March 2006 Church & State | Featured

The spread of legalized gambling has Religious Right honcho James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family in a veritable tizzy.

“If the nation’s politicians don’t fix this national disaster, then the oceans of gambling money with which Jack Abramoff tried to buy influence on Capitol Hill will only be the beginning of the corruption we’ll see,” Dobson thundered in a January press release issued by his Focus on the Family Action group.

“Gambling – all types of gambling – is driven by greed and subsists on greed,” continued Dobson. “That makes it morally bankrupt from its very foundation. Gambling creates addicts, breeds crime and destroys families. We need courageous office holders who will begin the process of shutting down lotteries, casinos and other gambling outlets.”

Dobson was referring to a scandal unfolding in the nation’s capital over the corrupting influence of lobbyists with deep pockets and concrete goals. Abramoff, a well-connected D.C. lobbyist who frequently worked for gambling interests, has pled guilty to various illegal activities and is promising to tell all about the shady deals he cooked up with members of Congress.

It may be painful for Dobson to acknowledge, but the FOF head himself has been touched by the long arm of the Abramoff scandal. Three and half years ago, Dobson was lured, apparently unknowingly, into a plan that helped further the spread of legalized gambling through an Abramoff-hatched scheme. Thanks to right-wing political operative Ralph Reed, Dobson was rolled like a pair of Las Vegas dice – all on behalf of an Indian casino.

Dobson’s cameo role in the Abramoff scandal hasn’t made headlines, and it came about only through the intervention of Reed, a man Dobson undoubtedly considered a friend. Yet observers say the incident underscores an overlooked aspect of the Religious Right’s newfound political power: The closer these groups get to the machinery of Washington politics, the more likely they are to be drawn into the scandals that all too often mar the political system.

Reed, the former Christian Coalition leader turned political consultant, is up to his widow’s peak in the Abramoff affair. At one point, it looked like he might drag as many religious conservatives with him as he could.

In 2002, Reed rallied Religious Right leaders to oppose a new casino proposed by the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians in Louisiana. Dobson was tapped due to his well-known opposition to legalized gambling, but according to published accounts, Reed never bothered to tell Dobson that he was working on behalf of another Indian tribe that already operated a casino. Those Indians, the Coushatta, were obviously not opponents of legalized gambling; they simply didn’t want any competition.

Reed made the rounds of the Religious Right, posing as an anti-gambling warrior. He contacted the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association; Gary Bauer, former head of the Family Research Council, and long-time Religious Right activist Phyllis Schlafly. At Reed’s urging, each sent letters to the U.S. Interior Department, urging that the Jena Band’s request be denied.

But Dobson was the biggest fish, and when Reed hooked him, his handlers were ecstatic. Reed, working under Abramoff, urged Dobson to use his radio network to attack the Jena Band’s proposal. Abramoff and his staff knew well the power of Dobson’s microphone. Just the rumor that he might go off on the air so rattled officials at the Interior Department that the Jena Band’s plan quickly sank.

As the Washington Post reported, a pleased Abramoff employee wrote in an e-mail that Reed “may finally have scored for us! Dobson goes up on the radio this week!”

E-mails between Abramoff and Reed suggest no small amount of cynicism as the two discussed their plans for Religious Right leaders. At one point, Abramoff, noting he had promised his clients that pressure would be brought in Washington, e-mailed Reed to ask, “Where are we with Falwell, Robertson, Dobson, etc.? We need to see some action in D.C. That’s what I sold them for $100K.”

Reed often looks no better, coming off as avaricious. In one e-mail to Abramoff, he joked that money owed him should be sent to “the Reed Family Retirement and Educational Foundation” in the Cayman Islands – a location notorious for its loose banking laws and reputation as an off-shore tax shelter.

For his efforts, Reed walked away with a cool $4 million. The grassroots followers of the Religious Right were left only with egg on their faces.

When the truth came out, Dobson was not a happy man.

“We have no desire to work with the gambling interests,” Ron Reno, an assistant to Dobson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in June. “We believe it compromises our integrity.”

Is what happened to Dobson an inevitable price of the Religious Right’s partisan political involvement? Some evangelicals say yes.

“In their quest for political influence, American evangelical leaders have sold themselves to the power brokers in Washington,” charges Richard V. Pierard, Stephen Phillips Professor of History at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass. “For them, the many Bible passages having to do with the poor, social justice and the corrosive effects of wealth and power are viewed as irrelevant. Even as American evangelicalism is facing the greatest crisis in its history, its leaders and docile followers are being weighed in the balances and are found wanting. Where is the call for repentance that needs to come from its leaders?”

Pierard, who describes himself as “a life-long evangelical Christian and a Baptist,” added, “Their voices are silent because they are now safely ensconced in the cushy seats of power in Caesar’s palace. Those of us who try to call them to account for their failings are casually dismissed as ‘liberals’ and the attack dogs sent out to silence us. These are indeed desperate times; evangelicals are a major part of the problem, not the solution.”

 Some conservative evangelicals seem to be waking up to the fact that interest in them as a political force is not always innocent. In a surprisingly hard-hitting piece, the evangelical news magazine World in January noted that several conservative Christian leaders had been caught in Abramoff’s dragnet. The article pointed out that some “are hesitant to explain fully their connections with the lobbyist.”

Reed refused to talk to World writer Jamie Dean. But Dean pulled no punches, noting that Reed had worked repeatedly with Abramoff to protect gambling interests. In 1999, for example, Reed, Abramoff and Abramoff’s partner, Michael Scanlon, worked to defeat pro-gambling legislation in Alabama.

The trio’s goals were hardly laudatory. In fact, they were working on behalf of the Choctaw Indians in neighboring Mississippi, who feared that an Alabama casino would cut into their action.

It was a pattern the lobbyists would repeat over and over again – lobbying evangelicals so they would join efforts to block a proposed gambling expansion, when that block just happened to benefit an entrenched gambling interest.

In an e-mail to a lawyer, Scanlon explained it this way: “Simply put we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them. The wackos get their information [from] the Christian right, Christian radio, mail, the internet, and telephone.”

As World reported, “To that end, Mr. Reed worked on at least three separate projects for Mr. Abramoff from 1999 to 2002. E-mails released by the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee suggest Mr. Reed worked with Mr. Abramoff to funnel tribal money through intermediary organizations to anti-gambling groups and to his own firm, Century Strategies.”

In 2000, Reed arranged for the Mississippi Choctaws to send $850,000 to the Christian Coalition of Alabama. The group used the money to oppose a casino that was proposed for the state. Again, the Mississippi Indians were merely trying to protect their turf, but Alabama Coalition officials concluded the donation was acceptable because it came from the Choctaws’ non-gambling operations.

Reed formed Century Strategies in 1997 after leaving the Christian Coalition. Based in suburban Atlanta, the organization was first described as a political consulting group, and Reed said his plan was to help more socially conservative Republicans get elected to public office.

Such work can be lucrative, but Reed apparently had his eye on bigger fish: corporate lobbying accounts. Employing rather straight-forward language, Reed wrote to Abramoff in 1998, “I need to start humping in corporate accounts. I’m counting on you to help me with some contacts.”

Reed, who is currently seeking the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor in Georgia, insists he has done no wrong. He maintains that he had no idea gambling proceeds were so often behind his paychecks. In December, he told a gathering of young conservatives, “Had I known then what I know now, I would not have undertaken that work. On reflection and with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear it associated my long-standing opposition to gambling with those who did not share it and had caused difficulty for the faith community with whom I have worked, which I deeply regret.”

Reed also insists that he opposed the spread of gambling in Texas and Alabama and that his efforts were beneficial.

“Many marriages and lives were saved,” he said. “Many children were spared the consequences of gambling be­cause of the work I did.”

Yet documents released in the Abra­moff affair make Reed’s denials hard to accept. The papers show that Reed’s group received money from shell organizations fronting for Indian tribes, and critics say Reed must have known the source of these funds.

The Washington Post reported that in June of 2000, Abramoff sent a $150,000 check from eLottery, a firm that promoted online gambling, to conservative activist Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist then wrote a check for the same amount payable to the Faith and Family Alliance, a Reed-formed front group run by Robin Vanderwall, a Regent University Law School student and conservative operative. Vanderwall in turn wrote a check for $150,000 and sent it to Reed’s Century Strategies.

Vanderwall is currently serving a prison term for soliciting sex with minors over the internet. He told The Post he simply followed instruction from Reed’s firm and added, “I was operating as a shell. I regret having had anything to do with it.”

Channeling funds through various entities to mask their source was apparently a standard Abramoff ploy. In March of 2001, Reed, anxious for an overdue payment, e-mailed Abramoff for an update.

Abramoff replied, “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.”

Reed also must have been aware of Abramoff’s hard-driving tactics. The two men were not just casual business associates. In fact, their relationship spanned years, and they were close on a personal level. The two worked together on the College Republican National Committee in the early 1980s, and Abramoff later helped Reed organize politically conservative Jews after TV preacher Pat Robertson’s presidential campaign collapsed in 1988 and he decided to form the Christian Coalition. Reed introduced Abramoff to the woman who eventually became Abramoff’s wife.

The close ties Reed and Abramoff shared with the conservative evangelical community has sparked what some say is a curious reaction about the scandal from the Religious Right: utter silence.

That has not gone unnoticed. On Jan. 25, Ken Connor, chairman of the Center for a Just Society, penned an opinion piece for Baptist Press, the news service of the Southern Baptist Convention, rebuking Religious Right leaders for their silence.

“Public interest groups of all stripes have weighed in on the need for reform, but one voice has been strangely silent – that of Christian conservatives,” wrote Connor, who once headed the Family Research Council. “The so-called religious right (with which this writer has oft been identified) has not been hesitant in the last two decades to ‘speak truth to power.’ Evangeli­cal and Catholic leaders have not been shy about speaking of ‘right and wrong’ in the public square. Nor have they been hesitant to invoke Scripture where they felt it applied to the issue under consideration. But voices of religious conservatives have been largely AWOL in the current debate. One likely explanation for some of the silence is that two figures closely identified with the movement, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, are neck deep in the scandal.”

Connor’s piece could have been a subtle dig at Tony Perkins, the former Louisiana state legislator who took his job at FRC. Perkins’ name has surfaced in media accounts about the Abramoff scandal. World reported that Reed reached out to Perkins in 2001 to enlist his help in killing a pro-gambling bill in Louisiana. Perkins was then in the state legislature, and in an e-mail, Reed wrote to Abramoff, “Tony Perkins had requested money last month to kill this bill.”

No other details were given, and Perkins insists he never talked with Reed about the issue. Perkins said he discussed the bill with a Louisiana GOP activist who was working with Reed and that he merely recommended money be spent to operate phone banks.

Aside from fears of being personally implicated in the scandal, Religious Right leaders may have another reason for remaining silent over Abramoff: Although money from some Abramoff clients went to Democrats, most of it ended up in the coffers of GOP officeholders. Abramoff was known for his years of conservative activism and worked primarily with the Republicans. By criticizing Abramoff and the culture of corruption he helped spawn, the Religious Right would have to at least indirectly attack the Republican Party. Movement leaders are not in the habit of doing that.

Former House Majority Leader DeLay is a good example. DeLay’s indictment on charges that he criminally conspired with associates to inject illegal corporate contributions into Texas’ 2002 elections has not dampened Religious Right support for him one iota. In fact, many Religious Right organizations persist in portraying DeLay as a martyr who is under fire by partisan Democrats.

Other Religious Right leaders are undoubtedly leery of criticizing Abramoff while they cannot resist the lure of easy money themselves. In 2000, the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, whose Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) claims to represent thousands of churches, accepted money from eLottery, which hired Abramoff to help it get around federal laws designed to crack down on internet-based gambling.

The eLottery firm wanted to make it easier for people to play lotteries in other states by selling tickets online, but a 1999 federal law designed to crack down on Web-based gambling had hampered the company’s growth. The firm hired Abramoff, who subsequently tapped Reed.

As The Washington Post reported, “To reach the House conservatives, Abramoff turned to Sheldon, leader of the Orange County, Calif.-based Traditional Values Coalition, a politically potent group that publicly opposed gambling and said it represented 43,000 churches. Abramoff had teamed up with Sheldon before on issues affecting his clients. Because of their previous success, Abramoff called Sheldon ‘Lucky Louie,’ former associates said.”

In June of 2000, Abramoff asked eLottery to write a check for $25,000 to Sheldon’s TVC. In an e-mail, Abramoff’s assistant, Susan Ralston, asked what should be done with the check for TVC and a separate check made out to Norquist’s Ameri­cans for Tax Reform. Abramoff instructed Ralston to send the $25,000 check directly to Sheldon. The check for Norquist was funneled through a Religious Right front group founded by two Reed associates.

Sheldon, The Post reported, got right to work, “holding news conferences and buttonholing House conservatives to argue against the bill.” Sheldon even finagled a private meeting with DeLay and urged him to stop the bill. When the bill failed in the House that July on a procedural vote, Abramoff was ecstatic. One of his lobbyists, Patrick Pizzella, sent an e-mail the next day reporting how Sheldon reacted.

“There was lucky Louie out front hi-fiving with some lobbyists,” wrote Pizzella.

Sheldon later insisted he had no idea Abramoff was working for a pro-gambling group, but critics pointed out that Sheldon had fronted for the gambling industry before. Casino owners and a racetrack paid TVC $20,000 in 1994 and 1998 to encourage Sheldon to oppose the spread of other forms of gambling because they did not want the competition.

The Post found Sheldon’s defense hard to swallow. In an editorial, the paper wrote that the story put forth by “Lucky Louie” did not add up, asserting that it’s hard to believe that “despite receiving a $25,000 check from eLottery, [Sheldon] somehow didn’t realize that Mr. Abra­moff or the company was involved.”

(Another Religious Right group, Rabbi Daniel Lapin’s Toward Tradition, also received eLottery money. The group was given $25,000 to temporarily hire Lisa Rudy, wife of Tony C. Rudy, a senior aide to DeLay. Like Sheldon, Lapin insists he cannot remember receiving money from eLottery.)

For Religious Right groups, the picture only looks bleak as the scandal continues to unfold. Criminal charges are not out of the question. Three public-interest groups in Texas have asked officials in Travis County to investigate whether Reed violated state laws dealing with registration by lobbyists. The groups, Common Cause Texas, Public Citizen Texas and Texans for Public Justice, alleged that Reed lobbied the Texas legislature on Abramoff’s behalf without first registering as a lobbyist.

The complaint also alleged that Reed lured former Texas Christian Coalition head Chuck Anderson into the scheme and that Anderson also lobbied state lawmakers without first registering. Travis County Attorney David Escamilla is considering launching a criminal investigation into the matter.

In Texas, Reed masterminded a plan to mobilize conservative Christian opposition to two Indian casinos operating in El Paso and Livingston. The status of these casinos was legally dubious, and the Coushatta Tribe in neighboring Louisiana wanted to see them shut down.

Reed formed a front group, the Committee Against Gam­bling Expansion, to press for this goal. The conservative Chris­tians who were mobilized through right-wing talk radio, e-mail alerts and other forums had no idea their efforts were ultimately helping entrenched gambling interests elsewhere.

How has all of this affected Reed? His attempt to gain the nomination for the lieutenant governor’s slot has been more difficult than some had expected. The Atlanta Journal-Consti­tution reported in January that Reed had to pay the way for some of his supporters to attend a recent meeting of the Georgia Christian Coalition.

Phill DaCosta, a Christian Coalition volunteer, told the paper he could no longer support Reed. DaCosta conceded that Reed was his political inspiration, remarking, “A lot of it comes from the Ralph Reed school of thought. I’ve been through his seminars, I’ve read his books. It’s very obvious he put money before our agenda. That upset me. I want an apology saying, ‘What I did was wrong.’”

Will the Abramoff scandal hurt the Religious Right’s political efforts? Some observers say the potential is there.

“The short answer is that the Religious Right could suffer in the wake of the lobbying scandal,” said John Green, a University of Akron political science professor who studies the Religious Right. “In fact, many conservative Christians have worried about this problem for some time.”

Continued Green, “By and large, religious conservatives at the grassroots became involved in politics because of the ‘moral’ issues, such as abortion, and not for general political purposes. And historically religious conservatives were deeply skeptical of the political process precisely because it was perceived as corrupt. So the involvement of Republican leaders and some conservative Christian leaders in the scandal is likely to be deeply discouraging. It could lead the rank-and–file to be less active in politics in the future.”