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January 24, 2006



Great post.

I truly appreciate it.

I know I am a dick almost all of the time, but honestly, I think we want most of the sam things.

Great show.

Good wrapup. Takeaway short version: The crimes lie in the money laundering schemes (tribe gives to a charity who gives it to the RNC or some such) and paying for trips to nice places and meals at nice restaurants, much of which was not declared. The overwhelming preponderance of this (if not all) went to Republicans, and Republican felon Jack Abramoff worked hand in glove with DeLay Inc and other Republicans, not with Dems.


Best. Post. Ever. (by you)

Great summary. I couldn't have said it better myself.

Though, again echoing Mimikatz, is there anyway we can make a chart of total money to GOP interests (both legal (FEC) and illegal) side-by-side with total legal money to Dems? This would be a powerful visual and would reinforce the "drop in the bucket" meme.

Viget: I don't think we know how much illegal money there was sloshing around. Nonprofits aren't subject to the same disclosure rules that political candidates and PACs are, and what disclosure is normally required doesn't seem to exist in at least some cases. (Notably the National Security Caucus Foundation)

There's one other thing I don't think anybody has brought up: Many of Abramoff's tribal clients didn't hire Abramoff as their only lobbyist. A good example is the Coushatta tribe, which hired Johnston & Associates for the period 1998-2002, which overlaps with the Abramoff period. Unless there's some way to separate out the recommendations of the different lobbyists, its going to be difficult to show that Abramoff did or did not direct a particular contribution.


I apologize for writing the other week that you've never written anything substantive. Great post and I hope people listen. So many - while attacking the Post - ascribe fiendish motives for mistakes but overlook their own.

Oh Dear, you stick your nose in a book for a couple of days, and the blog goes nuts.

One of the problems with these arguments is that they seem to be mostly totally out of context with the reality of Indian Country. Indians have long been small, but highly reliable contributors to political campaigns and parties, simply because so much of what goes on officially on Reservations, is under the overall supervision of the Department of Interior and the BIA in DOI. Indian Nations are dependent -- they absolutely need the services of their Senators and representatives in order to do much of anything. So skipping over much -- Indian tribes have long donated all around so as to get access. And whether they donate to Democrats or Republicans has more to do with what kind of access they need than it does with Ideology.

Watching a C-Span discussion on this a few weeks ago (and for all I know it was recofded earlier) the question was raised -- Why did Senator Byron Dorgan get donations from a Lousiana tribe associated with Abramoff?

Dorgan tried to explain -- and with a couple of sentences, I understood what it was about -- but there was no way in that press conference he would be able to explain the story. But the story illustrates how complicated this all is.

Dorgan did something "good" for the Mandan people in North Dakota back in the late 1990's -- and other tribes around the country wanted the same thing. But it is highly controversial.

What Dorgan did was get a waiver from the Department of Education so that a new school, established on the Mandan Reservation could become a Charter School. The Tribe wanted this designation so they could qualify for a grand from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which is supporting a number of new, small experimental High Schools. To qualify for the Gates grant -- the school has to be chartered by North Dakota -- but the school it was replacing was a BIA school under the Department of Interior -- not qualified for the Gates money. Anyhow -- Dorgan got the Waiver, the charter was issued, and the Grtes program began.

What's controversial about this is that the Mandan school is essentially a single race school. By most legal definations, it's segregated -- just as segregated as a white christian academy in Mississippi. Admittedly it is 40 miles from the nearest neighbor school, but if you think about it you can sense the controversy. Anyhow, once this got up and running, other tribes, in other states in entirely different situations wanted a similar arrangement. For Dorgan the question was would he sponsor making his waiver fro one tribe in N. Dakota something that applied far more broadly. Apparently he did introduce an amendment when the NCLB act was in the Senate -- and while it does not apply "everywhere" it sets condiditions for more waivers. This is what put Dorgan on "lists" for lots of tribes looking to take more control of their own schools (that is take control away from the BIA, and not hand over control to a non-Indian School Board.) But this is very important to many tribes around the country -- it has nothing to do with casinos, or gambling, or Republicans or Democrats. Particularly if a charter program can be incorporated in the Bill and Melinda Gates project, the schools get significant aid -- yep, all the technology plus a whole array of special consultants, very small classes, -- just a lot of services most public schools can ill afford. You can see why Tribes would be interested, as they are more than aware that Indian Children are underperforming. Anyhow -- this is why Dorgan got Tribal money from around the country, and not just from North Dakota.

Now my point is that counting dollars on lists is never going to get you to the story -- and I am not even certain Dorgan wants to be famous for this -- because an all Indian School could be controversial discussed outside of the context of rural North Dakota and its particular Native Americans.

These Tribes are by no means all the same -- We have to be very careful with generalizations.

The important thing is that Republicans knew he was a Republican activist that was acting to benefit Republicans. End of story.
Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA) on Abramoff

I liked him, frankly, because he was a partisan, conservative Republican activist.

Thus, it was more money to Democrats, but the percentage to Democrats shrunk during Abramoff’s involvement with the tribes, meaning that the net differential between donations to Republicans and Democrats shifted in favor of the Republicans.

Hmm. The bolded bit is a little bit like saying, "There are more whites in America than ever before!" True, certainly, but utterly misleading - we all know that the percentage of Anglos in America is low and shrinking. It just doesn't make any sense to talk about absolute numbers - proportions are everything.

So therefore, I think we need to focus like a laser on the italicized part. "The share of Dem contributions by Abramoff's clients declined in the period he was supervising them." True, and non-obfuscatory.

And dear heavens, thank you for your remarks about questioning people's motives! I am so sick of having my motives impugned should I dare disagree with someone. Enough already!

Put another way, I think it would be totally legit (and good) PR to say, "If Abramoff tried to direct his clients to give to Democrats, he didn't do a very good job of it. The share of Dem contributions by Abramoff's clients declined in the period he was supervising them."

Exemplary summary, synthesis, and analysis. I'd like to explore a little more about numbers 2 and 5 above, with a very minor quibble or two.
Campaign finance issues are complicated, absolutely, and reporters, even if they actually understand the issues, have no interest in dealing with any of the subtleties. Check. A lot of people as a consequence don't have a vary firm grasp on all of the legal and policy issues. Check. {And I'll add to that a corollary that when you combine a lack of expertise on the subject with creduilty for anything McCain says about the subject (e.g., a comment below that "McCain says the FEC is corrupt, so don't trust anything from FEC reports") you're bound to dig yourself into a heap of trouble.} Finally, it is also true that there is very little profit in simply looking at the raw data of FEC reports of legally mandated disclosures of contributions to candidates and committees.
But it does not quite follow from the latter points that "[t]his scandal is not going to be about donations to candidates’ campaign committees [that are disclosed to the FEC]." There may well end up being in the Abramoff affair a whole sordid world of completely unreported bags of money paid to legislators (along the lines of the Duke-stir's rather crass and crude graft), in which case such lagniappe will not show up in any form on FEC filings. But that's not the only kind of corruption suggested so far. There is, for instance, apt to be a great deal of unregulated (or, rather, less regulated) soft money flowing all around to grease the wheels -- soft money that is in actuality tied to or coordinated with the GOP or the candidates. Those expenditures won't show up on any FEC candidate contribution reports, either, although at the point where any of that soft money gets spent on "independent expenditures" to do corrupt legislators' bidding by poroxy, like, say, buying political ads with a fake affinity group as boodle for something the legislator gave out as a favor, there will be FEC independent expenditure reports. Mind you, those reports are not going to tell you what's wrong on their face, although one might be able to piece together a picture if you see records showing that the Capital Athletic Foundation did a bunch of media buys, you've likely hit a vein.
But it also is highly likely the Abramoff matter will involve a number of facially legal-looking donations to candidate committees (duly reported to the FEC) that will actually be the result of various subtle money-laundering schemes that Abramoff was up to. In the crudest instance, let's hypothesize Abramoff gets a pile of dirty cash from a corporate client to procure legislative favors -- a corporate client that has already donaed the legal limit to the candidate. That dirty cash comes in the form of a donation to a fake charity, with an unwritten understanding that the donation will be laundered into contributions to a campaign committee that needs cash. The charity and a bunch of its employees contirbute the legal limit to the legislator's campaign committee and the charity reimburses the employees for their individual donations. There will be evidence of this very basic campaign-finance-regulation avoidance scheme in the FEC filings -- in the form of a max contribution from the charity (let's call it, with apologies to Seinfeld, The Human Fund) as well as a bunch of donations from Human Fund employees (who would, if they really were employees, be required to state their employer's name on the donations). To be very very sure, the FEC records will not tell you the dirty backstory of the money and the reimbursements, but the basic data of the contributions will be a matter of record (unless, again, they're being really sloppy/brazen and just handing over bags of cash). This is not to say that you're going to be able to do any great sleuthing with just the FEC records alone; it's only to say that I am willing to bet that there very much will be corrupt candidate contributions involved, and that some of those will be connected to this shell game of phony non-profits. As suggested above, there will probably be corruptly financed expenditures as well, that is, expenditures for political communication -- like media buys -- by front gorups or straws that are in actuality closely tied to the party apparatus. I'm not sure I'm explaining this well, and I might be simply bearing out your point that a lot of these things are going to be difficult to convey as simple and intelligible concepts, let alone as accurate yet cutting soundbites.
One last thought, although this must come with a gazillion cautions. While it is true that it is not particularly fruitful to look at contribution disclosures to the FEC as any kind of reliabile stalking-horse for illegal activity, there also is often a correlation between truly legal contributions and illegal ones, and that correlation is this: the people who are funneling money illegally to certain legislators-cum-candidates are also likely to be making personal donations up to the legal limit to those legislators-cum-candidates. Don't take Abramoff's contribution record as any kind of proof, but watch. When things shake out, don't be surprised when the legislators to whom Abramoff gave lavish, but legal, personal contributions also turn out, by and large, to be the ones to whom he also funnelled illegal contributions.

A couple of further cautions on conclusion-jumping.

1. Some tribes started with very high R shares, some very high D shares. Some decreased their Dem giving share, some increased it.

2. I would not assume that D's get away scot-free. D's received funds, went golfing, skyboxing and on Marianas resort tours. Some had staffers going to work for the Axis of Abramoff. Historic D's have been known to trade votes and other favors for money and other favors, and some are currently under investigation.

3. If Abramoff gamed the capitol widely, many R's and a D or two may get caught up in the scheme. But gaming widely would have increased his risk of exposure, blackmail, etc., and spoiled his gains sooner. I suspect he gamed the capitol narrowly, only engaging in outright bribery in relatively rare cases. Expect a lot more R's to get caught on House ethics violations -- accepting things they shouldn't accept -- rather than quid pro quo felonies.

4. Expect that some genuine bribery cases can't be made for lack of conclusive evidence. It's a pretty high bar.

5. As a footnote to this history, I've glanced back at Bloomberg's Saginaw Chippewa summary, and I think it's off -- significantly off. You can probably scratch that exception to the "Democrats got more dollars under Abramoff" rule.

Dangerfield -- The real story sure isn't in the FEC reports. It probably is in Josh Marshall's speculative characterization: the slush fund side of the ledger.

We know where a lot of money came from. We don't know where much of it went.

On Message: Your advice about not overstating the case and about referring to Republican felon Jack Abramoff is well taken. But what Abramoff actually did that was corrupt -- even as Mimikatz has boiled it down -- is still angels dancing on the head of a pin to ordinary people.

The natural way we think of scandal is: an interest (say, a tribe that wants something about gambling or a Northern Marianas sweatshop wants to keep low minimum wages there) pays money to a politician (via campaign donations or trip to Scotland or free meal in fancy restaurant) in exchange for official acts. If the interest is trying to bribe one Congressman, then chances are all money handed out by the briber is also accepting a bribe. This is simple and compelling and something even the airheads in the eunuch media can get their "minds" around.

Though it is common in places like Columbia or Indonesia, the concept of "bribe consultants" or "bribe brokers" (which is in effect what Republican felon Jack Abramoff actually was) is foreign to most Americans.

So following the trail through charities that only gave money to Republican felon Jack Abramoff's chosen Israeli sniper school, or charities that paid for trips to Scotland for Republicans, gets very complicated and focuses the scandal on Republican felon Jack Abramoff instead of those who received his largess.

And the notion of forcing corrupt lobbying firms to hire only Republican ex-office holders as a way to perpetuate party discipline by providing rewards and punishments to those who help or hinder Tom Delay -- that concept is just another planet for most ordinary Americans.

Because the method of Republican corruption is so complex and wideranging, the Republicans are at a rhetorical advantage -- it's easy for them to muddy the issue and the proof is in just how the scandal is being covered. This may change after several more Republicans are indicted and no Democrats are indicted. But that's sometime in the future and it assumes that Abramoff won't tell prosecutors that donations he directed the tribes to make to Democrats were quid pro quo for official acts. (Which, like most campaign donations, they probably are. It's just unusual to get anyone involved in the bribe to say it actually was a bribe.) Given his Republican proclivities and the potential for a pardon, it may be unreasonable to assume Republican felon Jack Abramoff won't say he corrupted Democrats.

That said, I've seen other approaches to message that appear more likely to succeed. These revolve around misery voters are currently experiencing in their actual lives. For example: Our fathers and mothers are suffering through the Medicare Drug nightmare because Republicans were bought and paid for by the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. Then list the donations. and the votes. Another example: Mills are closing in the Carolinas because of job "exports" to the Northern Marianas, and this happens because Republican felon Jack Abramoff paid for the indicted Republican leader Tom Delay and other corrupt Republicans to have cushy trips there. This approach may hurt some Democrats if they took money to vote this way, but so the fuck what. These kind of Democrats deserve to be hurt. The sooner we get them out of our party the better.

Sebastian: you have a point about independent expenditure campaigns that engage in what the campaign finance laws refer to "express advocacy"; in other words, something that expressly says "vote for" or "vote against" a candidate or partisan position. Those will be regulated by the FEC, and the donations to those have to abide by contribution limits similar to those that govern contributions to candiate committees. The reason I say, however, that I say that it's not the FEC-regulated funds where we're likely to see the main action is that most of the alleged offenses occurred prior to the passage of Shays/Meehan, which closed most of the soft-money loopholes for Federal candidates. Prior to Shays/Meehan, federal candidates could traffic in soft money, and it could be used for "voter education." Hence, the ads of "Senator so and so is for poisoning babies. Call Senator so-and-so and tell her to quit protecting baby poisoners." Likewise with non-partisan GOTV, portions of state coordinated campaigns and all kinds of other things that didn't engage in express advocacy and could be funded with soft money. These things were largely out of the purview of the FEC, and the financial oversight fell under the IRS. That's the basis of my comment about FEC info.

Here's the other reason for my comment: PAC money is regulated by the FEC, and it's hard to get money into a PAC that is illegal; the money not from, again to use the election law parlance, a "separate and segregated fund." That excludes corporate treasury money (that wasn't collected through voluntary contributions by employees), tribal money, contriubutions from people who aren't US nationals, etc. But that money can generally end up in soft-money accounts, some of which are 501(c)3's, more of which are 501(c)4's, and many of which are now 527's. Independent expenditures are limited to the same kinds of restrictions as candidate committees, so the opportunities for malfesance and money-laundering aren't as great with them as they are with the "political education" operations that use or used soft money.

The Newshour is covering this right now, with an in-studio interview with Brady from the WaPo and somebody from "Boing Boing."

I have no idea what Boing Boing is. And the woman from Boing Boing's shame's jacket is...well...I'm no fashion plate, but sheesh...

RonK and DH: Indeed. Good points all.
Much of this slush sloshing around in what we know of the Abramoff mess does not fall into the "contirbution" or "expenditure" categories from the looks of things. I hope I'm not understood as suggesting that we in any way know about illegal contributions or expenditures lurking within that which has been disclosed to the FEC; I just want to make clear that just because it's disclosed to the FEC, doesn't mean it's legal and further to spin out some mechanisms by which illegal candidate contributions might be made (based on the tried and true patterns). And one such pattern is to use an entity as a repository for corporate money that is then laundered into a campaign committee by means of reimbursed individual donations to the candidate's campaign committee. Far as I know that allegation hasn't surfaced yet in L'Affaire Abramoff, but it's a really common ruse.
The bigger point that y'all are making -- that all this totting up of who gave to whom is not the ballpark we should be playing in -- is absolutely right. I salute you for getting it out there.

Every time I read your posts, DH, I get a craving for chips.

Pita chips, of course, not the silicone ones.

Anyway, great post.

The Dems ARE giulty of taking Abramoff money, too -- people are arguing "semantics" as far as I'm concerned.

Don't follow the money. In this case, it isn't all that important. It's nice to score points with the fact that Republican felon Abramoff made several hundred personal campaign contributions, every single one to Republicans. And it's nice to point out that his clients gave heavily to Republicans.

But it isn't the personal contributions, nor even the corporate contributions, that are at issue here. They are all, Republican or Democrat, legal. The issue is criminal activity.

What is the criminal activity? We've only caught a brief glimpse of it so far. It may involve exchanging votes for campaign contributions -- but that kind of charge is notoriously difficult to prove. Whatever induced Republican felon Abramoff to plead guilty and accept a damn stiff sentence is bigger than that.

Remember that the Duke Cunningham scandal started with some suspicious looking real estate transactions, but when the indictment came down it turned out that he'd been taking illegal payoffs in brown paper bags from defense contractors. Whatever they have on Republican felon Abramoff, along with Republican felons Scanlon, Kidan, et al, is comparable to that.

"Bribe consultant" is actually the most brilliant short characterization of this whole scandal I've ever heard. I think the kind of Americans who read Time Magazine and nothing more could understand that perfectly and catch all of the implications. The fact that the literal money trail is wildly and deliberately convoluted (like Enron's accounting schemes, all off-the-books and circular). The fact that Abramoff worked for different types of clients, not obviously related. The fact that he was a well-known part of the Republican machine.

He was the professional bribery middleman, the consultant you went to when you needed a bribe and needed a pro to do it delicately. That's a perfectly easy way that one could explain this scandal, even in a 20-second byte on TV.

You say, "...I’ll be blunt and tell you that nobody in the press understands campaign finance issues."
Sorry, but that's just not true, and it's becoming less true every day, thanks to the work of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), which does training all over the US and hosts the Campaign Finance Information Center (CFIC). See, for example, the 2003 book "Unstacking the Deck: A Reporter's Guide To Campaign Finance" by Michael A. Weber, Aron Pilhofer and Derek Willis, available at
Bloggers and mere citizens can learn this
stuff, too, and should.
(Full disclosure: my partner was primary author of the IRE book. There are no royalties involved, though -- it was a work of love, only slightly subsidized,
so I'm not touting it for personal gain.)
IRE has a lot to offer non-journalists who want to learn how to investigate.
It's an organization that can make cynics believe in the press again.
Check it out: ire.org

Two points...

Suggesting the tribes did something illegal, with no evidence to suggest they did, is blaming the victim, and an attempt to sully the reputations of Democrats associated with the tribes.

its likely that some of the tribal politicians will be caught up in this, because some council elections were literally bought by Scanlon/Abramoff. It may at some point be necessary to make the distinction between the "tribes" and corrupted officials controlled by Abramoff.

2) I think democrats need to use the words K Street Project at every opportunity. It doesn't matter if Americans know the details --- just say it ominously enough, and people will start asking questions/talking about it....

If Abramoff has been shopping photos of himself with Bush around to news agencies, what else has he been shopping? Have he or his lawyers been leaking information about the investigation to outlets like The Washington Post? Perhaps Abramoff told Post reporters, off the record, that he intends to implicate Democrats in the investigation. This could explain the certainty of people at the Post that Democrats are involved, despite publicly available evidence that seems to be contrary.

Regarding the possible guilt of the tribes, elsewhere I've mentioned the possibility that some individuals with the tribes were involved with the schemes. But so far there isn't any evidence to that fact, and even if it comes out that he had some accomplices, it's almost certain that they were rouge elements fleecing their fellow tribal members for their own personal gain. I doubt anything will surface that will make the tribes themselves look like criminal enterprises. Maybe hard evidence will surface showing that Abramoff helped install tribal officials, but that will just add to the litany of abuses he perpetrated against the tribes.

DH: Couple of questions/nits after re-reading your (much appreciated) longish response. This is getting into esoterica, for sure, but I'd like your response if you have the time/inclination (and I promise not to aks any Levin-fund questions). I've been out of the campaign-finance game for a bit and get rusty.
"[I]ndependent expenditure campaigns that engage in ... "express advocacy" .... will be regulated by the FEC." Not if they are 527-type groups that aren't "political committees, no? Isn't that what all the "evil unregulated 527 fuss is all about? Am I missing something?
"[M]ost of the alleged offenses occurred prior to the passage of Shays/Meehan, which closed most of the soft-money loopholes for Federal candidates." wasn't it just the loopholes that allowed party committees to do the work for candidates using soft money? Shays/Meehan doesn't deal with non-party connected entities, correct?
"[I]t's hard to get money into a PAC that is illegal." Well, it certainly takes some work, but don't underestimate the ingeneuity of the criminal mind intent on cheating. It's also not always very easy to get caught taking the wrong kind of donations ('specially if they are laundered through straws). Unless you thoroughgoingly audit the whole trail of contributions to a PAC -- demanding to see disclsoure/disclaimer forms, making sure that the the donees (in the case of corporations and unions) really are from the restricted class, making sure they weren't put up to it and reimbursed on the sly, etc. -- it's actually hard to prove that the PAC is playing with dirty money. I hate to say it, but the practice of raising funds for a PAC in a, shall we say, less than puntilious manner, is not uncommon (and it is not peculiar to the right either).

527's can't engage in express advocacy. They can't say "vote for" or "vote against," which is one of the (IMO misguided) criticisms leveled against those who counted on ACT for a significant chunk of the GOTV. 527's can't, shouldn't and aren't counted on to do GOTV in areas with a partisan mix, because you don't want to draw out your opponent's low-performing potential supporters. Repub GOTV doesn't happen in many areas with +65% Repub performance, whereas our GOTV focuses on the many places with +65% Dem performance, primarily in areas with large minority populations. But 527's, because they can't advocate who to vote for, aren't effective in mixed areas, but hard-money GOTV (like the Repubs did) is effective, because they can sort out the Repubs and Dems.

You're right about Shays/Meehan shutting down the party orgs, but it also made it so no federal candidate can have anything to do with soft money fundraising. Thus, the soft money PAC's associated with office holders for GOTV or "party building" or whatever are now verboten.

On the laundering money to get it into a PAC, you're correct, and there may be some of this in this intance. But I still think it's more likely that the most severe and the most numerous offenses will be with the soft money transactions, because the amounts are much larger, they don't have to be split up, and the sources were soft money, and converting it into hard creates lots of steps.

As for Levin Funds, I know the person who figured out the loophole and explained it to Carl, hence the name Levin funds. I could probably get an answer from him, but yeah, I don't know anything about them other than who discovered them. And by the way, he's a source of much of my knowledge on campaign finance issues.

Another thing on soft money and Shays/Meehan. The reason the CBC opposed it was that their members, coming almost exclusively from safe districts, don't have the need for hard money in general elections, and as a result don't get as much. But they moved a ton of soft money around, as they represent the areas with most of the Dem GOTV.

Ooop, hit post too soon. Let me finish that thought.

As a result, I'm most worried that if Dems get wrapped up in any aspect of the Abramoff scandal, it's more likely, IMO, that it will be members of the CBC, because they were involved in lots of soft money transactions, more than most white members, who are much less likely to represent huge swaths of precincts with Dem performance of +65%.

DH: Thanks so much for taking the time to respond! 'At's right non-PAC 527s can't do express advocacy (they just march way way up to the line). The other info is helpful, too. Sorry for taking up space on the site with my queries, but I have no "offlist" option. Anyway, much appreciated.
This is going to be interesting.

DHinMI -- Re Shays-Meehan and tribes -- Tribes still donate to PACs. Their legal status is peculiar. They are sovereign nations, hence not subject to corporate-type disclosure requirements. In FEC discloure, a tribe is listed as an "individual".

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