From GQ (which has one of the worst web sites ever designed)
THE SINS OF RALPH REED
From star foot soldier for the religious right to GOP lobbyist with questionable ties to Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed is finally losing his Teflon luster
The morning begins with a prayer in Jason’s Deli, a strip-mall joint in Atlanta, and we all bow our heads and say amen. We—me, the Atlanta reporter, and all the Buck Springs Republicans—stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and the ﬁne a cappella rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and then we—me and the other reporter—sit down in our booth and scribble notes throughout the short, civil debate between the two candidates who are seeking the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor of Georgia. One of the candidates is state senator Casey Cagle, who was a businessman before he was first elected twelve years ago. The other is Ralph Reed.
Remember Ralph Reed? Executive director of the Christian Coalition. Hardball Republican operative. Cherubic embodiment of the religious right. He may not have created the movement, but he was the one who mainstreamed it. After a decade of TV-preacher scandals and jowly old scolds wagging moralizing ﬁngers, Reed was slick and sensible. He was young and smart and erudite, and he had that face, that unlined diamond under a swoop of Big Boy hair that had writers struggling for something, anything, other than choirboy or altar boy or angelic to describe it. Time magazine put that face on its cover in 1995 next to the words THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD. Just 33 years old, and Reed was an icon.
But that was eleven years ago, a lifetime in politics.
No one then would have guessed that Ralph Reed would end up chasing a second-tier office in a down-ballot race in an off year in Georgia. Or that he might lose.
The debate ends. The BuckSprings Republicans are pushing back from their tables, and Reed is right there in the aisle next to our booth, shaking hands and clapping shoulders. He’s slight, maybe ﬁve eight in the cowboy boots he’s taken to wearing. The hair has calmed down since the ’90s, but he still has that face. Reed’s 44 now, but in his blue blazer and open collar, he could pass for a graduate student. He’s smiling and friendly, and we start to stand up so we can say hello and begin with our questions.
At which point, a guy appears at the edge of our table. His name is Art Morris, and he’s Reed’s ﬁnance chairman. Chatty fellow. Loves Reed. Says lots of nice and not particularly interesting things about him. But mainly, he’s got us pinned in our booth, and he keeps us there until Reed has worked his way up the aisle to the front of the room and into a thick, insulating knot of Republicans.
Art’s a blocker. Maybe it’s an eager coincidence—his timing, his body placement—but it works out well. Because Reed doesn’t talk to reporters anymore. His campaign manager, a boyish redhead in a turquoise golf shirt named Jared, has already made that clear. “We don’t do anything with out-of-state press,” he said earlier, striding across the parking lot with a can of Tab in his hand.
“Because we’re running for lieutenant governor of the state of Georgia.”
Jared says that as if it’s the most obvious fact in the world, as blatant and transparent as the giant red pickup Reed’s driving as a campaign prop. It’s also silly. Senator Cagle is running for the same office, and he’ll talk to any reporter who rings his campaign office. That’s what candidates do, and usually with the same grace and charm with which they shake hands and kiss babies and ask for money. Not Reed, though. He hasn’t given an on-the-record quote of any substance to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in six months, and he hasn’t granted a serious interview to any paper big enough to have a Nexis account in at least as long. And sit-down interviews? Not a chance.
The reason he doesn’t talk to reporters is that he can’t afford to. If he does, they’ll just start asking him all those uncomfortable questions that have nothing to do with being lieutenant governor. Mostly, they’ll ask about his relationship—his multimillion-dollar relationship—with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. And that’s if they’re only skimming the surface. Give them some time and they’ll ask about his work for eLottery or Enron or Microsoft; or his shilling for China; or his close call with the statute of limitations in Texas; or the way John McCain got slimed in the 2000 South Carolina primary; or something called the Black Churches Insurance Program. Maybe they’d even ask how he squares up his professed salvation through his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ with…well, with everything else.
Those would be awkward conversations.
So Art talks and distracts. He stays right with us as we shuffle after Reed at a harmless distance. He’s been with Reed since his stint as chairman of the Georgia GOP a few years back. “He made politics fun,” Art says. “He brought in celebrities from Washington.” Why, in just a few weeks, Rudy Giuliani, America’s Mayor, will ﬂy to Atlanta to raise money for Reed. America’s twice-divorced, gay-rights-supporting, pro-choice, gun-controlling mayor stumping for the former head of the Christian Coalition. Politics and bedfellows and all.
A year ago, Reed was expected not so much to win the nomination as to claim it. The glory days of the Coalition had long faded, but he was still a star in the Republican Party. He is a prodigious fund-raiser and an industrious organizer with an extensive base of conservative Christians, and he is given much credit for delivering the Southeast to George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. “Ralph’s plan,” says Cagle, “was to get George W. Bush and the White House to come in and support him and squash the li’l ol’ state senator.”
But then all that stuff with Jack Abramoff came spilling out.
Abramoff was until recently a rich and successful lobbyist, partly because he was extremely well connected on Capitol Hill and partly because he bent, broke, and otherwise mangled a variety of laws and regulations as well as the general code of ethics by which honorable people conduct their lives. Because of that, he has created an epic, multitentacled scandal that will likely occupy prosecutors and congressional investigators well into the next administration. Abramoff is also one of Reed’s oldest friends and closest business associates. They go way back, to their days with the College Republican National Committee in the early 1980s. When Reed opened his own consulting ﬁrm ﬁfteen years later, he turned to Abramoff for help. Hey, now that I’m done with the electoral politics, he wrote in a November 12, 1998, e-mail, I need to start humping in corporate accounts! I’m counting on you to help me with some contacts.
Which Abramoff did, primarily with lucrative contracts involving Indian casinos and for which Reed and Abramoff left voluminous records. Those records started dribbling out as the Abramoff scandal unraveled—and that, in turn, elevated the Republican primary for lieutenant governor of Georgia into a national story. A corrupt lobbyist and the pious former head of the Christian Coalition tied up in gambling scandals? That’s good copy.
And bad news for Ralph Reed. “It’s never good news if you’re running for lieutenant governor of Georgia and the national media is interested in your race,” says Matt Towery, an Atlanta pollster who once ran for the office himself.
TIES TO ABRAMOFF SHADOW REED’S RUN IN GEORGIA, USA Today announced in January. That same week, The Washington Post weighed in—on page one, no less—with IN GA., ABRAMOFF SCANDAL THREATENS A POLITICAL ASCENDANCY. World, an inﬂuential Christian weekly edited by an evangelical who’s worked closely with President Bush, has pummeled Reed, which in March led to another Washington Post piece: FROM A CONSERVATIVE, A LACK OF COMPASSION FOR RALPH REED. The tide of black ink rose so high that in April The Wall Street Journal, under the headline the Abramoff effect, wondered if Reed might “become the ﬁrst campaign casualty of the Abramoff scandal.”
But that’s framing the question rather generously. If he loses the July 18 primary, wouldn’t he actually be a victim of Ralph Reed?
The one thing everyone says about Ralph Reed is “You can’t question his faith.” People who like him say it, people who dislike him say it, and people who respect his political skills but otherwise don’t have an opinion one way or the other say it, too. It’s not exclusive to him, of course, but rather more of a general rule, a commandment by which polite (and even impolite) society has agreed to abide.
Fair enough. Private faith is a mysterious thing—much like marriage—and the republic would be better served if reporters kept their snouts out of both. A person’s true faith is impossible to know, anyway. If, to use a convenient example, a man repeatedly calls gambling immoral and then takes millions of dollars to work surreptitiously for the beneﬁt of casinos, those are merely two conﬂicting actions that evidence hypocrisy. They prove nothing about what he believes. (Though they do suggest he suspects the Almighty is a forgiving deity.)
But public professions of faith—a faith Reed espoused in two books and countless interviews; a faith upon which he built his reputation and his mailing list; a faith Reed used to rally conservative Christians and to change the tenor of American politics—can and should be questioned.
In the beginning, which was 1983, Reed was living in Washington, part of a pack of young conservatives reveling in the Reagan Revolution. These weren’t wonky kids buffing their résumés for a summer on Capitol Hill; these were hard-core ideologues, partial to Soviet-bloc dissidents and antiabortion rallies, masters of political theater, true believers in the might and right of conservative politics. At 21, Reed was already a seasoned operator: He had campaigned in Georgia for Gerald Ford in 1976 against native son Jimmy Carter, been elected senior-class president at Stephens County High School, organized Republican rallies at the University of Georgia, and in 1983 served as the executive director of the College Republicans, the chairman of which was Abramoff.
Reed had been raised a Methodist, but he wasn’t particularly devout. Then, one Saturday night, he was sitting in a bar on Capitol Hill called Bullfeathers when, as he wrote in his 1994 book, Politically Incorrect, he “felt a gentle tugging in my conscience that I should start attending a local church.” He went to a phone booth, opened the Yellow Pages, and picked a church at random. (That’s the sum total of pre-church introspection revealed in Politically Incorrect. In later interviews, the story would expand to include Reed’s being tired of partying and, even later, his witnessing a married congressman stepping out on his wife.)
The next morning, Reed attended services at Evangel Assembly of God church in Camp Springs, Maryland. As a random choice, it made sense: Randy Miller, who was an associate pastor at the time, remembers that Evangel had placed a display ad in the phone book, and Assembly of God would have been in one of the ﬁrst church subcategories. After the sermon, pastor Jack Cain gave a call from the altar “for people I described as not walking with Christ” to come up and be saved.
Reed went forward. It is an important ritual, that march to the altar, that public salvation. “The Word says if we receive the Lord before men, then on Judgment Day, He’ll recognize us before the Father,” says Cain, who retired in 2003. “If we’re not afraid to recognize Him before men…well, you know, it’s a little intimidating to come up front.”
Reed didn’t attend Evangel for long—probably less than a year, Randy Miller remembers—before moving to Atlanta to begin work on his doctorate in American history at Emory University. And he may have continued on the academic path, as he tells it in Politically Incorrect, if not for a seemingly chance encounter at the inauguration of George H. W. Bush in January 1989 with Pat Robertson, the religious broadcaster who had run for president the year before:
After dinner, Pat motioned me to follow him out of the ballroom. As we walked to the elevator, he said, “I’m going to start this new organization, and I think it will change politics in America. The evangelicals and Roman Catholics have more grassroots supporters than anyone, but they need leadership and direction. I would like for you to come on staff and help make this vision a reality.”
Reed said he was reluctant, that he was through with politics. But clearly it was still in his blood. Over the next few days, he composed a memo to Robertson outlining a strategy to build a grassroots organization “by region, state, county, precinct, all the way down to block captains.” With 10 million to 40 million evangelicals, “there is no constituency in the American electorate with greater explosive potential as a political force,” he wrote. “Nor is there any constituency of comparable size and energy so pitifully unorganized and uneducated.”
Seventeen years later, that memo seems a ﬁne place to begin questioning Reed’s public faith. The most obvious question has dogged Reed for years: Was the Coalition meant to advance a Christian agenda in the political arena, or was it about using conservative Christians, with their “explosive potential,” to advance Reed’s political career?
Granted, it’s probably not a strictly either-or proposition. But it is worth noting that Reed found politics before he found God (and discovered, as countless wags have snickered, that God agreed with his politics). It’s also worth pointing out that less than three years after he wrote that memo—by which time he was the Christian Coalition’s executive director—Reed favorably compared his work to guerrilla warfare. “I paint my face and travel at night,” he told The Virginian-Pilot in 1991. “You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag.” His own mother—his mother! —once told USA Today, “I used to tell people he was going to be either President of the United States or Al Capone.”
Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, outside Boston, who has been tracking right-wing groups for more than thirty years, suspects Reed created his own gray area between the terrestrial and the spiritual. “When you decide that taking power in a political system is the most important thing, then you rewrite the sacred texts of the religion to justify what you’re doing,” he says. “So in your mind you’re still faithful, but the version of the faith you’ve created serves your political needs.”
Reed’s version of the faith was a primer for a supposedly more Christian nation. (Underlying that premise, of course, is a persecution complex, the notion that the devout are under attack in a country that has elected forty-three Christian presidents in a row, historically compels witnesses and officeholders to swear an oath on the Holy Bible, stamps IN GOD WE TRUST on every greenback, and explicitly anoints itself as “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.) There was heavy emphasis on the so-called cultural issues—gays, abortion, pornography, gambling, school prayer—that rile up the base. Yet Reed’s Christian political primer also included such conservative (and arguably nonbiblical) standards as tax cuts, school vouchers, and deregulation.
The next step, then, was to spread that gospel. “That’s what Ralph did,” Berlet says. “He wrote those stories that got Christian evangelicals to get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say, ‘I’m going to save my family, my country, my world.’ He wrote the script, and it’s a script based on fear and scaremongering. It’s very easy to get people to follow it. It’s a despicable script couched in the narrative of love.”
And it was effective. After starting with a scant $3,000 and a mailing list of 134,325 names from Robertson’s failed presidential bid, Reed built the Coalition into a dominant force for conservative politics. It was never as large as he boasted—according to Nina J. Easton’s book Gang of Five, he once claimed the Coalition had up to 3 million followers, about ﬁve times the dues-paying members—but that was Reed’s gift, his magic: Through stagecraft and bluster, he made the Christian right appear to be the ascendant and inevitable future of American politics. In 1992 the Coalition, along with other religious and culturally conservative groups, shape-shifted the GOP convention, which was both impressive (they hijacked a convention, after all) and inept: The resulting circus scared the bejesus out of half of America. The 1994 Republican takeover of Congress was in part credited to Reed and the Coalition as well. By 1995, Reed was powerful enough, or perceived to be, to get his mug on the cover of Time.
The alchemization of Republican politics and conservative Christianity has continued ever since. Self-professed evangelicals are one of George W. Bush’s largest bases of support; it isn’t diffcult, in fact, to sketch a line from Reed to a president who believes God wanted him to invade Iraq and that gay marriage is such a grievous threat to the nation that the Constitution must be amended. “Their involvement in the last two elections, 2000 and 2004, was extraordinary by historical standards,” says John C. Green, a senior fellow with the nonpartisan Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “This voting bloc is not big enough by itself to dominate the Republican Party, but it’s so large it can’t be ignored. And without the efforts of Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson and others, this voting bloc would not have developed within the Republican Party.”
In June 1997, Ralph Reed left the Christian Coalition to open his own consulting shop, Century Strategies, just outside Atlanta. His plan was to get “pro-family” candidates elected across the country—congressmen, governors, senators, state representatives, lieutenant governors, even Georgia’s labor commissioner—and he started rounding up clients. Former associates say he was “a fantastic salesman,” promising neophyte candidates that he’d raise three times more money for them than he’d charge in fees, that he’d leverage his celebrity contacts, that he’d rake the grass roots for votes. That was the appeal, Reed’s political juice. But those same associates say he didn’t provide much beyond the salesmanship part. “He’d say, ‘We’re gonna sign up 10,000 people and make 25,000 phone calls,’ ”says one, “but he knew nobody’s going to go back and count how many phone calls we actually made. That was Ralph all the way.”
Three of Century’s candidates lost their primaries (though one had dismissed the ﬁrm before voting day), and a fourth dropped out of a California race. In November, Century lost at least six more races. In an e-mail to Abramoff six days after the election, Reed noted that he’d lost Governor Fob James’s reelection bid in Alabama, Kentuckian Gex “Jay” Williams’s run for a U.S. House seat, and Gary Hofmeister’s campaign in Indiana’s Tenth Congressional District. Given the national tide, those were probably not in the cards, he wrote, but we fought like dogs.
Hofmeister, who still considers Reed a friend, doesn’t quite remember it that way. Four months before the general election, he wrote a letter to Tim Phillips, Reed’s partner at the time, wondering when the cavalry would be coming. “Even apart from my friendship with Ralph, I was rather amazed that I received no congratulatory call from Ralph after the primary nor on anything else,” he wrote. “My point is deﬁnitely not that I want to change horses…but only that as the president of the ﬁrm, I would think he should have at least a bit of contact with his clients.” After the letter, Hofmeister says now, “I pretty much got back zero.”
That was a pattern, former associates say. “We lost nearly every big-ticket race,” one says, “except for [Georgia senator Paul] Coverdell and [Alabama senator] Richard Shelby, who weren’t going to lose anyway, but we claimed them as victories. The fact is, across the board, if the races weren’t premier, Ralph simply wasn’t there.”
It was immediately after that less-than-impressive ﬁrst election cycle that Reed asked Abramoff for help “humping in corporate accounts.” However it happened, Reed was soon representing a plethora of major businesses. Microsoft hired him in the fall of 1998 and paid him on and off for the next seven years; between 2001 and 2006, Reed collected almost $1.6 million from the company. For what, no one will say, though everyone’s denied it ever had anything to do with chatting up George W. Bush about the antitrust case looming against the software giant. Enron was good for up to $20,000 a month starting in 1997, which is notable again not for what Reed did—lobbied for energy deregulation in Pennsylvania—but for what everyone has denied: that Karl Rove hooked him up with then governor George W. Bush’s largest single donor in exchange for helping to rally the southern righteous in the upcoming presidential election. (Remember that campaign? John McCain was in the lead coming out of New Hampshire, then in South Carolina came under vicious attack by operatives who painted their faces and traveled at night. The most reprehensible of those attacks was the suggestion that his adopted Bangladeshi daughter was the senator’s illegitimate black baby. Reed has always denied he was behind any of the smears. But his guy won.)
he Enron gig, in turn, also allowed Reed to return a favor. In a December 19, 2000, e-mail to an Enron executive, he noted that Jack Abramoff would be joining a new law ﬁrm in two weeks: Abramoff is arguably the most inﬂuential and effective GOP lobbyist in congress. I share several clients with him and have yet to see him lose a battle. He also is very close to Delay and could help enormously on that front. Raised $ for Bush.
Reed made a pile of money in the private sector. He now lives in a $2.2 million house, and he has another $2.2 million tucked away for his retirement and his kids’ college. Some part of those millions came from Boeing and the Business Roundtable, which paid him to persuade Congress in 1998 to keep China on the most-favored-nations list of trading partners. Typically, that’s anathema to evangelical Christians, considering China’s dismal record on religious freedom and forced abortions. In fact, only a year earlier, shortly before he left the Christian Coalition, Reed argued that China’s trade status should be revoked because of “some of the most brutal repression of religion anywhere in the world.” In one interview, he said, “This can’t just be about proﬁts and losses and dollars and cents. It has to be about matters of the heart and matters of the soul and America being a moral leader in the world.”
Working for private businesses, however, Reed used his Christian connections to make precisely the opposite argument. He hired a subcontractor to create the Alliance of Christian Ministries in China, which, in a media campaign, proclaimed that normalized relations allowed evangelicals to spread the Gospel. Whether Congress was concerned with saving Chinese souls is hard to say, but once again Reed’s guys won: China retained its trade-relations status.
The promise of eternal salvation for Chinese peasants proved to be a useful tool for Reed. In 1999, Abramoff hired him to help lobby on behalf of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth that is exempt from federal wage and labor laws, a loophole that allows garmentmakers to stitch MADE IN THE U.S.A. into their products without having to follow any U.S. rules. It’s also a hellhole for migrant workers: sweatshop labor, sex slavery, forced abortions for imported peasants. None of that was a secret: By the time Reed signed on as Abramoff’s subcontractor, there’d been years of studies and media reports documenting the conditions.
But in August 1999, Reed’s direct-mail subsidiary sent a pamphlet to conservative Alabama Christians urging them to call a Republican congressman and thank him for opposing the imposition of federal rules on the Northern Marianas. The mailer, sent under the auspices of the Traditional Values Coalition, claimed that “the radical left, the Big Labor Union Bosses, and Bill Clinton want to pass a law preventing Chinese from coming to work on the Marianas islands” and that they “have spread vicious lies about this U.S. territory to silence the gospel.” The pamphlet’s grotesque logic: Many of those sweatshop seamstresses and bullied prostitutes “are exposed to the teachings of Jesus Christ…are converted to the Christian faith and return to China with Bibles in hand, ready to spread the gospel and start home churches.”
Meanwhile, Reed had Abramoff humping in other contracts, too.
Abramoff’s most lucrative racket, the one that earned him the nickname “Casino Jack,” was representing Indian tribes with gambling interests, either in closing down competing casinos or in expanding their own operations. Also, he and his partner, Michael Scanlon, swindled those tribes with inﬂated invoices, which might explain why Abramoff referred to his clients in e-mails as “fucking morons,” “monkeys,” and, once, “mofos [who] are the stupidest idiots in the land for sure.” Total take: $65 million, minimum. Felony convictions related to those morons and mofos: four—fraud, conspiracy, and tax-evasion pleas from Abramoff in January, plus one conspiracy plea from Scanlon.
Among the tribes Abramoff represented were the Choctaw Indians, proprietors of the Silver Star and Golden Moon casinos outside Philadelphia, Mississippi. The Choctaws make a good chunk of change from southern gamblers, about $300 million a year—proﬁts they naturally preferred not be siphoned off to, say, neighboring Alabama, which in 1999 was considering both instituting a lottery and legalizing video poker at racetracks.
That’s where Reed comes in. Who better to stomp a lottery and video poker than the former head of the Christian Coalition? “Gambling,” Reed had said only three years earlier, “is a cancer on the American body politic, destroying families, stealing food from the mouths of children, turning wives into widows.” Casinos, on the other hand, have a lot of cash to throw around, what with all that food stealing and widow-making: Reed took more than a million dollars from the Choctaws, which was funneled through the Christian Coalition of Alabama and a brand-new (and now long gone) group, Citizens Against Legalized Lottery, to pay for an organized, and partly successful, campaign against gambling in Alabama. A few years later, in 2002, Reed did essentially the same thing, helping to close one Texas casino and kill plans for another that threatened the market share of the Louisiana Coushattas, who paid roughly $4 million for his services.
There is apparently nothing illegal about any of that. Yes, three Texas public-interest groups complained last year that Reed violated Texas law by not registering as a lobbyist when his e-mails suggest he was, in fact, lobbying; and yes, the Travis County Attorney didn’t exactly clear him when he noted that the statute of limitations on lobbying misdemeanors had expired. And true, a lot of the money Reed collected from those and other gambling-related projects was funneled through third parties and front groups—including one, the Faith and Family Alliance, that existed long enough to launder a single check and was run by a guy who’s now doing seven years for soliciting minors over the Internet—but that might only look shady. And give the man his props: He did excellent work for both tribes, or claimed to. He set up phone banks and direct-mail lists and bought television time and wrote radio scripts. He even implied that he’d recruited fellow Christian-right heavy James Dobson, of Focus on the Family, to record a spot—which Dobson denies.
Simply put, Abramoff crony Scanlon wrote in an e-mail to one of the Coushattas’ lawyers, we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them. The wackos get their information [from] the Christian right, Christian radio, mail, the internet, and telephone.
And that’s what Reed was paid to do: froth up the wackos on behalf of the morons and the monkeys.
The problem with the Abramoff matter is that it just won’t go away. It’s been bubbling out for two years now, a slow, stinging torture. For a politician, such an embarrassing episode is more easily dealt with in a single shot. Get it all out, mumble something about regret, and move on. But don’t let it linger. Don’t let it metastasize like—what’s Reed’s word?—a cancer.
Reed’s name came up in association with Abramoff and the Indians in fall 2004, then again in June 2005, when the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held hearings that included the release of reams of e-mails and canceled checks. There were more hearings and more e-mails in November 2005, and a ﬁnal Senate report was released June 22. The report accuses Reed of nothing illegal. But it does cast him in the role of Abramoff’s supporting weasel, a schemer desperate to hide the source of his gambling paychecks. Even Abramoff mocked his greed, telling Scanlon that Reed is a bad version of us! And when one of Abramoff’s marks fretted that Reed was an antigambling ideologue, the report notes, Abramoff laughingly replied “as far as the cash goes.”
With each new revelation, Reed evolved his response. Early on, he insisted he never took any tribal money. When e-mails suggested otherwise—Abramoff to Reed on June 5, 2001, for example: Not sure I understand what this bill is all about… Please let me know so I can discuss it with the tribe—he said he never took any gambling money, which was just ridiculous. Finally, near the end of last year, he retreated to pleading idiocy: “Had I known then what I know now, I would not have undertaken that work.”
“The problem now,” says Matt Towery, the pollster, “is that he’s got to prove to everyone that he wasn’t quite bright enough to know [the Abramoff stuff] was wrong but that he’s bright enough to govern their state as lieutenant governor.”
Wait, it gets worse. Because the Abramoff scandal is so enormous, his name will continue to crop up in newspapers and on television throughout the primary and then the general election and probably the entire four-year term of the next lieutenant governor of Georgia, and every now and then Reed will come up in the same sentence or the same breath, if only as background ﬁller, like Marley’s chains rattling around the hallway. The Abramoff-related trials are just getting started, and already Reed is being haunted by the ghost of junkets past: As part of their case against Abramoff crony and former White House aide David Safavian—who was eventually convicted of making false statements and obstruction of justice—federal prosecutors in May showed a jury a photograph of Abramoff, Ohio congressman Bob Ney, and seven other people standing in front of a chartered Gulf Stream jet immediately before they all climbed aboard for a ﬂight to St. Andrews in Scotland. Reed’s the second one from the left, in the light blue shirt, smiling with his hands on his hips.
Meanwhile, the materials released through the Senate Indian Affairs hearings—which ironically were mostly chaired by John McCain—are so voluminous that reporters are still mining them for dirty nuggets.
For instance, there was the affair with eLottery, an Abramoff client that wanted to sell lottery tickets over the Internet. In the spring of 2000, after three years of languishing on Capitol Hill, a compromise bipartisan bill that would outlaw Internet gambling ﬁnally started moving through Congress. The compromise was between the online-gambling industry and a cadre of antigambling Christian righties—Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson—who said they would tolerate a ban that made exceptions for horse and dog racing and jai alai.
About a week after that deal was reached, Abramoff put Reed on a retainer, $20,000 a month, to help kill it. Their strategy: Don’t mention all the things that would be outlawed; instead, focus publicity solely on the exemptions to the bill—Look, frontons and racetrack gambling are being legalized!—and bluff that the bill would actually expand Internet gambling. Reed did his grassroots thing, and on July 17 the ban was defeated.
When that story ﬁrst came out last fall, Reed claimed he’d had no idea gambling interests were paying him to exterminate an antigambling bill, that he’d only found out as the Abramoff mess unraveled in 2004 that eLottery had fronted him twenty grand a month. At one point, he insisted he wasn’t even aware that Abramoff worked for eLottery until after the job was ﬁnished. Sure, he looked like a dope with that explanation, but the story faded away.
But then Jim Galloway of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution got his hands on some long-lost e-mails. There was one from Abramoff to his colleague, a guy named Jonathan Blank. Jonathan, it began, here is a draft for the retainer letter with Reed on the elot project. Can you review and approve, or give me your edits? Blank then sent the note back to Abramoff, who on May 23, 2000, forwarded the entire thing, including the elot project line, to Reed. He wrote, Ralph, are these changes okay?
Reed wrote back, Yes.
(A side note: One of the stipulations in Reed’s contract was that he wouldn’t have to register as a lobbyist, which meant there would be no public record that he was shivving Robertson et al.)
Galloway’s story ran on March 4, ﬁve months after Reed presumably ﬁgured he’d neutralized the eLottery contract and only four months before the primary.
Seriously, the files out of the Senate committee are mammoth. Hundreds upon hundreds of pages of testimony and e-mails and copies of canceled checks, so much eye-blearing ink that a few fascinating lines inevitably get missed the ﬁrst time through.
For instance, the e-mail thread on pages 308 and 309 of a ﬁle from the June 22, 2005, hearing. So far, only The Texas Observer noticed it, and then only in passing. Like most e-mail threads, it’s in reverse order, so you have to start at the bottom of page 309 with the note dated July 22, 2003, from Abramoff to Reed under the subject line Black Churches insurance program.
Per our previous discussion, Abramoff wrote. Let me know how we can move forward to chat with folks who can set this up with African American elders. It can be huge. Thanks.
A ﬁle called “Charity Elder Program2.doc” was attached.
Three days later, Reed replied: Yes, it looks interesting. I assume you’ll set up a meeting in DC as a next step, or whatever we should do next, let me know.
“Charity Elder Program2.doc” has apparently disappeared into the ether. Reed’s communications director, Lisa Baron, says she doesn’t have it. It isn’t included in the Indian Affairs Committee ﬁle, and sources say Senate investigators were unable to retrieve it. But Duane Gibson, an associate to whom Abramoff forwarded those e-mails, told investigators that the Black Churches program was a wider version of the Tigua Elder Legacy Project that Abramoff had pitched to a Texas tribe only four months earlier.
The Tiguas, who are more formally known as the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Tribe of El Paso, had basically one source of income: the Speaking Rock casino. The state, through then attorney general John Cornyn, had been trying to close it down on general principles since 1999, arguing that casino gambling was illegal in Texas, and by late 2000 the matter was still crawling through the courts. The Louisiana Coushattas—clients of Abramoff and, by extension, Reed—also wanted Speaking Rock closed to eliminate the competition.
Reed’s job was to monitor Cornyn’s office, keep tabs on the legal timeline, and whip up support for the attorney general and opposition to the casino. Which he did for more than a year, both through contacts in Cornyn’s offoce and with the help of a megachurch preacher named Ed Young (incredibly engaged and excited, Reed wrote in one e-mail). The monitoring was important because Abramoff’s timing had to be perfect: When Reed e-mailed Abramoff that a judge would order Speaking Rock closed on February 11, Abramoff and Scanlon made sure they were in El Paso on February 12…promising the panicked Tiguas they could get their casino reopened for a fee of $4.2 million.
In layman’s terms, this is called a con. The idea was to buy off a congressman (Bob Ney) and a senator (Christopher Dodd), who would sneak language allowing Speaking Rock to reopen into a totally unrelated bill. No one would even notice.
Only Senator Dodd didn’t go along with the plan. In fact, he was mightily pissed his good name had gotten dragged into such a scam, a point he made quite clear during an Indian Affairs Committee hearing.
The failed con took more than a year to play out, by which time the Tiguas were pretty much broke. So Abramoff came up with a way for his marks to continue paying him: the Tigua Elder Legacy Project. Abramoff would arrange, at no cost to the tribe, a life-insurance policy for every Tigua 75 or older. When those elders died, the death beneﬁts would be paid to Eshkol Academy, a private school Abramoff had founded near Washington. Eshkol, in turn, would then pay Abramoff’s fee to continue lobbying on behalf of the surviving Tiguas. Morbid opportunism disguised as charity: Each dead Tigua would be cash in the lobbyist’s pocket.
The Tiguas declined the offer. “It felt uncomfortable,” a Tigua official told the Senate committee last November.
The Tigua-death-fund offer had been made in March 2003. Four months later, Abramoff was pitching Reed—his connection to Christians—the Black Churches Insurance Program. There was only one difference: It would be huge, to use Abramoff’s word.
“Yeah,” a former associate of Reed’s says, “it sounds like Jack approached Reed about mortgaging old black people.”
Abramoff’s attorneys listened to that scenario in great detail, pondered it for a day, and then politely said, “No comment.”
Reed’s communications director, Lisa Baron, initially said, “Your sources are wrong,” but not how or in what way. A day later, she notably did not say those sources were wrong. Ralph receives unsolicited requests of a political or business nature all the time, she wrote in an e-mail. Our records show no meeting took place to discuss the proposed project. Ralph had no involvement whatsoever in marketing such policies to African-American churches.
So yeah, it does sound like Jack approached Ralph about mortgaging old black people.
And Ralph said, yes, it looks interesting…whatever we should do next, let me know.
Maurice Atkinson says he will not question Reed’s faith, because Atkinson is a Christian, and Christians don’t do that. He believes in grace, believes that all men fall short of the glory of God, believes he shouldn’t be picking specks from another man’s eye when he surely has a timber in his own.
“I’m not questioning his faith,” he says for maybe the fourth time. He pauses and looks at his shoes. “I’m coming close.” Another pause. “But I’m not questioning his faith.”
He is, however, questioning everything else about Reed, all that is earthly and mortal. And Atkinson carries some authority on the subject, because he was until very recently one of Reed’s followers. In the early ’90s, when he still lived in Indiana, he joined the Grant County chapter of the Christian Coalition because he believed in Reed’s political gospel. Sure, he knew Reed was a national player. “But the federal politics were glitz,” he says. “The payoff was, it helped us in our local communities.”
Atkinson left the Coalition in 1996, but only because he realized his partisan Republican politics were incompatible with a nonpartisan organization. When he moved to Macon, Georgia, he stayed loyal to the GOP—at the moment, he’s a vice chair of the Bibb County Republican Party and a member of the state committee—and he stayed loyal to Reed. When Reed announced his candidacy, Atkinson signed up for his steering committee. Of course he would support Reed, the man who’d shepherded conservative Christians into the political process.
Then the stories started trickling out. Abramoff, sure. But also Enron. And Channel One, another company the Christian Right generally despises but for which Reed lobbied. And the South Carolina primary in 2000. The stories kept coming until Atkinson thought: Man, this guy’s got no core.
“I call them political pimps,” he says. “They want to develop their market base and manipulate the system. You got Al Sharpton. You got Jesse Jackson. You got Ralph Reed. And the cause isn’t for the cause. It’s for themselves.”
Atkinson is stumping for Senator Cagle now. He’s like Cagle’s own avenging angel, a former Reed acolyte who is devastating in his critique. As a political prop, he’s brilliant.
Yet Atkinson is also sincere. He’s a heavyset man of 44, and at times he appears to slump when he talks about Reed, about what he thought then and what he knows now. Was it all a con? All the Christian Nation preaching, all the calls to the righteous?
“Yes,” Atkinson says. “I believe it was.”
Reed could have worked for anyone he wanted to, could have lent his considerable talents to any number of Christian organizations, real ones, too, the kind that existed before Reed needed some preachers to front for his corporate clients. But Enron? Indian casinos? “He’s either an awfully cheap whore,” Atkinson says, “or he’s diabolical.”
And here’s the part he doesn’t understand. “If you really believe…” He stops, takes a breath. “You don’t want to question people’s faith,” he says again, “but you almost have to. Because if you really believe that you know what’s wrong and what’s right, why would you decide—decide—to do the wrong thing?”
Matt Towery has a theory about that. He has known Reed for more than twenty years, and he’s known Washington just as long. He was there for the Revolution in 1994, chairing Newt Gingrich’s campaign. He was one of Them. He does not dislike Reed. He just knows Reed and creatures like Reed.
“The thing people don’t realize is, Ralph Reed’s really not all that bright,” he says. “He’s able to ingratiate himself, he’s able to seize moments of opportunity, but he’s really not that bright.”
Towery seems momentarily surprised that he’s saying these things out loud.
“This is a kid,” he goes on, “who went to Washington and saw people, wholesome-looking, clean-cut people, doing exactly what he’s doing now” —and by now he means the past fifteen years— “and I promise you, Ralph Reed didn’t have the sense to know it was wrong. He might have had the sense to think it was cute, to think it was clever. But wrong? Either morally or legally? No.”
He lets that hang there for a moment, then backtracks, but only a little. “It’s not that he’s stupid,” he says. “He’s not stupid. What he lacks is experience in life. Quite frankly, it’s a problem that affects most of D.C.”
And Reed is, above all else, a creature of Washington. The red pickup, the cowboy boots, those are just good-ol’-boy props. He came of age—physically, spiritually, professionally—on the banks of the Potomac. “These kids come up in Washington, and they have a choice in life,” Towery says. “At some point, you either move on with your life or you stay and you work. He stuck it out. When you do that, when you stay in that world, you lose perspective—the perspective of real businesses, of real families, of the real world, basically. Your gyroscope’s off.”
Jason’s Deli is almost empty now. Reed’s running out of Republicans to glad-hand, and Art has run out of nice things to say about Reed. The reporters obviously aren’t leaving without some face time.
The race is still a toss-up at this point, which is to say it’s a lot closer than anyone thought it would be when Reed announced he wanted the job. He still has his base, though, the Christian conservatives. “Becoming a Christian doesn’t mean you are never wrong,” Reed once wrote, “only that you are forgiven.”
Reed’s talking to one last Republican. Finally, he turns around. He has a wide, practiced smile on his face. “You must be the guy from GQ,” he says.
I start to introduce myself.
“Of course you are,” he says, taking a step back, spreading his arms like he’s admiring a new lawn tractor. “You’re the best-dressed guy here.”
That does not sound like a compliment. A few days earlier, a fellow Republican, someone who actually likes him, had told me that Reed “would be the quintessential reptilian character. With Ralph, it’s not a question of ‘Do I like you?’ It’s a question of ‘Am I hungry? And if I am, are you of a size that I can eat you?’ ”
Reed morphs into a lizard, a big, grinning lizard.
Also, it’s not true. I am not the best-dressed person there. Casey Cagle is wearing a very nice gray suit. Reed has his ﬁnely tailored blazer, a big silver belt buckle, and those boots. They’re black and made out of…what? Ostrich? Alligator?
I ﬁnish introducing myself, mutter something about how I thought I should dress appropriately, this being an official Republican debate and all.
“Well,” Reed says, grinning for real now, because he’s just been lobbed a fat, slow pitch, “you just don’t know Republicans.”
He keeps smiling for a beat.
“And that’s because you’re part of that liberal elite New York media.”
He’s still smiling when I tell him I live in North Carolina. But it doesn’t matter. Reed doesn’t talk to reporters, not any more than he absolutely has to, and not when he can dismiss them and all their uncomfortable questions.