Abramoff and DeLay. Don't believe Novak.

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Over the weekend Bob Novak wrote that Tom DeLay won't be implicated by Jack Abramoff's deal with federal prosecutors:

 

Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff has advised friends that he has no derogatory information about former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and is not implicating him as part of his plea bargain with federal prosecutors.

 

I find that hard to swallow. Particularly in light of Jeff Smith's Washington Post story this weekend. More on that -- much more -- in a minute.

 

Perhaps Abramoff has so much on so many others that he can withhold information and still get leniency in sentencing. With the intricate network of former DeLay staffers Abramoff used to ply his "trade" -- people like Ed Buckham (see below), Michael Scanlon, Tony Rudy, etc. -- and that many of these former staffers used Abramoff's clients' money to pay DeLay's wife Christine, all the circumstantial evidence points to Novak being misinformed at best. But why would a columnist like Novak go out on a limb like this?

 

Novak does write that others should worry:

 

However, Abramoff has not given a clean bill of health to any other congressman -- including Rep. Robert Ney, who has stepped down as chairman of the House Administration Committee.

 

But this "DeLay is off the hook" stuff is Bizarre with a capital B. Even if Abramoff doesn't sing, DeLay seems like he's in a whole lot of hot water.

 

The other big breaking story this weekend involved one such former staffer -- Ed Buckham -- and Abramoff. The Post's Jeff Smith follows up his December blockbuster story on Buckham and his U.S. Family Network with a second expose regarding how Buckham used the so-called nonprofit to enrich himself and his wife, at Abramoff's clients' expense:

 

DeLay's former chief of staff, Edwin A. Buckham, who helped create the group while still in DeLay's employ, and his wife, Wendy, were the principal beneficiaries of the group's $3.02 million in revenue, collecting payments totaling $1,022,729 during a five-year period ending in 2001, public and private records show.

 

Just so you know, this is a very long story with lots of twists. I poist a lot of it here, but I also recommend the Post's graphic describing how the money came in, why it came, and what it was spent on. Fascinating.

 

Buckham apparently continued to pull the strings in DeLay's office even after he left, according to former staffers:

 

Even though Buckham left DeLay's staff at the end of 1997, he still coordinated much of the congressional office's work and ran DeLay's principal fundraising committee from a building bought with USFN money, according to three former DeLay staff members who said they had firsthand knowledge of his role then.

 

"If an individual called DeLay's appointments secretary saying they wanted to talk to DeLay about overregulation, the appointment secretary would say go speak to Buckham," one former aide said. Buckham, an evangelical minister, also continued to serve as DeLay's spiritual adviser and prayed frequently with him, the former aides said.

 

Apparently, the donors to USFN got what they wanted, from DeLay:

 

DeLay supported the interests of many USFN donors on Capitol Hill, including an Indian tribe seeking to keep a tax exemption for gambling revenue and wealthy Russians seeking a favorable vote on Russian aid legislation.

 

You'll recall, the reference to wealthy Russians is the million dollars from oil tycoons to USFN allegedly to influence DeLay's vote. It was this charge, first reported by the Post at the end of December, that we included in an ad in Houston that caused all that stir in January.

 

And another passage from the piece makes me think Novak is all wet. Smith explores the Northern Marianas Islands connection in more depth that I've read:

 

Abramoff focused on DeLay's office in his lobbying effort, billing the Marianas for 187 contacts in 1996 and 1997, including 104 conversations with Buckham and 16 direct meetings with DeLay, according to Abramoff's billing records. Buckham affirmed in a 1995 interview with National Journal that Abramoff "is someone on our side. . . . He has access to DeLay."

 

So it was perhaps understandable that in the spring of 1997, USFN's board was eager to demonstrate that the economic policies that were good for the Marianas (pop. 53,552) could be good for America. To do so, it dispatched its first director, a former manager of DeLay's 1996 Texas reelection campaign named Robert G. Mills.

 

During the trip, Mills -- accompanied by Buckham, who was still on DeLay's staff -- met with Willie Tan, the islands' largest private employer. Tan's textile companies had settled a lawsuit filed five years earlier by the U.S. Labor Department charging workplace abuses, and he had long cultivated contacts in Washington to stop the immigration and wage legislation.

 

In April 1997, for example, a longtime Tan aide and island politician named Benigno Fitial went to Washington, where he sang "Happy Birthday" to DeLay in the whip's office. He sent Buckham an e-mail after the trip expressing appreciation for his support and recalling Buckham's explanation that one of his roles was to "stop legislation from getting on the floor of the House." Fitial signed the e-mail, "YOUR 'ADOPTED' BROTHER BEN."

 

Three months earlier, Tan's network of companies had written five checks of $10,000 each to USFN, and Buckham's wife had claimed $10,000 in "commissions" on these checks, according to the group's ledger.

 

These were just the first of 23 payments by Tan's companies to the group, which eventually totaled $650,000.

 

Later in 1997, Wendy Buckham claimed another $10,000 in commissions on Tan's checks, and in 1998, the couple's jointly owned consulting firm took another $20,000 in commissions explicitly attributed to the Tan donations, according to the ledger. Many other "commissions" collected by the couple were not linked in the ledgers to a specific donor.

 

DeLay saw Tan when he took his wife and daughter to the Marianas in a December 1997 trip arranged with the help of Abramoff and his lobby firm. After brunching with Tan on his first full day, followed by a round of golf with Tan and others, DeLay attended a dinner in his honor sponsored by Tan's holding company at the local Pacific Islands Club.

 

It was at this dinner that DeLay gave the speech in which he called Abramoff "one of my closest and dearest friends," according to a copy. DeLay also reminded Tan and his colleagues of his earlier promise that no wage and immigration legislation would be passed.

 

"Stand firm," DeLay said in his closing. "Resist evil. Remember that all truth and blessings emanate from our Creator." He then departed with Tan to see a cockfight, according to a written account by one of the trip participants.

 

In response to a reporter's question, Tan said in an e-mail Friday that "we hired [a] reputable firm, and we never ask[ed] the firm to do anything wrong." He said he was unaware of the commissions collected personally by the Buckhams.

 

No Marianas immigration or wage reform legislation passed Congress. Aides to Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a key sponsor, say that Senate-passed legislation was never taken up by any House committee.

 

 But things took some strange turns at USFN:

 

Records obtained by federal investigators after that article appeared and reviewed by The Post make clear just how unusual USFN's spending was. Its revenue was lavished not only on DeLay's advisers but on a variety of expenses that experts say are atypical for such a small nonprofit: $62,375 for wall art, a vase listed at $20,100, airfare and meals for Abramoff that cost $11,548, and $267,202 in travel and entertainment expenses that appear to have benefited mostly Buckham, the group's board members, and its tiny staff.

 

"They were using donor funds for interior decorating," said Chris Geeslin, a pastor in Frederick, Md., who between 1998 and 2001 served as one of the group's directors and then its president. He blamed what he described as the group's misspending on Buckham, who he said "would tell us where you should put things. He orchestrated all this. . . . He used us."

 

From the outset, it was organized differently from other public advocacy groups located in the capital that hoped to influence the nation's leaders. For example, Buckham selected as its board members three evangelical Christians from the tiny town of Republic, Wash. (pop. 954), who associates say he had met at a religious retreat.

 

According to the minutes from its March 1997 board meeting, the group considered appointing "J. Abramoff" to the board, but never did. The group's first donation, a $15,000 check, came from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, one of Abramoff's highest-paying clients, and the next two donor checks came from other groups linked with Abramoff.

 

Buckham used this source of revenue to launch his Alexander Strategy Group lobbying and public relations firm, which at its height in the early part of the decade was a powerhouse but has now been forced to close its doors. Read this passage and count the laws broken:

 

The Alexander Strategy Group began collecting its monthly stipend of $10,000-$12,000 from USFN in October 1997 to perform fundraising and other services, even while Buckham was still receiving a salary from the whip's office, according to House payroll records. House rules allow such overlap only if the outside income is limited and not a reward for official acts.

 

Within four weeks after Buckham resigned from DeLay's staff in December 1997, the Alexander Strategy Group began also collecting commissions on donations to USFN from firms that worked with Abramoff. The largest were two $75,000 payments in 1998 and one for $104,500 in 1999. The total reached $364,500 before they stopped at the end of 1999. USFN's ledger also lists an unexplained "bonus" payment of $60,000 in December 1998.

 

The Internal Revenue Service generally requires that board members of nonprofits approve all payments to related entities. But several documents labeled as contracts with Buckham's firm in the group's papers are not signed, and Geeslin said in an interview that some of the minutes for board meetings in 1998 and 1999 were formally written after the FEC began its investigation.

 

Besides spending lavishly during its meetings at various resorts, the group also spent $149,000 in July 1998 to lease a skybox at MCI Center "at the request of one of the donors to USFN," the group's internal audit states. Geeslin said that person was actually Abramoff, who expressed his gratitude while sitting near him at a sporting event.

 

In the version of the group's official, typewritten ledgers, supplied to the FBI last month under subpoena, several of its most unusual expenditures are partially crossed out and relabeled in ink. The $20,100 purchase of a vase in October 1999 from a Royal Doulton dealer in Miami was relabeled "office equipment," and the $62,375 purchase in January 1999 of a collection of Salvador Dali and Peter Max prints was relabeled "office fixtures."

 

My hunch is that it will be much easier to prove tax violations of the variety described above than the bribery or conspiracy charges that might evolve from the Marianas or other cases... But these details make my head swim and my stomach turn. 

 

The story doesn't end there, though. Just to round it out, the USFN took some of the money it raised from Abramoff clients and others and ran lobbying campaigns on their behalf and attack ads, and got caught violating FEC rules:

 

In 1998, the group lobbied Congress against new regulations on cigarettes and collected a $100,000 donation from the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. It also spent $75,863 that year on radio ads that called for President Clinton's resignation and attacked Democrats, according to the group's ledger and transcripts of the ads.

 

The following year, the National Republican Congressional Committee gave the USFN a $500,000 check to finance additional radio ads in the districts of vulnerable Democrats. Buckham told the FEC he solicited the check, and others told FEC investigators it was paid over the objections of the NRCC's director and chief counsel.

 

Of the $500,000, USFN gave just $300,000 to another nonprofit group for the ads. In his deposition, Buckham explained that he retained a portion of the Republican Party's check as a commission. "If I raise money, I get a portion," Buckham said. "It is in my contract."

 

The NRCC in 2004 paid the eighth-highest fine in FEC history to settle allegations that some of its officials colluded with USFN on the ads in violation of campaign finance laws.

 

The end? We'll see.