Moyers in our studio today. Remarkable.
BILL MOYERS: Remarkable that, you know, Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist have not been accused of any illegal activity. I mean, the investigation is still going on, but the sad part of this is that so much of it is legal. I mean, Jeffrey Birnbaum of the Washington Post recently wrote a piece in the Washington Monthly, saying, “Let's stop calling this legal bribery. This is bribery.” At the heart of every admission and every confession that has been made in this investigation are campaign contributions and huge fees from clients trying to get favors out of Washington. And these three guys set up an operation that enriched Norquist, Americans for [Tax Reform], and Reed's own pockets. I mean, Reed was getting all of this money in order to persuade his fell Christians to oppose gambling initiatives that would have been competitive to Abramoff, but he never told them that he was actually working for the gambling industry.
AMY GOODMAN: And especially for young people who don't realize Ralph Reed's position as former head of the Moral Majority --
BILL MOYERS: ”The right hand of God” at that time, that cover story on Time magazine back in the ’80s. The rank hypocrisy of so many of these people is saddening, the way ordinary people have been taken for a ride.
AMY GOODMAN: I just want to correct that: head of Christian Coalition.
BILL MOYERS: Christian Coalition.
AMY GOODMAN: Right. And then goes to become a lobbyist.
BILL MOYERS: Yes. And at the same time, he's still making speeches to these rather -- I mean, DeLay, you haven't seen yet much about DeLay, but Tom DeLay, even to this day, even after he's been indicted, is out speaking to religious rallies and patriotic rallies and political rallies. You know, the interesting thing to me, Amy, is that some of the people you saw interviewed on camera are principal conservatives, young men who served with Abramoff in the early days of the conservative revolution. They're aghast that these guys are doing exactly what they said the Democrats did when they were in power for 40 years in Congress, that it's money and greed are driving these people. And some of our best witnesses come from conservatives who are fed up with this.
AMY GOODMAN: You had the clip of one of the partners of Preston Gates. Can you talk about the old lobbyist versus these new ones?
BILL MOYERS: Well, the old lobbyists worked for fewer zeros after the dollar sign. And somebody said to me, “What's different between this and the past?” Well, what's different is the number of zeros after the dollar sign and the fact that when Norquist and Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay put together the K Street Project to turn Washington into a Republican town, they created a money machine. They hired only members of Congress -- corporations were told only to hire Republicans. The lobbyists were then -- as lobbyists. The lobbyists were then told to contribute only to Republicans. And they created a machine that could enforce the rules of paying to play. And so it's of a magnitude greater than anything in the past, and the sums of money are exorbitant.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Bill Moyers, this issue of the sums of money, it's not only money, but it's where that money is coming from -- for example, the Native American tribes, as we've just seen. And we want to go on on that issue with this next clip that explores Jack Abramoff's scheme to shake down the Coushatta Indian tribe of Louisiana. It begins with William Worfel, vice chair of the Tribal Council from 2001 to 2005.
WILLIAM WORFEL: Jack Abramoff, the first time I met him, he came to a council meeting, him and Mike Scanlon. Jack was sharp dressed, you know, smooth, I mean. And Mike, Mike was sharper. You know, I mean, Mike was flashy. You know, now, you know, 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: When they would come here, they were your best friend. They would, like, 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, you know, that he understood our cause, you know, because he was a Jew and his people had been, you know, took advantage of, been mistreated, so he understood, you know. He threw a good pitch there, you know?
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 weren't familiar with all the laws in Texas. That's why we hired experts, so-called experts, you know, 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: 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:
EMAIL FROM MIKE SCANLON: Coushatta is an absolute cake walk. Your cut on the project as proposed is at least 800K.
EMAIL 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.
EMAIL 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 emails to Abramoff were insistent: he needed money, and he needed it now. At one point, Abramoff responded:
EMAIL FROM JACK ABRAMOFF: Give me a number.
EMAIL FROM RALPH REED: $225K a week for TV; $450K for two weeks of TV.
EMAIL FROM JACK ABRAMOFF: Ralph, they are going to faint when they see these numbers.
BILL MOYERS: But Reed claimed he was worth it.
EMAIL FROM RALPH REED: We have over 50 pastors mobilized, with a total membership in the 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. 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Lou Dubose, the co-author of The Hammer, at the end of that clip on “Moyers on America,” Capitol Crimes. The level of -- I mean, when you were talking about legal bribes, shakedowns, as opposed to, well, “this is just a matter of degree.”
BILL MOYERS: And this is just a microcosm. Our whole system of campaign contributions and money in politics has become a great money laundering machine, a great shakedown machine. I mean, a front-page story today in the Times about how earmarks have been used by John Murtha, the very respected Democratic member of the House in Pennsylvania to make it impossible for some Democrats to go over and oppose Republican proposals that were anathema.
I mean, what this shows is that these men were not in isolation, they were not acting on their own. They needed the support of the Republican infrastructure, the corporate infrastructure, the political infrastructure of Washington, the relation between Congress and the corporations. And the only thing that -- people tell me, well, they get dispirited after watching this. Well I hope not, that you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. What we need is a grassroots movement to reduce the influence of money in politics. That's the message of this. Abramoff, DeLay and Norquist are just the tip of the iceberg.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Ralph Reed a part of that. On this issue of who they were taking advantage of and where this goes, I think for a lot of people, it's one word. It's just “corruption.” And it doesn't go beyond that. Abramoff's dealt with. That's the end of it.
BILL MOYERS: It's money. It's greed. And there will be a new generation. You have to realize that the Native tribes, very wealthy tribes, they were looking for something. They put up this money, because, first of all, they wanted not to be taxed on their casino earnings. And that's the argument that Norquist used when he was inviting them to the White House. I mean, as the documentary says, George W. Bush, the new president, had not even found the linen closets in the White House before Norquist was bringing Indian chiefs to the White House as a result of their contributions to the Americans for Taxpayer Reform.
So the tribes were not innocent here. They were doing what big corporations do, what wealthy individuals do. They were hiring, buying the policies they wanted. He wanted -- the tribes wanted low taxes or no taxes on their earnings. And then they wanted provisions sneaked into different bills that would keep their competitors from setting up rival operations in the states that allowed gambling. So it's all a part of the greed of American politics today.
AMY GOODMAN: And has there been an uprising, with Ralph Reed playing both sides here, being funded by the gamblers to fight gambling at a Christian evangelical level?
BILL MOYERS: I think there's been a quiet disgust among the more principled conservative organizations. In fact, the Alabama Christian Coalition, which was a real sucker here -- they were used to launder money from Norquist to Reed -- they've changed their name recently. And Reed, it must be said that Reed was defeated in his campaign to be elected -- to win the Republican nomination for the lieutenant governorship of Georgia. He was defeated by Christian and conservative conservatives who were aghast at what they were learning about Reed's role in all of this. So you have to say that if more people knew what was going on, I think there would be an uprising.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Moyers, we're going to go to break, and then the last clip we're going to play is about Russian oil money. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. Bill Moyers is with us. He is doing a three-part series, “Moyers in America.” He's looking at the internet. He's looking at the Christian evangelical movement and the environment. But this first is looking at Jack Abramoff. It's called Capitol Crimes. Stay with us.