Gambling might not rank as high as homosexuality or abortion on the list of social evils monitored by Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, but its growth has provided many occasions for his jeremiads. The indictment of Indian casino lobbyist and influential GOP activist Jack Abramoff was one such occasion. In a January 6 press release issued three days after Abramoff’s indictment, Dobson declared, “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.” He concluded with a denunciation of vice: “Gambling–all types of gambling–is driven by greed and subsists on greed.”
What Dobson neglected to mention–and has yet to discuss publicly–is his own pivotal role in one of Abramoff’s schemes. In 2002 Dobson joined a coterie of Christian-right activists, including Tony Perkins, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, to spearhead Abramoff’s campaigns against the establishment of several Louisiana casinos that infringed on the turf of Abramoff’s tribal clients. Dobson and his allies recorded messages for phone banking, lobbied high-level Bush Administration officials and took to the airwaves. Whether they knew it or not, these Christian soldiers’ crusade to protect families in the “Sportsmen’s Paradise” from the side effects of chronic slot-pulling and dice-rolling was funded by the gambling industry and planned by the lobbyist known even to his friends as “Casino Jack.”
The only Christian-right activist confirmed to be completely aware of Abramoff’s rip-off was Ralph Reed. He and Abramoff have a long and storied history together. When Abramoff chaired the College Republican National Committee in the early 1980s, Reed served as the organization’s executive director. They reunited in 1989, when Abramoff helped Reed organize the remains of Pat Robertson’s failed 1988 presidential bid into the Christian Coalition. In 1997, with the Christian Coalition under IRS investigation and Reed facing accusations of cronyism from the group’s chief financial officer, he left to start his own consulting firm, Century Strategies. Reed contacted Abramoff right away. “I need to start humping in corporate accounts,” Reed told him in 1998. “I’m counting on you to help me with some contacts.”
Though Abramoff apparently was not fond of Reed, he viewed him as useful. “I know you (we!) hate him [Reed], but it does give us good cover and patter to have him doing stuff,” he wrote in a February 14, 2002, e-mail to his business partner, Michael Scanlon. “Let’s give him a list of things we want…and give him some chump change to get it done.” Reed thus became Abramoff and Scanlon’s liaison to the Christian right, enlisting his evangelical allies into a web of shadowy casino hustles for “chump change.”
Reed’s first sleight of hand was enticing Perkins, Falwell and Robertson to try to block a 2001 bill in the Louisiana legislature loosening restrictions on riverboat casinos, which would have posed a competitive threat to Abramoff’s clients, the Coushattas. At the time, Perkins was a right-wing State Representative hailed by Reed as the legislature’s “anti-gambling leader.”
As Perkins lobbied his colleagues against the riverboat bill, he pushed Reed to pour money into an aggressive phone-banking campaign to rally conservative Christian voters.
With a steady supply of gambling industry cash, Abramoff dumped a phone-bank budget of more than $60,000 into Reed’s war chest for PR efforts against his clients’ rivals, the Jena Choctaws (Reed had asked for $150,000)–supplementing the $10,000 in tribal gambling money he directed to Reed’s 2001 campaign for chair of the Georgia GOP and the nearly $4 million he ultimately funneled into Reed’s personal account. Reed then recruited Falwell to record a phone message against the bill. He also solicited the help of his former boss at the Christian Coalition, Pat Robertson, thanking him for his “leadership for our values.” Like the answering of a prayer, tens of thousands of Louisiana Republicans suddenly were bombarded with the voice of God against vice, played by Robertson and Falwell.