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.
On March 22, 2001, the bill was resoundingly defeated in the legislature. “You are the greatest!!!” an ecstatic Abramoff wrote to Reed.
Miracle accomplished, Abramoff tapped Reed’s services again in January 2002, when his clients learned that then-Louisiana Governor Mike Foster had secretly approved a casino site for the Jena Choctaws. Following a battle plan devised by Scanlon (who inexplicably signed a memo outlining the plan, Mike “The Sausage King” Scanlon), Reed re-enlisted his evangelical allies to rev up grassroots pressure on Bush Interior Secretary Gail Norton, who had the final say on the Jena deal.
Reed first prompted Dobson to attack the Jenas’ lobbyist, Washington super-lawyer, former RNC chair and current Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, during a Focus on the Family broadcast. (In his 2002 campaign for governor, Barbour described himself as “a five-point Calvinist” on American Family Radio.)
“Let me know when Dobson hits him,” Abramoff wrote to Reed on February 6, 2002. “I want to savor it.” That same day, he e-mailed Scanlon, “He [Dobson] is going to hit Haley by name! He is going to encourage people to call Norton and the WH [White House]. This is going to get fun.”
Abramoff transferred more cash to Reed to blast Dobson’s tirade against the Jena casino across Louisiana airwaves. Abramoff was confident his Bush Administration contacts would make sure all the right people heard Dobson’s hit. “Dobson goes up on the radio next week!” he told Scanlon on February 20. “We’ll play it in WH [the White House] and Interior.” Abramoff’s gamble paid off when word of the ad filtered through the tension-filled halls of the Interior Department. “[White House liaison] Doug [Domenech] came to me and said, ‘Dobson’s going to shut down our phone system,'” an unnamed former Interior official recounted to the Washington Post. ” ‘He’s going to go on the air and tell everyone who listens to Focus on the Family to call Interior to oppose the Jena compact.’ ”
But Abramoff’s fun didn’t stop there. Reed urged a Who’s Who of the Christian right to lobby Norton against the Jena compact with a stream of breathless letters. On February 19 Perkins warned Norton that gambling leads to “crime, divorce, child abuse.” American Family Association chair Don Wildmon sent a lengthy missive to Norton filled with statistics on gambling’s adverse social impact. The Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly sent another. American Values president Gary Bauer declared in a letter to Norton that the compact ran “contrary to President Bush’s pro-family vision.” Focus on the Family vice president Tom Minnery wrote Norton and White House Chief of Staff Andy Card to demand they stop the deal. Dobson capped the mail blitz with his own missive against gambling expansion.
Despite the best efforts of Abramoff and the Christian soldiers Reed recruited, in December Norton approved the Jena compact. Soon after, Louisiana’s new governor, Kathleen Blanco, reversed the deal on the basis of her opposition to casino growth. Abramoff’s goal was achieved, but all his work was for naught. And his skulduggery was beginning to catch up with him. “I hate all the shit I’m into,” he moaned to Scanlon in a February 2003 e-mail. “I need to be on the Caribbean with you!”
However, Abramoff’s campaign against the Jena compact was a blessing for most of its Christian-right players. Perkins got to prove his mettle in a national campaign, prompting his appointment the following year by Dobson to president of the Family Research Council, the Washington-based lobbying powerhouse. Dobson, for his part, got to demonstrate his grassroots muscle to the Bush White House, raising his visibility to Karl Rove & Co. and helping him increase his influence over its social agenda as the presidential election approached.
Among Abramoff’s evangelical surrogates, only Reed emerged from their relationship with visible baggage. But this was not apparent at the time. Now, as a result of extensive media coverage of his involvement with Abramoff, his campaign for lieutenant governor of Georgia, intended as a stepping stone to higher office, is lagging. He has gone from denying early in his campaign that he accepted gambling money to claiming most recently that Abramoff lied to him about the source of his fees. To generate a strong turnout for his January 21 appearance at a Georgia Christian Coalition meeting, Reed was reduced to enticing his dwindling band of “supporters” with cash and free hotel rooms.
It is still unknown whether Dobson and his allies knew that Reed was working for Abramoff during the anti-Jena campaign. Abramoff claimed in a February 2002 e-mail to his employee Todd Boulanger that he was “working FOR and WITH them [emphasis in original],” referring to Christian-right activists. Dobson, Perkins, Robertson and Falwell have remained silent. Whether or not evidence surfaces to support the claim Abramoff made in his e-mail, it is undeniable he was deeply embedded in the Christian right’s infrastructure.
In July 2002, at the height of the anti-Jena campaign, Bauer and Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a fixture at Christian-right events, founded the American Alliance of Christians and Jews. On the group’s board were Dobson, Robertson, Falwell and one Jack Abramoff. Lapin’s organization, Toward Tradition, which administered the AACJ, received $25,000 from one of Abramoff’s gambling industry clients in 2000; took $75,000 from Abramoff and his clients; and then, upon Abramoff’s written instructions, hired the wife of Tony Rudy to the tune of $5,000 a month. Rudy, who was Tom DeLay’s deputy chief of staff at the time, later a lobbyist, has been named in Abramoff’s guilty plea.
While Abramoff cooperates with federal prosecutors, his former Christian-right surrogates have abstained from coming clean about their relationship with him. Acknowledging willing collusion with a disgraced casino lobbyist would be suicidal among their followers. But there are also risks in casting themselves as useful idiots in Abramoff’s game. Such a tactic would reveal the “pro-family” movement as just another gear in a sordid Republican political operation. What did Dobson know and when did he know it? As the wheels of justice grind on, those who claim to speak with the authority of Scripture may soon find themselves under oath.