Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Devil Inside Ralph Reed

“The devil made me do it.”The Nation has a long hard look at the demon...
The Christian Coalition co-founder's first campaign for public office--lieutenant governor of Georgia, a position Reed and his fans envision as a stepping stone to bigger things--has turned into a waking nightmare. Every week brings a new revelation about the millions in dirty money Reed earned by duping his fellow evangelicals into putting their political muscle behind "Casino Jack" Abramoff's gambling clients. Reed's huge leads in both popularity polls and fundraising have almost disappeared. Instead of making his triumphant debut as a politician, the man Time magazine called "The Right Hand of God" is fast becoming the new poster boy for Christian-right corruption.

But here, Reed expects a hero's welcome. As an undergraduate dynamo at the University of Georgia in the late 1970s and early '80s, Reed turned the Georgia CRs into a political machine that helped elect the state's first Republican US senator since Reconstruction. "Tricky Ralph," as he was known on campus, went on to make a similar splash with the national CRs, teaming with the equally tricky pair of Abramoff, who was national CR chairman in the early 1980s, and Grover Norquist, whose Americans for Tax Reform is also caught up in the scandal. (...)

Last June Georgia's former GOP House minority leader, Bob Irvin, blasted Reed in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed. "His M.O. is to tell evangelical Christians that his cause of the moment, for which he has been hired, is their religious duty," Irvin fumed. "As an evangelical myself, I resent Christianity being used simply to help Reed's business." (...)

From 1999 to 2002 Reed's Georgia-based consulting firm, Century Strategies, set up "anti-gambling" coalitions in Alabama, Louisiana and Texas to oppose proposed new casinos (and in one case to shut down an existing one). Reed convinced dozens of influential pastors in those states, along with some of the biggest national names on the evangelical right--Dobson, Phyllis Schlafly, Gary Bauer, Donald Wildmon, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson--to mobilize their flocks in a series of successful anti-casino campaigns. The front groups Reed established, with upright names like Citizens Against Legalized Gambling, organized religious rallies, sent out mass mailings decrying the evils of wagering and flooded legislators and state officials with thousands of calls from concerned Christians. (...)

In Texas alone, Reed reportedly raked in more than $4 million for organizing fake anti-gambling campaigns and strong-arming Republican officials while failing to register with the state as a lobbyist, a criminal offense. (He also failed to register for his clandestine lobbying efforts on behalf of another Abramoff client, Channel One, the in-school network loathed by "pro-family" conservatives.) Three public-interest groups in Texas filed a complaint against Reed in December for failing to register his lobbying; he could have been jailed for up to one year if convicted. But in March prosecutor David Escamilla declined to pursue the investigation, citing a two-year statute of limitations in the Texas lobbying law. By hiding his activities cannily enough that it took three years to expose them, Reed squirmed out of trouble on a technicality. (...)

Reed has denied from the start that he knew Abramoff was paying him with gambling money. But their e-mail exchanges, made public by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, indicate that Reed knew where his bread was being buttered. In a 1999 e-mail Abramoff asked him to "get me invoices as soon as possible so I can get Choctaw to get us checks ASAP." In a 1999 e-mail Abramoff asked him to "get me invoices as soon as possible so I can get Choctaw to get us checks ASAP." In 2000 Abramoff told Reed, "The firm has held back all payments pending receipt of a check from Choctaw." The correspondence also shows that Reed played an active role in diverting tribal money through faux Christian-right groups like the US Family Network. Rather than receive his payoffs directly from Abramoff, or from the casino-owning tribes he represented, Reed made sure his checks came from pure-sounding sources. ("That's sometimes called laundering," Senator Byron Dorgan archly commented during Indian Affairs hearings last spring.) So byzantine was the whole arrangement that it sounds almost farcical in a 2001 message from Abramoff explaining a delay in paying Reed: "The originating entity had to transfer to a separate account before they transferred it to the entity which is going to transfer it to you."

While the Abramoff scandals are plenty damning on their own, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has uncovered a pattern of similar instances in which Reed "tapped into his vast network of conservative religious activists" to do the bidding of big-money clients.(...)

Given the Reed scandal's potential to erode evangelicals' faith in politics, it's no surprise that the main reaction among movement leaders has thus far been "an embarrassing silence," to quote Ken Connor, the former head of Dobson's Family Research Council. ...(more)

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