Did he fleece his flock? In the 1990’s, as the head of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed became the face of Christian conservativism. And what a face: Scrubbed and clean – innocent-looking as a choirboy. He had the unctuous, soothing demeanor of a televangelist but even when he spoke about God, his message was always politics.
– Ralph Reed’s Mother
Since leaving the Christian Coalition in 1997, Ralph Reed has concentrated on politics, serving as chair of the GOP in Georgia and overseeing the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign in the South.
In the late 1990’s, Reed’s fortunes changed. He created Century Strategies, a political consulting and lobbying firm that offers its clients – politicians, corporations and others – access to fundraising and opinion-leading among to Christian organizations.
Recently, however, investigators into the Indian gaming scandals have uncovered evidence that Reed may have abused the trust of Christian groups by surreptitiously using their political clout to line his own pockets with millions of dollars.
The accusations come as Reed’s campaign for lieutenant governor of Georgia in 2006 appears to be faltering. He has been ahead in fundraising but was recently behind even the Democratic candidate in the polls. The lieutenant-governorship was to have been his springboard to the presidency in 2012.
What could torpedo Reed’s chances for good is the allegation that disgraced GOP uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff secretly paid Reed to hoodwink the Christians using money from Indian tribes. And now Reed’s political fate, and maybe even his personal freedom, are shackled to the man at the bullseye of what could very well be the biggest political scandal of the decade.
Interestingly, Reed, Abramoff and rightwing anti-government activist Grover Norquist have worked together in political skulduggery since 1983, when they took over the College Republican National Committee. Back in those days, Abramoff, Norquist and Reed called themselves “the Triumvirate.” Today, all three members of the Triumvirate appear to be in very big trouble.
The Secret Deals and a Cover Up
Beginning around 1999, Jack Abramoff apparently laundered millions of dollars from Indian tribes who owned casinos in Texas and Mississippi through Ralph Reed’s Century Strategies, and Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR).
Reed’s alleged role was to enflame moral outrage over gambling among Christian activists and then assist them in pressuring politicians and voters to put a stop to particular gambling activities including casinos in Texas and a state lottery in Alabama. What the Christian groups did not know was that Reed was being paid millions by other Indian casino owners allegedly to con the Christians in order to put their competition – the Texas casinos and Alabama lottery, for example – out of business.
As Bob Irvin, a prominent Georgia Republican and former Speaker in the Legislature, put it:
“[Reed’s] M.O. is to tell evangelical Christians that his cause of the moment, for which he has been hired, is their religious duty, and therefore they need to write regulators, turn up at meetings, or whatever. As an evangelical myself, I resent Christianity being used simply to help Reed’s business.”
The scheme may have been immoral but it appears to have been quite successful:
[In 1999,] Ralph Reed delivered what was expected as a consultant to two Alabama anti-gambling campaigns: victories over proposals for a state lottery and video poker, and donations totaling $1.15 million.
But Reed didn’t tell the campaign organizations — and, he insists, he didn’t know — that the money came from a Mississippi Indian tribe trying to protect its casinos from competition.
The money’s path to the Christian Coalition of Alabama and another anti-lottery group echoes Reed’s entanglement in a scandal surrounding Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Indian casino money in Texas.
In that case, Abramoff hired Reed in 1999 to build public support for closing the Tigua tribe’s casino in El Paso. The casino closed in 2002. Immediately afterward, Abramoff, who had kept his role secret, offered to help the Tiguas reopen the casino — for $4 million, according to Senate testimony.
Reed’s ignorance about the true source of the funding appears to be disingenuous. An investigation by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, chaired by John McCain, found otherwise:
Emails implicate Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, as knowing the Choctaws were “financing his company’s work in 1999 when he was trying to defeat gambling initiatives in Alabama.”
In emails to Reed, Abramoff is quite open about the money laundering scheme, according to the McCain committee’s report:
The committee found “numerous memos” between Abramoff, former head of the Christian Coalition Ralph Reed, and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform on “how to move more money through (c)4s to obscure or deceive the source of the money.” One e-mail has Abramoff complaining to Reed that a certain group “does not have a (c)4; only a (c)3. So we are back to ATR — Americans for Tax Reform — only. Let me know if this will work. Just do this through ATR until we can find another group.”
Reed is also vulnerable to charges of attempting to hide his role in the Texas episode, for which Abramoff paid him $4.2 million. He is accused of illegally failing to register as a lobbyist in Texas. Failing to register incurs only a small fine, so Reed may have chosen to risk being fined for not filing rather than registering, which would have required disclosing the identity of his client and the amount of his fees.
If the scandals that radiate out from Jack Abramoff engulf Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, it will be a strange twist in the intersecting paths of three men whose careers have taken them high into the rarified world of political power.
They met around 1981 when Reed moved to D.C. to work for the College Republican National Committee (CRNC). Jack Abramoff was chairman of the group, and Norquist was its executive director. The three young men quickly formed a working partnership:
At the CRNC, Abramoff, Norquist and Reed formed what was known as the “Abramoff-Norquist-Reed triumvirate.” Upon Abramoff’s election, the trio purged “dissidents” and re-wrote the CRNC’s bylaws to consolidate their control over the organization. Reed was the “hatchet man” and “carried out Abramoff-Norquist orders with ruthless efficiency, not bothering to hide his fingerprints.”
In 1983, Reed was also accused of plagiarism at the University of Georgia. He wrote a scathing article for the school newspaper about the world-renowned Indian peace activist Mahatma Gandhi. (Title, “Gandhi: Ninny of the 20th Century.”) Another student recognized large sections of Reed’s writing as being word-for-word the same as the text of an article from a recent issue of “Commentary” magazine.
Caught red-handed, Reed responded with what has become a familiar tactic from the American rightwing, he attacked his accuser, a fellow student named William Reid:
“Mr. William Reid’s thinly veiled personal attacks on my character are a poor substitute for the truth.”
Reed never apologized or acknowleged his guilt.
The Taint of Scandal
Today, one of the old CRNC Triumvirate – Abramoff – is under indictment and has announced his intention to cooperate with investigators. At least two other major players in the scandal, Adam Kidan and Michael Scanlon, both former business partners of Abramoff, are also cooperating with investigators.
It is quite likely that Reed may feel like a noose is tightening around his neck. Indeed, Reed’s supporters are already blaming the liberal media for his woes. (Logically, it’s hard to see how “the media” could have forced Reed to fleece his own flock for profit. )
What will be revealed as the Abramoff scandals unfold is whether Ralph Reed was simply a cog in the wheel of a sleazy operation or one of the masterminds who is a target of federal prosecutors. In any case, he’ll be lucky if he can avoid tarnishing his aura of choirboy innocence after the complete details of Abramoff’s sordid dealings have been exposed to daylight.