In Washington, the most outrageous sins are legal

  • Jon Margolis


On the grand stage of political tragicomedy, the spotlight rarely shines on the Council for Republican Environmental Advocacy, prestigious though its origins may be.

The nonprofit CREA was founded by Gale Norton, now secretary of the Interior, shortly after she lost the 1996 Republican U.S. Senate primary in Colorado. Helping finance it was Grover Norquist, one of the leading conservative strategist/operatives in all the land. Running it day-to-day was Norton’s acolyte, one Italia Federici.

It would be a slight exaggeration to say that CREA’s policy proposals are 180 degrees from those of green organizations like the Sierra Club. Say 150 degrees, far more consistent with the mining and chemical industries that help fund it.

Well, CREA finally made the headlines, but not for making a public policy statement or helping a candidate get elected. It’s in the papers because Federici, who still runs it, was, for a time, just one step ahead of the federal marshals. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain sent them after her because she ignored a subpoena to appear before his Indian Affairs Committee on Nov. 2. (Rather than get tossed in the hoosegow, Federici appeared on Nov. 17, insisting she had done no wrong. The committee members did not seem impressed, and she is likely to hear from them again.) The committee is investigating the lobbying activities of another friend of Federici, and of Norquist — Washington, D.C., lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Abramoff is already under indictment for allegedly giving a prospective lender a counterfeit financial document as he and a business partner sought financing to buy a casino cruise line in 2000. He is perhaps most notorious, however, for remarks he made to his partners about the American Indians who were paying him to secure casino approval for their tribes and deny it to neighboring tribes. In e-mails unearthed by the Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act, Abramoff referred to his Indian clients as "troglodytes" and "morons," even as he was convincing them to contribute to the campaigns of powerful Republican congressmen, and a few well-connected organizations — including Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform and, yes, Norton’s old outfit, the Council for Republican Environmental Advocacy.

A little back-scratching goes a long way

To understand the Abramoff-Norton story, it is well to bear in mind the following, related truths: (1) In politics, what is truly outrageous is not what is criminal, but what is legal; (2) It is all but impossible for large-scale gambling enterprises to avoid corruption. This is not just because, in the words of someone who worked for one of America’s leading gangsters, "Only thieves can run racetracks or gambling houses." It is also because these gambling houses are legal, indeed government-approved.

That means political appointees have the power to approve or deny licenses to make tens of millions of dollars. To grant such power when money dominates politics is to provide what the economists would call a marginal incentive to steal. It makes the rise of an opportunist like Abramoff all but inevitable.

Here’s how this particular tale played out: In 2002, Abramoff was intent on preventing the Jena Band of Choctaws in Louisiana from getting approval to build a casino. That’s because it would compete with a nearby casino owned by his clients, the Coushatta Tribe. Such approvals are granted or denied by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, part of the Interior Department, Gale Norton, prop.

According to documents ferreted out by the Washington Post, Abramoff arranged for the Coushatta and other client tribes of his to make contributions to CREA, Norton’s baby, totaling $225,000 from 2001 through 2003.

Abramoff then got CREA President Federici to try to convince Norton’s then-deputy secretary, J. Steven Griles, to oppose the Jena application. "This is the casino we discussed with Steve and he said that it would not happen," Abramoff e-mailed Federici in late 2002.

"I will call him asap," Federici e-mailed in reply, two days before meeting with Griles in his office. Indian gambling has nothing to do with the environment, CREA’s supposed mission. Nor was Griles in the Bureau of Indian Affairs chain of command. Still, Griles was not without clout at Interior; at any rate, the Jena do not have their casino. At the Nov. 2 Senate committee hearing, the one Federici skipped, Griles, who has since left the government to become — are you ready? — a lobbyist, denied that he influenced the casino decision. "I don’t recall intervening on behalf of Mr. Abramoff’s clients ever," he said. The senators did not seem convinced.

A revolving money stream

The Coushatta were not just paying Abramoff and his partners (some $32 million over four years) and contributing to CREA. Like Abramoff’s other clients, they were also, at his suggestion, making campaign contributions to leading Republican congressmen who wrote letters opposing the Jena casino.

Abramoff and his tribal clients have also given the political committees of Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who chairs the Senate Interior Appropriations Committee, a total of $136,500 over the past four years. Last year, the committee approved a $3 million grant to the Saginaw Chippewa tribe of Michigan, an Abramoff client that has extensive gambling operations and would seem not to need the money — except, of course, to pay its lobbyists, and to make the political contributions Abramoff recommends.

The situation then seems to be a revolving money stream, from the federal treasury to private interests who pay lobbyists and make campaign contributions to ensure that the money from the federal treasury keeps coming.

This circular cash flow is not limited to Indian casinos, or to Jack Abramoff. It’s the pattern among drug companies, electric utilities, defense firms, even some universities and other nonprofits. Most of the other lobbyists are just more restrained, and perhaps more refined, than Abramoff. Unlike Abramoff, they don’t end up owning restaurants where a steak dinner can cost $74. If they take congressmen and clients for fancy golf trips to Europe, they are more careful to follow the rules.

And favors and funds have helped determine government policy since long before the Bush administration. But the problem has grown during this administration because one party controls both the legislative and executive branches. That party is highly disciplined, and it deeply believes that its friends should make all the money they possibly can.

When Bush became president, there were about 16,000 lobbyists in Washington. There are now something like 35,000. But only one of them, Jack Abramoff, has joined the ranks of Washington’s favorite whipping boys.

This should give us pause. When Washington chants in one mass chorus over the sins of a specific offender, it is time to wonder whether Washington is taking the easy way out.

Jon Margolis covered politics for the Chicago Tribune from 1973 to 1995. He now lives in Barton, Vermont.

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