Blackwell Screws Poor Ohio Voters Again

August 10, 2006

From The New York Times:

For Tony Minor, the pastor of the Community of Faith Assembly in a run-down section of East Cleveland, Ohio’s new voter registration rules have meant spending two extra hours a day collecting half as many registration cards from new voters as he did in past years.

Republicans say the new rules are needed to prevent fraud, but Democrats say they are making it much harder to register the poor.

In the last year, six states have passed such restrictions, and in three states, including Ohio, civic groups have filed lawsuits, arguing that the rules disproportionately affect poor neighborhoods.

But nowhere have the rules been as fiercely debated as here, partly because they are being administered by J. Kenneth Blackwell, the secretary of state and the Republican candidate in one of the most closely watched governor’s races in the country, a contest that will be affected by the voter registration rules. Mr. Blackwell did not write the law, but he has been accused of imposing regulations that are more restrictive than was intended.

Under the law, passed by the Republican-led state legislature in January 2006, paid voter registration workers must personally submit the voter registration cards to the state, rather than allow the organizations overseeing the drives to vet and submit them in bulk.

By requiring paid canvassers to sign and put their addresses on the voter registration cards they collect, and by making them criminally liable for any irregularities on the cards, the rules have made it more difficult to use such workers, who most often work in lower-income and Democratic-leaning neighborhoods, where volunteers are scarce.

“In Washington, D.C., Congress may have passed the voting rights bill to extend voter participation,” said Katy Gall, organizing director of Ohio Acorn, an advocacy group that focuses on poor neighborhoods. “But out here at the grass roots, things are headed in the opposite direction.”

Ms. Gall said the group had collected fewer than 200 new voter registration cards in the last month, down from an average of 7,000 a month before the regulations took effect on May 2.

“Quit whining,” said the Rev. Russell Johnson, the pastor of Fairfield Christian Church, who chuckled while shaking his head. “We work with the same challenges that everyone else does and we’re not having trouble.”

Surrounded by cornfields and middle-income homes, Mr. Johnson’s 4,000-member evangelical church in Lancaster, Ohio, is part of a coalition of conservative groups that aims to sign up 200,000 new voters by November, he said.

In the past several elections, Republicans have been effective in registering voters and getting them to the polls. Mr. Johnson said conservatives were better able to depend on voter registration volunteers because the conservatives had a message that attracted people who were willing to work free.

But Republicans are in an uphill battle in the face of investigations involving Gov. Bob Taft, who has pleaded no contest to charges of failing to report thousands of dollars in gifts given to him, and of Representative Bob Ney, who has been linked to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

Backers of the new regulations say they were needed, pointing to the fake names that appeared on voter registration cards in 2004, like Jive Turkey Sr.

“The new regulations have everything to do with preventing Jive Turkeys from showing up on cards the way they did last time,” said John McClelland, a spokesman for the state Republican Party. “They’ve got nothing to do with suppressing voter participation.” But elections experts and liberal grass-roots organizations say the new rules go too far.

“All this flak about Jive Turkey is a red herring,” said Catherine Turcer, the legislative director for Ohio Citizen Action, a nonpartisan government watchdog group in Columbus. “Yes, his name showed up on a voter registration card along with Dick Tracy, Mary Poppins and Michael Jordan. But none of them showed up at the polls, which is really what matters, and cases like theirs were a total rarity that did not justify such restrictive new measures.”

Back in East Cleveland, the copier machine at the Community of Faith Assembly church was overheating, and Mr. Minor was about to do the same. One new rule requires paid canvassers to return signed registration cards within 10 days to county boards of elections or the secretary of state’s office, rather than to the group paying the canvassers.

To comply with the rule, Mr. Minor has created an elaborate system so the cards do not leave the possession of the canvasser, and so he can make copies of them to get reimbursed by the People for the American Way, which is financing his voter registration drive.

Another rule requires that all paid workers take an online training course. “The problem there is that we’ve got a computer that freezes up every time we try to load the online program,” Mr. Minor said.
Politics have also ratcheted up the debate. In 2004, Mr. Blackwell was a co-chairman of President Bush’s re-election committee, and while the new law would prevent him from holding such a position in the future, his dual role as electoral overseer and candidate for governor has become a favorite target of his opponents.

On July 10, at an Acorn event in Columbus, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton accused Mr. Blackwell of a conflict of interest. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee followed suit with a letter to Mr. Blackwell, calling for him to relinquish his election duties as secretary of state. That sentiment has been echoed by Representative Ted Strickland, a five-term Democrat who has an 11-percentage-point lead over Mr. Blackwell in the governor’s race, according to a Rasmussen Reports survey released Aug. 1.

Mr. Blackwell, who did not respond to requests for an interview, has said he is only carrying out the law that was handed to him by the legislature. If he has any conflict of interest, Mr. Blackwell’s campaign has said, so do the Democratic secretaries of state in Iowa and Georgia, who also ran for governor.

Wendy R. Weiser, a law professor at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law and a lawyer in several of the suits opposing new voter registration regulations, said Ohio must be considered in a national context.

In Florida, the League of Women Voters and other groups are suing over a new law that imposes heavy fines for candidates if they submit forms late or if there are errors on the forms, Ms. Weiser said. In Georgia, the legislature passed a voter-identification law last year requiring citizens to purchase a government-issued ID card to present at the polls, but it was blocked by a federal judge as being a modern-day poll tax.

“I do believe,” Ms. Weiser said, “there is a national trend of using the straw man of voter fraud as a way to impose restrictive regulations on voting and voter registration.”

But what, then, is to be made of Jive Turkey Sr.?

Ohio state officials have said that such names appeared because voter registration groups were paying their workers per registration card, which created an incentive to submit fake names. The new regulations forbid this type of payment, a move that all grass-roots organizations seem to agree is for the better.

As for the level of threat posed by Mr. Turkey: a report compiled in 2005 by Mr. Ney, the Ohio congressman, cited news media reports of “thousands” of cases of voter registration fraud being investigated by local officials. But a separate study last year by the League of Women Voters found that voter registration fraud did not necessarily result in fraud at the polls. Out of 9,078,728 votes cast in Ohio in 2002 and 2004, the report said, only four ballots were fraudulent, according to statistics provided by officials from the state’s 88 county boards of elections.

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Ralph Reed Featured In GQ

July 16, 2006

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.

Why not?

“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.


Gingrich Correctly Call It War

July 16, 2006

From The Seattle Times:

Gingrich says it’s World War III

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich says America is in World War III and President Bush should say so. In an interview in Bellevue this morning Gingrich said Bush should call a joint session of Congress the first week of September and talk about global military conflicts in much starker terms than have been heard from the president.

“We need to have the militancy that says ‘We’re not going to lose a city,’ ” Gingrich said. He talks about the need to recognize World War III as important for military strategy and political strategy.

Gingrich said he is “very worried” about Republican’s facing fall elections and says the party must have the “nerve” to nationalize the elections and make the 2006 campaigns about a liberal Democratic agenda rather than about President Bush’s record.

Gingrich says that as of now Republicans “are sailing into the wind” in congressional campaigns. He said that’s in part because of the Iraq war, adding, “Iraq is hard and painful and we do not explain it very well.”

But some of it is due to Republicans’ congressional agenda. He said House and Senate Republicans “forgot the core principle” of the party and embraced Congressional pork. “Some of the guys,” he said, have come down with a case of “incumbentitis.”

Gingrich said in the coming days he plans to speak out publicly, and to the Administration, about the need to recognize that America is in World War III.

He lists wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, this week’s bomb attacks in India, North Korean nuclear threats, terrorist arrests and investigations in Florida, Canada and Britain, and violence in Israel and Lebanon as evidence of World War III. He said Bush needs to deliver a speech to Congress and “connect all the dots” for Americans.

He said the reluctance to put those pieces together and see one global conflict is hurting America’s interests. He said people, including some in the Bush Administration, who urge a restrained response from Israel are wrong “because they haven’t crossed the bridge of realizing this is a war.”

“This is World War III,” Gingrich said. And once that’s accepted, he said calls for restraint would fall away:

“Israel wouldn’t leave southern Lebanon as long as there was a single missile there. I would go in and clean them all out and I would announce that any Iranian airplane trying to bring missiles to re-supply them would be shot down. This idea that we have this one-sided war where the other team gets to plan how to kill us and we get to talk, is nuts.”

There is a public relations value, too. Gingrich said that public opinion can change “the minute you use the language” of World War III. The message then, he said, is “‘OK, if we’re in the third world war, which side do you think should win?”

An historian, Gingrich said he has been studying recently how Abraham Lincoln talked to Americans about the Civil War, and what turned out to be a much longer and deadlier war than Lincoln expected.

Gingrich is here for fund raisers for Congressman Dave Reichert, 2nd District GOP challenger Doug Roulstone, and the state party. I talked to him in a hotel suite with a few of his and Reichert’s staff.

Any time his name comes up here it’s said that he once called Washington state “ground zero for the Republican revolution.” Republicans saw huge gains in Washington in the 1994 mid-term elections, though they have largely decayed away.

“I think there is a reform oriented populism that is a key a component of Washington State’s, if you will, culture or personality,” he said. Voters here also got caught up in the national, anti-incumbent, anti-Democratic wave. The other thing that was different here, he said, was “that there was no place in America where talk radio was more enthusiastically favorable to the idea that it was time to try something new.”

(Speaking of talk radio, waiting to go in to see Gingrich as I was leaving were KVI’s John Carlson and Kirby Wilbur and William Maurer, an attorney with the Institute for Justice who has been backing the talk show hosts in the legal challenge against their on-air championing of an anti-tax initiative.)

With Republicans in control of Washington, D.C., it’s Democrats who this year are hoping for a reform wave to sweep them into office. Democrats want to nationalize the election and make each congressional race about Bush, the Iraq war and the Republican agenda. Republicans have been trying to localize each race, as in Reichert’s challenge from political newcomer Darcy Burner, and make the race about the qualifications and personalities of the candidates, not about a national agenda.

Gingrich says that’s a mistake. Republicans, he says, should nationalize the contest, too. He said that yesterday he saw polling that gave him some optimism for the first time about this year’s elections. He didn’t say what state it was from, but it showed that Democratic incumbents’ poll numbers crashed when tagged with the record of House Democrats.

He said that as Democrats make the elections about George Bush, Republicans should make it about House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco. He said voters need to be told “how weirdly San Francisco these guys are voting” and Democrats will “collapse in defeat.”

“The line I think every Republican should use is, ‘X knows their record, they just hope you don’t,’ which is actually the line I used in my winning race in ’78. I’m a historian. I don’t do anything new. I just imitate. I guarantee you there are 60 or 70 Democrats, if their districts thoroughly understood their record, they’d lose this year even though people aren’t happy with Bush. Because people aren’t suicidal. …””While people understand that while they may be irritated with Republicans, we at least broadly share their values and visions and the left is just out of touch with reality. I think then you have a totally different debate by October, if we have the nerve to do it. … There’s going to be a national conversation in October. The only question is whether it’s the Republicans defining it or whether we have some nutty idea that we can run local races, and so the entire definition is on the left.”


The Vatican Confronts Islam

July 6, 2006

From Daniel Pipes:

Quest For Reciprocity

“Enough now with this turning the other cheek! It’s our duty to protect ourselves.” Thus spoke Monsignor Velasio De Paolis, secretary of the Vatican’s supreme court, referring to Muslims. Explaining his apparent rejection of Jesus’ admonition to his followers to “turn the other cheek,” De Paolis noted that “The West has had relations with the Arab countries for half a century … and has not been able to get the slightest concession on human rights.”

De Paolis is hardly alone in his thinking; indeed, the Catholic Church is undergoing a dramatic shift from a decades-old policy to protect Catholics living under Muslim rule. The old methods of quiet diplomacy and muted appeasement have clearly failed. The estimated 40 million Christians in Dar al-Islam, notes the Barnabas Fund’s Patrick Sookhdeo, increasingly find themselves an embattled minority facing economic decline, dwindling rights, and physical jeopardy. Most of them, he goes on, are despised and distrusted second-class citizens, facing discrimination in education, jobs, and the courts.

These harsh circumstances are causing Christians to flee their ancestral lands for the West’s more hospitable environment. Consequently, Christian populations of the Muslim world are in a free-fall. Two small but evocative instances of this pattern: for the first time in nearly two millennia, Nazareth and Bethlehem no longer have Christian majorities.

This reality of oppression and decline stands in dramatic contrast to the surging Muslim minority of the West. Although numbering fewer than 20 million and made up mostly of immigrants and their offspring, it is an increasingly established and vocal minority, granted extensive rights and protections even as it wins new legal, cultural, and political prerogatives.

This widening disparity has caught the attention of the Church, which for the first time is pointing to radical Islam, rather than the actions of Israel, as the central problem facing Christians living with Muslims.

Rumblings of this could be heard already in John Paul II’s time. For example, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican equivalent of foreign minister, noted in late 2003 that “There are too many majority Muslim countries where non-Muslims are second-class citizens.” Tauran pushed for reciprocity: “Just as Muslims can build their houses of prayer anywhere in the world, the faithful of other religions should be able to do so as well.”

Catholic demands for reciprocity have grown, especially since the accession of Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005, for whom Islam is a central concern. In February, the pope emphasized the need to respect “the convictions and religious practices of others so that, in a reciprocal manner, the exercise of freely-chosen religion is truly assured to all.” In May, he again stressed the need for reciprocity: Christians must love immigrants and Muslims must treat well the Christians among them.

Lower-ranking clerics, as usual, are more outspoken. “Islam’s radicalization is the principal cause of the Christian exodus,” asserts Monsignor Philippe Brizard, director general of Oeuvre d’Orient, a French organization focused on Middle Eastern Christians. Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University in Rome, advises the Church to drop its “diplomatic silence” and instead “put pressure on international organizations to make the societies and states in majority Muslim countries face up to their responsibilities.”

The Danish cartoons crisis offered a typical example of Catholic disillusionment. Church leaders initially criticized the publication of the Muhammad cartoons. But when Muslims responded by murdering Catholic priests in Turkey and Nigeria, not to speak of scores of Christians killed during five days of riots in Nigeria, the Church responded with warnings to Muslims. “If we tell our people they have no right to offend, we have to tell the others they have no right to destroy us, ” said Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s Secretary of State. “We must always stress our demand for reciprocity in political contacts with authorities in Islamic countries and, even more, in cultural contacts,” added Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, its foreign minister.

Obtaining the same rights for Christians in Islamdom that Muslims enjoy in Christendom has become the key to the Vatican’s diplomacy toward Muslims. This balanced, serious approach marks a profound improvement in understanding that could have implications well beyond the Church, given how many lay politicians heed its leadership in inter-faith matters. Should Western states also promote the principle of reciprocity, the results should indeed be interesting.


Another Bush Administration Official Indicted Over Abramoff

June 29, 2006

From The Washington Post:

An Interior Department official who has acknowledged receiving meals and tickets to sporting events from former lobbyist Jack Abramoff has been charged with filing a false financial disclosure report.

Roger G. Stillwell, an employee of the department’s Insular Affairs Office, was charged with a single misdemeanor count of making a false filing, according to papers filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court. Federal officials said he is expected to enter a guilty plea at a court appearance set for July 21 before Magistrate Deborah A. Robinson.

Stillwell is an officer on the desk that handles the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory whose government hired Abramoff as a lobbyist. The Washington Post reported in December that Stillwell was among the Interior officials whom Abramoff’s team tried to cultivate.

Stillwell could not be reached to comment yesterday, and his lawyer, Justin Murphy, did not return a telephone call seeking comment. Stillwell is accused of falsely certifying that he did not receive gifts from a prohibited source in a financial disclosure report filed in October 2004 covering the previous fiscal year.

Stillwell told The Post last year that he accepted dinners at Abramoff’s restaurant, Signatures, and tickets to Washington Redskins games. He justified those actions by saying they occurred while he was a contract employee at Interior, not a federal employee.

He told The Post that he had sent Abramoff copies of e-mails he sent to his boss. Stillwell said he saw “nothing wrong with doing that” because they did not contain confidential information. “I don’t feel it was a conflict of interest,” Stillwell told The Post.

During the 1990s, before Stillwell joined the Interior Department, his communications firm did work for the Marianas government, according to an audit by the island government.

Stillwell, a Democrat, said in the interview with The Post that he worked closely with Abramoff when their representation of the island government overlapped beginning in 1995.

Stillwell is the first Interior official charged in the probe. The case against him is being brought by the Justice Department task force investigating the Abramoff lobbying scandal, which includes criminal investigators from the office of Interior’s inspector general. Abramoff and three lobbying associates have pleaded guilty in the wide-ranging corruption investigation, which focuses in part on their dealings with the Interior Department and with Congress on behalf of their tribal and territorial clients.


Bush Administration Now Spying On Banking, Without A Warrant

June 23, 2006

From The New York Times:

Under a secret Bush administration program initiated weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, counterterrorism officials have gained access to financial records from a vast international database and examined banking transactions involving thousands of Americans and others in the United States, according to government and industry officials.

The program is limited, government officials say, to tracing transactions of people suspected of ties to Al Qaeda by reviewing records from the nerve center of the global banking industry, a Belgian cooperative that routes about $6 trillion daily between banks, brokerages, stock exchanges and other institutions. The records mostly involve wire transfers and other methods of moving money overseas or into and out of the United States. Most routine financial transactions confined to this country are not in the database.

Viewed by the Bush administration as a vital tool, the program has played a hidden role in domestic and foreign terrorism investigations since 2001 and helped in the capture of the most wanted Qaeda figure in Southeast Asia, the officials said. The program, run out of the Central Intelligence Agency and overseen by the Treasury Department, “has provided us with a unique and powerful window into the operations of terrorist networks and is, without doubt, a legal and proper use of our authorities,” Stuart Levey, an undersecretary at the Treasury Department, said in an interview Thursday. The program is grounded in part on the president’s emergency economic powers, Mr. Levey said, and multiple safeguards have been imposed to protect against any unwarranted searches of Americans’ records.

The program, however, is a significant departure from typical practice in how the government acquires Americans’ financial records. Treasury officials did not seek individual court-approved warrants or subpoenas to examine specific transactions, instead relying on broad administrative subpoenas for millions of records from the cooperative, known as Swift.

That access to large amounts of sensitive data was highly unusual, several officials said, and stirred concerns inside the administration about legal and privacy issues.

“The capability here is awesome or, depending on where you’re sitting, troubling,” said one former senior counterterrorism official who considers the program valuable. While tight controls are in place, the official added, “The potential for abuse is enormous.”

The program is separate from the National Security Agency’s efforts to eavesdrop without warrants and collect domestic phone records, operations that have provoked fierce public debate and spurred lawsuits against the government and telecommunications companies. But all the programs grew out of the Bush administration’s desire to exploit technological tools to prevent another terrorist strike, and all reflect attempts to break down longstanding legal or institutional barriers to the government’s access to private information about Americans and others inside the United States.

Officials described the Swift program as the biggest and most far-reaching of several secret efforts to trace terrorist financing. Much more limited agreements with other companies have provided access to A.T.M. transactions, credit card purchases and Western Union wire payments, the officials said.

Nearly 20 current and former government officials and industry executives discussed aspects of the Swift operation with The New York Times on condition of anonymity because the program remains classified. Some of those officials expressed reservations about the program, saying that what they viewed as an urgent, temporary measure had become permanent nearly five years later without specific Congressional approval or formal authorization.

Data from the Brussels-based banking consortium, formally known as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, has allowed officials from the C.I.A., the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies to examine “tens of thousands” of financial transactions, Mr. Levey said.

While many of those transactions have occurred entirely on foreign soil, officials have also been keenly interested in international transfers of money by individuals, businesses, charities and other organizations under suspicion inside the United States, officials said. A small fraction of Swift’s records involve transactions entirely within this country, but Treasury officials said they were uncertain whether any had been examined.

Swift executives have been uneasy at times about their secret role, the government and industry officials said. By 2003, the executives told American officials they were considering pulling out of the arrangement, which began as an emergency response to the Sept. 11 attacks, the officials said. Worried about potential legal liability, the Swift executives agreed to continue providing the data only after top officials, including Alan Greenspan, then chairman of the Federal Reserve, intervened. At the same time, new controls were introduced.

Among the program’s safeguards, government officials said, is an outside auditing firm that verifies that the data searches are based on a link to terrorism intelligence. Swift and Treasury officials said they were aware of no abuses. But Mr. Levey, the Treasury official, said one person had been removed from the operation for conducting a search considered inappropriate.

“We are not on a fishing expedition,” Mr. Levey said. “We’re not just turning on a vacuum cleaner and sucking in all the information that we can.”

Treasury officials said Swift was exempt from American laws restricting government access to private financial records because the cooperative was considered a messaging service, not a bank or financial institution.

But at the outset of the operation, Treasury and Justice Department lawyers debated whether the program had to comply with such laws before concluding that it did not, people with knowledge of the debate said. Several outside banking experts, however, say that financial privacy laws are murky and sometimes contradictory and that the program raises difficult legal and public policy questions.

The Bush administration has made no secret of its campaign to disrupt terrorist financing, and President Bush, Treasury officials and others have spoken publicly about those efforts. Administration officials, however, asked The New York Times not to publish this article, saying that disclosure of the Swift program could jeopardize its effectiveness. They also enlisted several current and former officials, both Democrat and Republican, to vouch for its value.

Bill Keller, the newspaper’s executive editor, said: “We have listened closely to the administration’s arguments for withholding this information, and given them the most serious and respectful consideration. We remain convinced that the administration’s extraordinary access to this vast repository of international financial data, however carefully targeted use of it may be, is a matter of public interest.”

Swift declined to discuss details of the program but defended its role in written responses to questions. “Swift has fully complied with all applicable laws,” the consortium said. The organization said it insisted that the data be used only for terrorism investigations and had narrowed the scope of the information provided to American officials over time.

A Crucial Gatekeeper

Swift’s database provides a rich hunting ground for government investigators. Swift is a crucial gatekeeper, providing electronic instructions on how to transfer money between 7,800 financial institutions worldwide. The cooperative is owned by more than 2,200 organizations, and virtually every major commercial bank, as well as brokerage houses, fund managers and stock exchanges, uses its services. Swift routes more than 11 million transactions each day, most of them across borders.

The cooperative’s message traffic allows investigators, for example, to track money from the Saudi bank account of a suspected terrorist to a mosque in New York. Using intelligence tips about specific targets, agents search the database in what one official described as a “24-7” operation. Customers’ names, bank account numbers and other identifying information, can be retrieved, the officials said.

The data does not allow the government to track routine financial activity, like A.T.M. withdrawals, confined to this country, or to see bank balances, Treasury officials said. And the information is not provided in real time – Swift generally turns it over several weeks later. Because of privacy concerns and the potential for abuse, the government sought the data only for terrorism investigations and prohibited its use for tax fraud, drug trafficking or other inquiries, the officials said.

The Treasury Department was charged by President Bush, in a September 2001 executive order, with taking the lead role in efforts to disrupt terrorist financing. Mr. Bush has been briefed on the program and Vice President Dick Cheney has attended C.I.A. demonstrations, the officials said. The National Security Agency has provided some technical assistance.

While the banking program is a closely held secret, administration officials have conducted classified briefings to some members of Congress and the Sept. 11 Commission, the officials said. More lawmakers were briefed in recent weeks, after the administration learned The Times was making inquiries for this article. Swift’s 25-member board of directors, made up of representatives from financial institutions around the world, was previously told of the program, but it is not clear if other participants know that American intelligence officials can examine their message traffic.

Because Swift is based overseas and has offices in the United States, it is governed both by European and American laws. Several international regulations and policies impose privacy restrictions on companies that are generally regarded as more stringent than those in this country. United States law establishes some protections for the privacy of Americans’ financial data, but they are not ironclad. A 1978 measure, the Right to Financial Privacy Act, has a limited scope and a number of exceptions, and its role in national security cases remains largely untested.

Several people familiar with the Swift program said they believed they were exploiting a “gray area” in the law and that a case could be made for restricting the government’s access to the records on Fourth Amendment and statutory grounds. They also worried about the impact on Swift if the program were disclosed.

“There was always concern about this program,” a former official said.

One person involved in the Swift program estimated that analysts have reviewed international transfers involving “many thousands” of people or groups in the United States. Two other officials also placed the figure in the thousands. Mr. Levey said he could not estimate the number.

The Swift data has provided clues to terror money trails and ties between possible terrorists and organizations financing them, the officials said. In some instances, they said, the program has pointed them to new suspects, while in others it has buttressed cases already under investigation.

Among the successes was the capture of a Qaeda operative, Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, believed to be the mastermind of the 2002 bombing of a Bali resort, several officials said. The Swift data identified a previously unknown figure in Southeast Asia who had financial dealings with a person suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda; that link helped locate Hambali in Thailand in 2003, they said.

In the United States, the program has provided financial data in investigations into possible domestic terrorist cells as well as inquiries of Islamic charities with suspected of having links to extremists, the officials said.

The data also helped identify a Brooklyn man who was convicted on terrorism-related charges last year, the officials said. The man, Uzair Paracha, who worked at a New York import business, aided a Qaeda operative in Pakistan by agreeing to launder $200,000 through a Karachi bank, prosecutors said.

In terrorism prosecutions, intelligence officials have been careful to “sanitize,” or hide the origins of evidence collected through the program to keep it secret, officials said.

The Bush administration has pursued steps that may provide some enhanced legal standing for the Swift program. In late 2004, Congress authorized the Treasury Department to develop regulations requiring American banks to turn over records of international wire transfers. Officials say a preliminary version of those rules may be ready soon. One official described the regulations as an attempt to “formalize” access to the kind of information secretly provided by Swift, though other officials said the initiative was unrelated to the program.

The Scramble for New Tools

Like other counterterrorism measures carried out by the Bush administration, the Swift program began in the hectic days after the Sept. 11 attacks, as officials scrambled to identify new tools to head off further strikes.

One priority was to cut off the flow of money to Al Qaeda. The Sept. 11 hijackers had helped finance their plot by moving money through banks. Nine of the hijackers, for instance, funneled money from Europe and the Middle East to SunTrust bank accounts in Florida. Some of the $130,000 they received was wired by people overseas with known links to Al Qaeda.

Financial company executives, many of whom had lost friends at the World Trade Center, were eager to help federal officials trace terrorist money. “They saw 9/11 not just as an attack on the United States, but on the financial industry as a whole,” said one former government official.

Quietly, counterterrorism officials sought to expand the information they were getting from financial institutions. Treasury officials, for instance, spoke with credit card companies about devising an alert if someone tried to buy fertilizer and timing devices that could be used for a bomb, but they were told the idea was not logistically possible, a lawyer in the discussions said.

The F.B.I. began acquiring financial records from Western Union and its parent company, First Data Corporation. The programs were alluded to in Congressional testimony by the F.B.I. in 2003 and described in more detail in a book released this week, “The One Percent Doctrine,” by Ron Suskind. Using what officials described as individual, narrowly framed subpoenas and warrants, the F.B.I. has obtained records from First Data, which processes credit and debit card transactions, to track financial activity and try to locate suspects.

Similar subpoenas for the Western Union data allowed the F.B.I. to trace wire transfers, mainly outside the United States, and to help Israel trace the financing of about a half-dozen possible terrorist plots there, an official said.

The idea for the Swift program, several officials recalled, grew out of a suggestion by a Wall Street executive, who told a senior Bush administration official about Swift’s database. Few government officials knew much about the consortium, which is led by a Brooklyn native, Leonard H. Schrank, but they quickly discovered it offered unparalleled access to international transactions.

Swift, a former government official said, was “the mother lode, the Rosetta stone” for financial data.

Intelligence officials were so eager to exploit the Swift data that they discussed having the C.I.A. covertly gain access to the system, several officials involved in the talks said. But Treasury officials resisted, the officials said, and favored going to Swift directly.

At the same time, lawyers in the Treasury Department and the Justice Department were considering possible legal obstacles to the arrangement, the officials said.

In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that Americans had no constitutional right to privacy for their records held by banks or other financial institutions. In response, Congress passed the Right to Financial Privacy Act two years later, restricting government access to Americans’ banking records. In considering the Swift program, some government lawyers were particularly concerned about whether the law prohibited officials from gaining access to records without a warrant or subpoena based on some level of suspicion about each target.

For many years, law enforcement officials have relied on grand-jury subpoenas or court-approved warrants for such financial data. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the F.B.I. has turned more frequently to an administrative subpoena, known as a national security letter, to demand such records.

After an initial debate, Treasury Department lawyers, consulting with the Justice Department, concluded that the privacy laws applied to banks, not to a banking cooperative like Swift. They also said the law protected individual customers and small companies, not the major institutions that route money through Swift on behalf of their customers.

Other state, federal and international regulations place different and sometimes conflicting restrictions on the government’s access to financial records. Some put greater burdens on the company disclosing the information than on the government officials demanding it.

Among their considerations, American officials saw Swift as a willing partner in the operation. But Swift said its participation was never voluntary. “Swift has made clear that it could provide data only in response to a valid subpoena,” according to its written statement.

Indeed, the cooperative’s executives voiced early concerns about legal and corporate liability, officials said, and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control began issuing broad subpoenas for the cooperative’s records related to terrorism. One official said the subpoenas were intended to give Swift some legal protection.

Underlying the government’s legal analysis was the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which Mr. Bush invoked after the Sept. 11 attacks. The law gives the president what legal experts say is broad authority to “investigate, regulate or prohibit” foreign transactions in responding to “an unusual and extraordinary threat.”

But L. Richard Fischer, a Washington lawyer who wrote a book on banking privacy and is regarded as a leading expert in the field, said he was troubled that the Treasury Department would use broad subpoenas to demand large volumes of financial records for analysis. Such a program, he said, appears to do an end run around bank-privacy laws that generally require the government to show that the records of a particular person or group are relevant to an investigation.

“There has to be some due process,” Mr. Fischer said. “At an absolute minimum, it strikes me as inappropriate.”

Several former officials said they had lingering concerns about the legal underpinnings of the Swift operation. The program “arguably complies with the letter of the law, if not the spirit,” one official said.

Another official said: “This was creative stuff. Nothing was clear cut, because we had never gone after information this way before.”

Treasury officials would not say whether a formal legal opinion was prepared in authorizing the program, but they said they considered the government’s authority to subpoena the Swift records to be clear. “People do not have a privacy interest in their international wire transactions,” Mr. Levey, the Treasury under secretary, said.

Tighter Controls Sought

Within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks, Swift began turning over records that allowed American analysts to look for evidence of terrorist financing. Initially, there appear to have been few formal limits on the searches.

“At first, they got everything – the entire Swift database,” one person close to the operation said.

Intelligence officials paid particular attention to transfers to or from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates because most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were from those countries.

The volume of data, particularly at the outset, was often overwhelming, officials said. “We were turning on every spigot we could find and seeing what water would come out,” one former administration official said. “Sometimes there were hits, but a lot of times there weren’t.”

Officials realized the potential for abuse, and soon narrowed the program’s targets and put in more safeguards. Among them were the auditing firm, an electronic record of every search and a form documenting the intelligence that justified each data search. Mr. Levey said the program was used only to search the records of individuals or entities, not for broader data searches.

Despite the controls, Swift executives became increasingly worried about their secret involvement with the American government, the officials said. By 2003, the cooperative’s officials were discussing pulling out because of their concerns about legal and financial risks if the program were revealed, one government official said.

“How long can this go on?” a Swift executive asked, according to the official.

Even some American officials began to question the open-ended arrangement. “I thought there was a limited shelf life and that this was going to go away,” the former senior official said.

In 2003, administration officials asked Swift executives and some board members to come to Washington. They met with Mr. Greenspan, Robert S. Mueller III, the F.B.I. director, and Treasury officials, among others, in what one official described as “a full-court press.”

The executives agreed to continue supplying records after the Americans pledged to impose tighter controls. Swift representatives would be stationed alongside intelligence officials and could block any searches considered inappropriate, several officials said. The procedural change provoked some opposition at the C.I.A. because “the agency was chomping at the bit to have unfettered access to the information,” a senior counterterrorism official said. But the Treasury Department saw it as a necessary compromise, the official said, to “save the program.”


Bush Administration Spent $30 Million Last Year On Illegally Obtained Personal Data

June 21, 2006

From the AP, Via Yahoo! News:

Federal and local police across the country — as well as some of the nation's best-known companies — have been gathering Americans' phone records from private data brokers without subpoenas or warrants.

These brokers, many of whom market aggressively across the Internet, have broken into customer accounts online, tricked phone companies into revealing information and sometimes acknowledged that their practices violate laws, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Legal experts and privacy advocates said police reliance on private vendors who commit such acts raises civil liberties questions.

Those using data brokers include agencies of the Homeland Security and Justice departments — including the FBI and U.S. Marshal's Service — and municipal police departments in California, Florida, Georgia and Utah. Experts believe hundreds of other departments frequently use such services.

"We are requesting any and all information you have regarding the above cell phone account and the account holder … including account activity and the account holder's address," Ana Bueno, a police investigator in Redwood City, Calif., wrote in October to PDJ Investigations of Granbury, Texas.

An agent in Denver for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Anna Wells, sent a similar request on March 31 on Homeland Security stationery: "I am looking for all available subscriber information for the following phone number," Wells wrote to a corporate alias used by PDJ.

Congressional investigators estimated the U.S. government spent $30 million last year buying personal data from private brokers. But that number likely understates the breadth of transactions, since brokers said they rarely charge law enforcement agencies.

A lawmaker who has investigated the industry said Monday he was concerned about data brokers.

"There's a good chance there are some laws being broken, but it's not really clear precisely which laws, said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., head of the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee that plans to begin hearings Wednesday.

Documents gathered by Whitfield's committee show data brokers use trickery, impersonation and even technology to try to gather Americans' phone records. "They can basically obtain any information about anybody on any subject," Whitfield said.

James Bearden, a Texas lawyer who represents four such data brokers, likened the companies' activities to the National Security Agency, which reportedly compiles the phone records of ordinary Americans.

"The government is doing exactly what these people are accused of doing," Bearden said. "These people are being demonized. These are people who are partners with law enforcement on a regular basis."

Many of the executives summoned to testify before Congress this week plan to refuse to answer questions, invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination.

Larry Slade, PDJ's lawyer, said no one at the company violated laws, but he acknowledged, "I'm not sure that every law enforcement agency in the country would agree with that analysis."

PDJ always provided help to police for free. "Agencies from all across the country took advantage of it," Slade said.

The police agencies told AP they used the data brokers because it was quicker and easier than subpoenas, and their lawyers believe their actions did not violate the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unlawful search and seizure.

Some agencies, such as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, instructed agents to stop the practice after congressional inquiries. Police in Orem, Utah, likewise plan to end the practice because of concerns about "questionable methods" used by the data brokers, Lt. Doug Edwards said.

The records also list some of America's most famous corporate names — from automakers to insurers to banks — as purchasing information on private citizens from data brokers, which often help companies track down delinquent customers.

For instance, a 2003 customer list for data broker Universal Communications Company listed Ford Motor Credit Co., the automaker's lending arm, as the single largest purchaser of phone toll records, paying $17,435 to buy such data that year. In all, Ford's lending arm spent more than $50,000 with that data broker that year. Ford also paid $9,000 to another such company, Global Information Group, in 2004, the records state.

Also on UCC's or Global Information's paying client list was the insurer State Farm's banking arm, Chrysler's consumer lending arm, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and banking giants Wells Fargo and Wachovia Financial Services.

At least 50 departments of Wachovia made data requests in 2004, accumulating thousands of dollars in charges. Most of the companies could not provide an immediate explanation when called for comment Tuesday.

Ford Motor Credit spokeswoman Meredith Libby said Tuesday her company used the vendors in the past to help locate customers who weren't paying and had disappeared but the companies "are no longer on our approved vendor lists."

Asked why Ford would need phone toll records, Libby said her company "did not necessarily say (to the vendor), `Give us this specific piece of data, but rather help us to find this person,'" and the charges for phone records were part of the process.

None of the police agencies interviewed by AP said they researched their data brokers to determine how they gather sensitive information like names associated with unlisted numbers, records of phone calls, e-mail aliases — even tracing a person's location using their cellular phone signal.

"If it's on the Internet and it's been commended to us, we wouldn't do a full-scale investigation," Marshal's Service spokesman David Turner said. "We don't knowingly go into any source that would be illegal. We were not aware, I'm fairly certain, what technique was used by these subscriber services."

At Immigration and Customs Enforcement, spokesman Dean Boyd said agents did not pay for phone records and sought approval from U.S. prosecutors before making requests. Their goal was "to more quickly identify and filter out phone numbers that were unrelated to their investigations," Boyd said.

Targets of the police interest include alleged marijuana smugglers, car thieves, armed thugs and others.

The data services also are enormously popular among collection agencies, bails bondsmen, private detectives and suspicious spouses. Customers included:

– A U.S. Labor Department employee who used her government e-mail address and phone number to buy two months of personal cellular phone records of a woman in New Jersey.

– A buyer who received credit card information about the father of murder victim Jon Benet Ramsey.

– A buyer who obtained 20 printed pages of phone calls by pro basketball player Damon Jones of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"I'm very disappointed," Jones told AP on Tuesday. "I paid for a service and that service is being violated. I've been an upstanding guy, never been in any trouble or anything like that. I was shocked, and I really want to get to the bottom of this."

Privacy advocates bristled over data brokers gathering records for police without subpoenas.

"This is pernicious, an end run around the Fourth Amendment," said Marc Rotenberg, head of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center which advocates tougher federal regulation of data brokers. "The government is encouraging unlawful conduct; it's not smart on the law enforcement side to be making use of information obtained improperly."

Legal experts said law enforcement agencies would be permitted to use illegally obtained information from private parties without violating the Fourth Amendment as long as police did not encourage crimes to be committed.

"If law enforcement is encouraging people in the private sector to commit a crime in getting these records, that would be problematic," said Mark Levin, a former top Justice Department official under President Reagan. "If, on the other hand, they are asking data brokers if they have any public information on any given phone numbers, that should be fine."

Levin said he nonetheless would have advised federal agents to use the practice only when it was a matter of urgency or national security and otherwise to stick to a legally bulletproof method like subpoenas for everyday cases.

Congress subpoenaed thousands of documents from data brokers describing how they collected telephone records by impersonating customers.

"I was shot down four times," data broker employee Michele Yontef complained in an e-mail in July 2005 to a colleague. Yontef was among those ordered to appear at this week's hearing.

Another company years ago even acknowledged breaking the law.

"We must break various rules of law in acquiring all the information we achieve for you," Touch Tone Information Inc. of Denver wrote to a law firm in 1998 that was seeking records of calls made on a calling card.