DeLay Aide To Plead Guilty

March 31, 2006

From CBS News:

Tony Rudy, a former top aide to Rep. Tom DeLay, has agreed to plead guilty to charges in the widening federal investigation of lobbyist fraud, a law enforcement official said Friday.

A hearing was scheduled Friday in U.S. District Court in Washington, where Rudy was expected to enter his plea.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the deal has not yet been filed with the court.

Rudy would be the first person to plead guilty to charges in the case since Jack Abramoff, once a leading GOP lobbyist, pleaded guilty to fraud charges in January.

Rudy was referred to in court papers released in connection with Abramoff's plea. The documents referred to Rudy as Staffer A, and said that Abramoff, on behalf of clients who wanted to stop Internet gambling and postal rate legislation, paid $50,000 in 10 equal monthly payments beginning in June 2000 to Rudy's wife while Rudy was a top aide to DeLay.

The Abramoff court papers allege no wrongdoing by DeLay, and his attorney, Richard Cullen, said the former House Majority Leader "expects his current staffers and expected his former staffers to adhere to the highest ethical standards."

"None of this means necessarily that DeLay is going to be indicted," says CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen. "But a deal like this only strengthens the government's hand."

Cohen says "the closer these guilty pleas come to Tom DeLay the more threatened becomes his legal position. And that's because if there is a criminal case against him over this, and we don't know that yet, it's going to be made and supported and perhaps ultimately proven by those who had the most direct contact with him – and that's people like Rudy."

Rudy joined Abramoff's lobbying team at the Greenberg Traurig law firm in 2001. Soon after, he signed on with another former DeLay staffer, Ed Buckham, at the Alexander Strategy Group.

Abramoff, 47, was sentenced Wednesday to nearly six years in prison for committing fraud in a case in Florida involving the purchase of a fleet of gambling boats.

He will remain free while helping prosecutors with the vast bribery investigation involving members of Congress.

CBS News correspondent Bob Fuss reports that Abramoff still faces sentencing for his guilty pleas in Washington to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy.

No date has been set for his sentencing in that case.


GOP Congressman Deals On A Townhouse

March 30, 2006

From Yahoo News:

Rep. Jim Ryun on Wednesday denied allegations by Democrats that he received a "sweet real estate deal" when he purchased a town house from a nonprofit group with connections to lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The Kansas Republican bought the historic Capitol Hill town house for $410,000 on Dec. 15, 2000. That was $19,000 less than the U.S. Family Network paid for the home about two years earlier, in January 1999, despite a sharp rise in local real estate values during that time.

He denies receiving any favorable treatment in the purchase. He declined to be interviewed but said in a written statement that he paid "fair market value" for the home.

Ryun said he negotiated the sale price after a housing inspector found a structural problem that would require up to $20,000 to repair. He said the seller also saved money on the deal by not having to pay a real estate agent's commission.

The home is currently assessed at $764,310 for tax year 2007, according to the city's Office of Tax and Revenue.

Mike Gaughan, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party, called it a "sweet real estate deal" and questioned how Ryun found a house that lost value over two years in one of the nation's hottest housing markets.

The U.S. Family Network is a now-disbanded nonprofit advocacy group for conservative ideas that was founded by Ed Buckham, a former chief of staff to former House Majority Leader     Tom DeLay, R-Texas. Buckham's lobbying firm rented office space in the town house from the group.

The group was funded almost entirely by corporations linked to Abramoff. Federal investigators are now exploring whether DeLay offered favorable treatment to Abramoff clients that made payments to U.S. Family Network, the Washington Post reported this week.

DeLay stepped down from his leadership post last fall after he was indicted in Texas on charges of laundering campaign money.

Ryun has not been connected to the scandals involving Abramoff or DeLay. Spokeswoman Michelle Schroeder said Ryun "was not specifically lobbied by USFN" and that the group has not made any contributions to his campaign.

Ryun said he heard news reports in the summer of 2000 that U.S. Family Network had zoning problems and might need to sell the house. Ryun said he asked Buckham for a contact and spoke to an attorney for the group in the fall of 2000.

"We inquired about the house and then entered into negotiations to buy it, finally arriving at a purchase price we believed to be fair market value based on its overall condition, including a structural deficiency," Ryun said.

A housing inspector found the upstairs master bathroom in the home was in danger of falling through the ceiling and told Ryun the bathtub should be removed and the living room ceiling needed to be reinforced, Ryun said.

Ryun said he asked the U.S. Family Network to take those repairs into account in reaching the sale price. He also agreed not to use a real estate agent, saving the group a 6 percent sales commission of $24,600.

To bolster his argument, Ryun's office released documents showing that another home on the same block was sold for $409,000 on the same day he bought his home. Property records show the other home is on a land area about half the size of Ryun's and is now assessed at $236,000 less than Ryun's home.

Ryun's office also produced documents showing the congressman paid $54,500 to make a variety of repairs to the home, including the structural support problem.

Buckham's attorney, Laura A. Miller, did not return a call seeking comment on the sale.

Meanwhile, Abramoff was sentenced Wednesday in Miami to nearly six years in prison for committing fraud in the purchase of a fleet of gambling boats. He will remain free while helping prosecutors with a vast bribery investigation involving members of Congress.

Abramoff, 47, and former business partner Adam Kidan, 41, received the minimum sentence under federal guidelines: five years and 10 months.

GOP Congressman Steals An Airport

March 30, 2006

From The Hill:

Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) pushed for a provision in last year’s transportation bill that allowed the city of Rialto, Calif., to shut down its airport.

By doing so, he paved the way for his business partner, Lewis Operating Corp., one of his top campaign contributors, to buy the land from the city and make plans to build Renaissance, a community consisting of 2,500 homes, parks and 80 acres of retail space on the former airport property and adjacent land.

Normally, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has sole authority to close airports.

“This is the first time … an airport has been closed through the legislative process,” said FAA spokesman Hank Price. “We follow Congress’s direction.”

Miller’s relationship with Lewis Operating and its president of Southern California operations, Richard Lewis, dates back more than three decades, to Miller’s years as a developer of planned communities. He founded G. Miller Development Co. in his early 20s, and he and Lewis were competitors, Miller said. 

Miller, 57, went on to be elected to the Diamond Bar City Council, the mayor’s office, the California Assembly and Congress, beating scandal-scarred Republican Rep. Jay Kim in 1998. Just months earlier, Kim and his wife had pleaded guilty to accepting and concealing $230,000 in illegal campaign contributions.

Miller said he prides himself on his efforts to disclose his campaign contributions fully. He said he sees nothing wrong with his work to close Rialto’s airport, even though it freed land that his business partner wanted to develop.

“I’ve known Richard Lewis for 30 years,” he said. “Richard’s son and my daughter went to high school together. If knowing somebody is bad, I guess that’s bad.”

Miller denied that his actions created a conflict of interest.

“There was no quid pro quo,” he said.

But Theis Finlev, a policy advocate for Common Cause, argues that members of Congress must go out of their way to avoid using their offices to benefit private business partners directly, especially if they also are major campaign contributors.

“Even if it’s legal, it’s horribly unseemly,” Finlev said about Miller’s work to shut down the airport. “It’s not something that inspires confidence in the political process, and should not happen.”

This election cycle, employees of Lewis Operating including Richard Lewis and several Lewis family members have donated a combined $8,100 to Miller’s campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, making the company his top contributor.

Employees of Lewis Operating and members of the Lewis family have donated $19,300 to Miller’s campaign committee since 1998.

Lewis Operating is also a member of the National Association of Home Builders, Miller’s No. 1 contributor since he was elected. The group has donated $44,000 to Miller’s campaign committee since 1998.


Rialto tried for years to close the airport, arguing that it was underused and losing money.

In August 2004, the City Council passed an amendment giving the city the exclusive right to negotiate with Lewis and its partner, Hillwood Development Corp., to purchase and develop the airport land if it should become available. The council approved the prospective sale eight months later.

But finalizing that transaction would have to wait until the city could find a way to close the airport, and the transportation bill provided it last year.

The price tag for the 450 acres of airport land will likely be tens of millions of dollars, but the purchase is still in the appraisal stage, according to Rob Steel, Rialto’s redevelopment director.

“We have entered into contracts of sale with Lewis-Hillwood Rialto,” Steel confirmed.

When it is sold, it will be at fair market value, which the appraiser will determine, a requirement that Miller included in his version of the provision and was in the final bill.

Lewis and Hillwood, founded and chaired by Ross Perot Jr., formed Lewis-Hillwood Rialto LLC when they became interested in the project. There is no way to know how much money the two companies would make on the deal. Lewis Operating and Hillwood officials declined to comment for the story.

Rialto is not in Miller’s district but in that of nearby Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.). Miller said Baca backed his efforts to shut down the airport. Baca did not respond to requests for comment.

Other development companies besides Lewis-Hillwood tried to offer bids for the development but were told by a Rialto City Council member that Hillwood’s strong ties to Washington could help the city find a way to shut down the airport. The company was already working with the FAA on developing San Bernardino airport 8.5 miles to the east, and the city thought that relationship could help influence the FAA’s decision.

According to minutes from Aug. 9, 2004, City Councilman Joseph Sampson reminded other members that “based upon knowledge of Hillwood Corp. they do have extremely close ties in Washington, which provides them with inroads on what a final outcome may be in regards to how they might treat the airport.”


But the FAA did not support closing Rialto airport. Since 1984, the city has taken out $15 million in federal government loans to improve the airport. Traditionally, the FAA opposes closing an airport when it has invested in it until it earns a return on the investment.

The provision in the transportation bill requires Rialto to pay back the federal government 90 percent of any unpaid portion of the federal loans it had taken out. 

In an interview, Miller said he is not responsible for the final airport language in the bill because Senate conferees struck his provision from the measure. Working with Rep. Jim Oberstar (Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the transportation panel, Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) managed to insert his own language closing the airport into the final bill.

Rep. Lewis’s provision relocates airport business and equipment to San Bernardino Airport, in his district.

John Scofield, a spokesman for Rep. Lewis, said there are many good reasons for closing Rialto airport, noting that both the city and the county want it closed.

“There are a lot of airports in the area, such as the San Bernardino National Airport and the Redlands airport, which are both better facilities,” he said. “Because of the Santa Ana winds, the [Rialto airport] is only open half of the time anyway.”

Rep. Lewis is not related to anyone at Lewis Operating Corp.

Miller, the only California Republican on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and a senior member of the Highways, Transit and Pipelines Subcommittee, said he helped push for the inclusion of Rep. Lewis’s provision in the final version of the measure.

Employees of Lewis Operating and other members of the Lewis family also have donated $19,900 to Baca this election cycle, making the company his top contributor as well. Rep. Lewis has received $3,000 since 2000.

Before Lewis Operating joined with Hillwood on the Rialto project, Miller had not received any campaign contributions from Hillwood employees. But after Miller started working on language in the transportation bill, John Magness, senior vice president of Hillwood Investments, cut him a check for $500 dated May 12, 2005, according to Federal Election Commission records.

“I guess they were saying thank you. … I guess that’s what that was,” Miller said.

He said that the city of Rialto chose Lewis Operating, one of the largest real-estate developers in Southern California, for the airport job on its own.

He could not recall, however, when he discovered that Lewis Operating was seeking the airport property. Rialto contacted him about shutting down the airport because he had done business with the city years earlier before becoming a congressman, he said.

He was asked to help because Rialto’s efforts to convince the FAA to shut down the airport had failed.

“The FAA doesn’t want anything closed,” Miller said. “I don’t think the FAA has ever closed an airport. It’s like pulling teeth to get them to close an airport.”

He also said he does not see how he benefited from any of his business dealings with Lewis Operating Corp.


Watchdog groups have criticized a number of land deals between Lewis Operating and Miller, as well as his role in helping secure other provisions in last year’s $286.5 billion transportation transportation bill.

As first reported by the Los Angeles Newspaper Group, Miller helped secure $1.28 million in the bill for street improvements in front of a planned housing and retail center that he co-owned with Lewis Operating in his district.

Lewis-Diamond Bar LLC, a company formed to buy the land, is the developer. Miller owns $1 million-$5 million of the company. The other partner is Lewis Operating Corp.

The same year, Miller took out a promissory note from a subsidiary of Lewis Operating Corp., Lewis Investments, for $1 million to $5 million, according to his 2004 financial disclosure records.

The Los Angeles Newspaper Group also ran a critical story about a real-estate deal involving Miller, Lewis Operating and the Southern California city of Fontana.

In July 2005, Fontana’s redevelopment agency spent $5 million to buy land from Miller without notifying the public, an apparent violation of state open-meeting laws.

Miller said that he was outraged about it and that he has since demanded that the city insert a written pledge in the sales contract to make public the sale of the last parcel he owns to the city .

Some six months earlier, Miller had bought the same land from Lewis Operating. He said he did so to avoid tax penalties on profit from a land sale to Monrovia, another Southern California city, two years before.

That profit is estimated at $10 million, according to Miller’s 2003 financial disclosure record and knowledgeable sources.

He said he only made $50,000 on the sale to Fontana, barely enough to cover taxes and real-estate transaction fees.

“I needed to find property, and that property was available,” he said.

FISA Judges: NSA Wiretapping Probably Illegal

March 29, 2006

From the New Tork Times:

Five former judges on the nation's most secretive court, including one who resigned in apparent protest over President Bush's domestic eavesdropping, urged Congress on Tuesday to give the court a formal role in overseeing the surveillance program.

In a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the secretive court, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, several former judges who served on the panel also voiced skepticism at a Senate hearing about the president's constitutional authority to order wiretapping on Americans without a court order. They also suggested that the program could imperil criminal prosecutions that grew out of the wiretaps.

Judge Harold A. Baker, a sitting federal judge in Illinois who served on the intelligence court until last year, said the president was bound by the law "like everyone else." If a law like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is duly enacted by Congress and considered constitutional, Judge Baker said, "the president ignores it at the president's peril."

Judge Baker and three other judges who served on the intelligence court testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in support of a proposal by Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, to give the court formal oversight of the National Security Agency's eavesdropping program. Committee members also heard parts of a letter in support of the proposal from a fifth judge, James Robertson, who left the court last December, days after the eavesdropping program was disclosed.

The intelligence court, created by Congress in 1978, meets in a tightly guarded, windowless office at the Justice Department. The court produces no public findings except for a single tally to Congress each year on the number of warrants it has issued — more than 1,600 in 2004. Even its roster of judges serving seven-year terms was, for a time, considered secret.

But Mr. Bush's decision effectively to bypass the court in permitting eavesdropping without warrants has raised the court's profile. That was underscored by the appearance on Tuesday of the four former FISA judges: Judge Baker; Judge Stanley S. Brotman, who left the panel in 2004; Judge John F. Keenan, who left in 2001; and Judge William H. Stafford Jr., who left in 2003. All four sit on the federal judiciary.

At a hearing lasting more than three hours, the former FISA judges discussed in detail their views on the standards of proof required by the court, its relations with the Justice Department, and the constitutional, balance-of-power issues at the heart of the debate over the N.S.A. program. The agency monitored the international communications of people inside the United States believed to be linked to Al Qaeda.

The public broadcasting of the court's business struck some court watchers as extraordinary. "This is unprecedented," said Magistrate Judge Allan Kornblum, who supervised Justice Department wiretap applications to the court for many years and testified alongside the four former judges.

But the most pointed testimony may have come from a man who was not at the hearing: Judge Robertson.

A sitting federal judge in Washington, Judge Robertson resigned from the intelligence court just days after the N.S.A. program was disclosed.

Colleagues say he resigned in frustration over the fact that none of the court's 11 judges, except for the presiding judge, were briefed on the program or knew of its existence. But Judge Robertson has remained silent, declining all requests for interviews, and his comments entered into The Congressional Record on Tuesday represented his first public remarks on the controversy.

In a March 23 letter in response to a query from Mr. Specter, the judge said he supported Mr. Specter's proposal "to give approval authority over the administration's electronic surveillance program" to the court.

The Bush administration, in its continued defense of the program, maintains that no change in the law is needed because the president has the inherent constitutional authority to order wiretaps without warrants in defense of the country.

Mr. Specter's proposal seeks to give the intelligence court a role in ruling on the legitimacy of the program. A competing proposal by Senator Mike DeWine, Republican of Ohio, would allow the president to authorize wiretaps for 45 days without Congressional oversight or judicial approval.

Judge Robertson made clear that he believed the FISA court should review the surveillance program. "Seeking judicial approval for government activities that implicate constitutional protections is, of course, the American way," he wrote.

But Judge Robertson argued that the court should not conduct a "general review" of the surveillance operation, as Mr. Specter proposed. Instead, he said the court should rule on individual warrant applications for eavesdropping under the program lasting 45 or 90 days.

Acknowledging the need for secrecy surrounding such a program, he said the FISA court was "best situated" for the task. "Its judges are independent, appropriately cleared, experienced in intelligence matters, and have a perfect security record," Judge Robertson said.

He did not weigh in on the ultimate question of whether he considered the N.S.A. program illegal. The judges at the committee hearing avoided that politically charged issue despite persistent questioning from Democrats, even as the judges raised concerns about how the program was put into effect.

Judge Baker said he felt most comfortable talking about possible changes to strengthen the foreign intelligence law. "Whether something's legal or illegal goes beyond that," he said, "and that's why I'm shying away from answering that."

GOP Surprise: DeLay Aide A Crook

March 27, 2006

From The Washington Post:

A top adviser to former House Whip Tom DeLay received more than a third of all the money collected by the U.S. Family Network, a nonprofit organization the adviser created to promote a pro-family political agenda in Congress, according to the group's accounting records.

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.

The group's revenue was drawn mostly from clients of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, according to its records. From an FBI subpoena for the records, it can be inferred that the bureau is exploring whether there were links between the payments and favorable legislative treatment of Abramoff's clients by DeLay's office.

In recent months, Abramoff pleaded guilty to charges of tax fraud and conspiracy to defraud clients and bribe a public official; DeLay (R-Tex.) stepped down from his post as House majority leader; and Buckham folded his lobbying firm, the Alexander Strategy Group.

In the late 1990s, when DeLay's influence was growing, the lawmaker depicted the USFN in a promotional letter as a nationwide, grass-roots organization. In fact, it had a tiny staff that barely registered an impact on Capitol Hill. The group appears to have served mostly as a vehicle for funneling corporate funds to DeLay's advisers and financing ads that attacked Democrats.

The group's payments to the Buckhams — in the form of a monthly retainer as well as commissions on donations by Abramoff's clients — overlapped briefly with Edwin Buckham's service as chief of staff to DeLay and continued during his subsequent role as DeLay's chief political adviser.

During this latter period, Buckham and his wife, Wendy, acting through their consulting firm, made monthly payments averaging $3,200-$3,400 apiece to DeLay's wife, Christine, for three of the years in which he collected money from the USFN and some other clients.

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.

DeLay's lawyer, Richard Cullen, disputed the accounts of Buckham's influence. He said Buckham made appointment requests but was not involved in final decisions on scheduling after he left the office. He also said Buckham did not coordinate the office's activities, saying that was done by successors.

Abramoff, for his part, once boasted that he had invested a million dollars in Buckham, according to a former Abramoff colleague who said he witnessed the conversation. Abramoff expressed confidence that the funds would bring a good return for his clients, the colleague said. Abramoff, through a spokesman, declined comment on this claim or other details of this article.

Wendy Buckham was not the only spouse of a DeLay staffer to benefit from the USFN revenue stream sustained by Abramoff's clients. A consulting firm owned by the wife of Tony C. Rudy, DeLay's deputy chief of staff, was paid $15,600 by the group in 1999 and another $10,400 in 2000. Rudy resigned to work with Abramoff in 2001. It could not be determined what the payments were for.

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. DeLay's spokesman has said his opinions and votes were based solely on "good policy" and national interests.

Edwin and Wendy Buckham and their lawyer, Laura A. Miller, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on USFN spending or the money they received. The Rudys did not return calls to their home and Tony Rudy's cellphone.

The accounting records reviewed by The Washington Post included a list of every transaction by the USFN from 1996 to 2000 and the group's tax returns for 2001, the last year it existed. They demonstrate that the consulting fees, bonuses and fundraising commissions for the Buckhams — plus the purchase of a townhouse that served as the locus of DeLay's own fundraising efforts — consumed far more of the group's budget than its spending for lobbying on "moral fitness" issues.

A previous article in The Post detailed how USFN had drawn its largest checks from Abramoff's clients, including $1 million from what several former Buckham associates described as Russian oil and gas executives and hundreds of thousands of dollars from an Indian tribe.

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."
A Handpicked Board

When the USFN was incorporated at Buckham's instigation in 1996, it described its purpose as promoting policies favorable for "families, the economic prosperity, social improvement, moral fitness, and general well being of the United States."

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.

Formally, Buckham was a consultant to the board, but he said in an October 2003 deposition taken by Federal Election Commission lawyers and obtained by The Post that he had a verbal understanding allowing him to take whatever actions he deemed "in the best interest of the USFN pertaining to issues that they cared about." This included authorizing payments to others.

But some routine procedures were not followed: USFN officials did not register as lobbyists until 2000, when the group became the target of a complaint at the FEC, and they sent in retroactive registrations for the three previous years.

The Buckhams closely controlled the group's finances. Wendy Buckham formally served as the group's treasurer and secretary for only five months in 1996 and 1997, but kept the books and signed its checks until it folded in 2001, according to its tax forms and former officers. Edwin Buckham said in the 2003 deposition it was he who suggested she take this role.

USFN nevertheless paid both an accounting firm and Wendy Buckham for accounting in 1997. She also collected $43,000 in "commissions" that year on the first $524,975 in contributions to the group from business entities that worked with Abramoff, according to its ledger. Congressional ethics rules do not bar such payments to spouses unless they are meant to purchase favors from lawmakers or staff.

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."

Asked about the handwritten changes, the group's former lawyer, J. Thomas Smith, said he did not recall seeing them and declined further comment.

Art Taylor, head of the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, a watchdog group, noted after reviewing the nonprofit group's tax returns for 1998 and 1999 that a tax inspector might wonder if "they have enough activity going on" of public benefit to justify their tax exemption. "If they were a charity," he said, "they don't meet our standards."
Labor in the Marianas

One of the first policy issues to be discussed by the group's board, according to its March 1997 minutes, was a "free-market research project" in the Northern Marianas Islands, a U.S. protectorate in the Pacific Ocean.

At the time, Abramoff was under contract with the Marianas government to lobby against congressional legislation to impede the free flow of immigrant labor to the islands from China and elsewhere in Asia, and impose a minimum hourly wage exceeding the island's standard rate of $3.05.

To U.S. immigration officials and other critics, maintaining the Marianas' exemptions from these rules amounted to providing legal protection for sweatshops. But textile manufacturers, who dominated the islands' politics and profited heavily from paying immigrant workers less than required on the mainland, ardently opposed the legislation. The Marianas government paid Abramoff a total of $7.17 million in lobbying fees from 1996 to 2001, according to an audit there.

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 withNational 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.
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Before the U.S. Family Network folded in 2001 under pressure from an FEC probe, it became involved in other controversial political matters.

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.

As the group started to wind down, it made five payments totaling nearly $200,000 to entities affiliated with its staff or board members or located at USFN's address, according to the ledger. It sold the townhouse at a $19,000 loss.

The board also agreed at its final meeting in January 2001 to pay $150,000 to the Dorothy Joan Morris Foundation.

The minutes state this was done at the request of "the gentleman who donated the largest amount of money to USFN" — a term that Geeslin said is a euphemism for Buckham's fundraising.

Incorporation papers on file with the Maryland Secretary of State list the foundation's location as an insurance company office in a strip mall in Frederick.

The papers state that the foundation is in turn owned by another group, Foundation Ministries Inc., which has its legal address at the Frederick home of the Buckhams.

Dorothy Joan Morris is the name of the 79-year-old mother of a former Buckham assistant named Roger Albanese, who is described in USFN documents as collecting roughly $20,000 from the group for "program services related to prayer." She says she never authorized the use of her name for the foundation, was never told about the $150,000 donation and never saw any of the proceeds.

"What rights does he [Buckham] have to put that in my name?" asked Morris, who said she lives with her husband in a trailer home parked in Las Vegas. "It's fishy."

Lott Slams Frist

March 26, 2006

From NewsMax:

Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., had harsh words this weekend for his GOP successor when asked about the legacy of current Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

According to the Galveston County Daily News, Lott told a local gathering that Frist did not have the political experience necessary to lead the fractious Senate.

"I don’t think he’ll go down in history as one of the greats,” said Lott, who titled his autobiography "Herding Cats” to describe the difficulty in leading 100 Senators with 100 competing agendas.

And Lott didn’t stop there. Asked whether Frist had a legitimate chance to become the next president, he replied, "I don’t think he has a shot at that.”

As noted by the Daily News, Frist is retiring from the Senate at the end of the year, and his departure could open the door for Lott’s return to the majority leader’s office. Lott did not deny the ambition, admitting that he was contemplating a run for Senate leadership.

Lott’s prognostications stand in stark contrast to the results of a straw poll conducted in Memphis, Tenn. during the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in early March. Frist emerged the victor with 40 percent of all ballots cast. Experts have dismissed the win because of Frist's "home state advantage" with poll voters.

CREW Challanges Norquist

March 26, 2006

From The Washington Post:

An ethics watchdog asked the U.S. Internal Revenue Service on Tuesday to revoke the tax-exempt status of a conservative group for helping disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff secretly fund an anti-casino campaign that benefited his clients.

Americans for Tax Reform also violated its nonprofit status by taking a cut of the money it handled, said Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW.

"This thing that they did where they basically took in money from tribes, laundered it and skimmed some off the top had nothing to do with their purpose" as an anti-tax organization, CREW executive director Melanie Sloan said.

A spokesman for Americans for Tax Reform declined to comment but said he would have an official reaction later.

Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist has had a close relationship with Abramoff since the early 1980s, when they were active in the College Republicans.

Abramoff went on to a lucrative lobbying career before pleading in January to fraud charges and admitting that he showered gifts on lawmakers in return for official favors. He is now cooperating in a corruption probe that has implicated several top Republicans, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Norquist built his nonprofit group into an influential conservative organization that advocates tax cuts and limited government.

E-mail messages released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee last year show that Abramoff and anti-gambling activist Ralph Reed discussed passing checks through Americans for Tax Reform. Those documents indicate that Norquist's group kept some of the money it handled.

Norquist told the Boston Globe last year that he passed along $1.15 million from an Indian tribe that runs a casino in Mississippi to anti-gambling groups trying to block a casino in Alabama.

Because the contributions were routed through Norquist's group, the anti-gambling activists would not know that they were bankrolled by gambling money.

A Republican political group said it might file an IRS complaint challenging CREW's nonprofit status on the grounds that it behaves in a partisan manner.

"If you look at CREW you see nothing more than a shill for the Democratic Party," said Dan Ronayne, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

CREW has filed complaints against at least 15 Republicans and one Democrat since 2003. The group's report on "The 13 Most Corrupt Members of Congress" features 11 Republicans and two Democrats.

That's because Republicans are in power, Sloan said.

"Nobody's going to pay off a Democrat, because they can't deliver anything," she said.