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Democracy for Sale

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This essay originally appeared on Truthdig.com.

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Robert Scheer
Robert Scheer, a contributing editor to The Nation, is editor of Truthdig.com and author of The Great American Stickup...

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Call it Tonto's revenge: The outrageous rip-off of Native American tribes by a top Republican lobbyist is leading inexorably to a reckoning for the allegedly morally superior religious and political right.

"I don't think we have had something of this scope, arrogance and sheer venality in our lifetimes," Norman J. Ornstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote in Roll Call. "It is building to an explosion, one that could create immense collateral damage within Congress and in coming elections."

Selling firewater to the natives--or in this case charging them $82 million for government breaks on slot machine and other gaming licenses--is not exactly what the high-minded prophets of the Republican revolution promised. And to see behind the scenes as Christian right superstar Ralph Reed, bought off by top Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, dupes his grassroots "pro-family" followers into unwittingly supporting casino-rich Indian tribes under the guise of anti-gambling initiatives, is to glimpse moral corruption of biblical proportions.

Reed, now a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in Georgia, at first denied knowing the $4 million he acknowledges receiving from Abramoff and his closet associate, public-relations expert Michael Scanlon, to run the pseudo anti-gambling campaigns in the South came from tribes hoping to retain local monopolies for themselves. Once the investigation picked up steam this past summer, however, he changed his mind and said he was assured that the tribal money didn't come directly from casino proceeds--a hair-splitting attempt at face-saving ethics, indeed, since the goal of the payments was so clearly to benefit the casinos.

Furthermore, the release of a treasure trove of documentation on the Abramoff investigation to the Internet by Senator John McCain, chair of the Senate's Indian Affairs Committee, makes it clear that Abramoff and his colleagues had no interest in the finer points of morality when they were transferring huge sums of cash from the tribes to the accounts of such allegedly high-minded heavyweight pro-Republican outfits as Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform.

"This town has become very corrupt, there's no doubt about it,'' McCain said Sunday on Meet the Press, adding that he expects "lots" of indictments and that there is "strong evidence" of "significant wrongdoing" by some legislators.

Reading the documents, in fact, is a horrifying look at democracy for sale. For example, an Abramoff e-mail to Reed about a conversation the lobbyist had with Nell Rogers, a Choctaw representative: "Spoke with Nell. They have a budget issue. They want to know if we can get through to October on $1 million. Can we? If not, let me know."

In response, Reed lays out what it costs, in very precise amounts, to kill legislation on Capitol Hill to favor of a wealthy entity: "I believe [$1 million will be enough]. If we can kill it in the House[,] definitely. If it goes to the Senate, the worst case scenario is what the pro-family groups spent to defeat video poker and the lottery--each about $1.3 million.... We will be doing all we can to raise money from national anti-gambling groups, Christian CEOs and national pro-family groups."

Overall, both Reed, once the religious right's boy savior, and Abramoff, the former head of the College Republicans, a "pioneer"-grade fundraiser for President Bush, and a stalwart friend of Texas Representative Tom DeLay, come off as morally degenerate political savants in the Senate committee's files. Reed seems possessed by the gods of greed as he exults, "I need to start humping in corporate accounts!"

But Abramoffgate goes much higher than these two political pimps. In those e-mails between Abramoff and Scanlon, it is clear that they trafficked in their ties to DeLay and others in the Republican leadership. As the Washington Post reported, Abramoff "cultivated a reputation as the best-connected Republican lobbyist in Washington," and it was not a false claim. DeLay, who referred to Abramoff as "one of my closest and dearest friends," received no fewer than three free golf trips to Scotland from Abramoff, among other payoffs.

Both DeLay and Abramoff are under indictment for charges in other cases but not, as of yet, this one. Scanlon has already pleaded guilty to conspiring with Abramoff to defraud various Indian tribes and bribe government officials. Former White House official David Safavian has been indicted for lying about his ties to Abramoff. The bet now is that Abramoff will also cop a plea bargain instead of spending many years in jail and paying even larger fines than the $19.7 million Scanlon has accepted.

If so, more depressing tales of corruption may be detailed publicly. But what is already clear is that the Republicans' reputation for moral superiority is as dead as the Lone Ranger.

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