A hot guessing game is being played in the Washington journalism and political worlds these days after a tribal lobbyist got disgraced super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff to admit that he’d wanted to buy off some mainstream journalists inside the Beltway.
The confession was made at the National Press Club on the evening of March 5 where Abramoff, who went to prison for three and a half years for defrauding tribes of millions of dollars during his time as a lobbyist in the late 1990s and early 2000s, joined a panel discussion on campaign finance reform. Moderators set the stage early for a possible confrontation, telling the packed audience that some tribal leaders were in attendance, including Rick Hill, former chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association and the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin; and Jay St. Goddard, chairman of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council.
Anyone hoping to see Abramoff receive a smackdown from the tribal leaders was disappointed—but one tribal lobbyist did land a punch, by highlighting Abramoff’s current and past coziness with the mainstream media. Tom Rodgers, a Blackfeet lobbyist with Carlyle Consulting, patiently waited for his turn during the question-and-answer part of the program, and when he finally got the microphone, Rodgers framed his query by noting that Abramoff had once said a bevy of racist things about his former Indian clients. E-mails uncovered during the U.S. Senate investigation of Abramoff led by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, in the early-2000s showed he had referred to his Native American clients as “retards,” “morons,” “monkeys,” “idiots” and “troglodytes.” Abramoff’s firm, Rodgers pointed out, also took life insurance policies out on elder Indians and used those payouts to help fund some of their activities.
Instead of requesting an apology from Abramoff, Rodgers surprised the crowd by asking if the former lobbyist and his team had tried to buy or bribe any mainstream reporters to write favorably about his clients. It had already been detailed in 2005 by Bloomberg and other news outlets that Abramoff’s firm paid to influence op-ed writers, and he confirmed that in his response to Rodgers’ question: “To try to get our clients’ stories out, we would go to writers—mainly think-tank folks—to write op-ed pieces and try to get our op-ed pieces placed to promote our side.”
When Rodgers asked Abramoff if he had bribed any mainstream reporters currently working in D.C., Abramoff seemed to be caught off-guard. “Mainstream reporters? I don’t remember, but I’m not saying there couldn’t have been. I mean, my mind-set in those days—if I could’ve gotten a mainstream reporter, [then] 100 percent I would’ve done that, as unfortunate as that is.
This answer drew a few gasps from the audience, but the more important reaction came later. After the event, journalists and tribal officials reached out to Pablo Carrillo, McCain’s chief investigative counsel, to see if there are more e-mails that were once classified as part of the earlier Abramoff investigation that could shed light on this bit of intrigue.
This still unfolding situation is just the latest example of the press’ strange new relationship with Abramoff as he reincarnates himself as a campaign finance reformer.
“The mainstream press built [Abramoff] up starting in July 2000 with a glowing piece in The Wall Street Journal,” Rodgers said in an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network the day after the National Press Club event. Jim VandeHei, current executive editor of Politico, the political news operation based in Arlington, Virginia, wrote the Journal piece Rodgers was referring to, “Rain Dance, Mississippi’s Choctaw Find an Unlikely Ally In a GOP Stalwart,” on July 3, 2000. An interesting tidbit about VandeHei is that his wife, Autumn Hanna VandeHei, was a staffer for then-Texas Republican congressman Tom DeLay. Two former aides to DeLay were implicated in the Abramoff scandal, and DeLay himself was investigated for six years.
In more-recent times, Politico has offered several friendly post-prison Abramoff pieces, including a quip-filled video featuring one of its reporters golfing with the former lobbyist. Rodgers said he asked his questions of Abramoff at the Press Club event because he and many Natives are disgusted by the mainstream media’s current treatment of Abramoff as a poster boy for campaign finance reform. Many mainstream journalists have become unlikely bedfellows with Abramoff during his forgiveness tour, including Dylan Ratigan and Lawrence O’Donnell at liberal cable outlet MSNBC, and have promoted his current reform shtick. Even the skeptical liberal Washington Post opinionista Dana Milbank wrote recently that Abramoff makes a “better case for reforms than the liberal activists ever could” after attending a February event featuring the disgraced lobbyist.
Tucker Carlson, publisher of conservative Beltway political website The Daily Caller, hosted a party at his posh Northwest D.C. home in November in Abramoff’s honor with many Washington elite media-types on the guest list. Politico covered the event coverage, and talked about the mutual adoration between Carlson and Abramoff. “There is a decency that emanates from him despite all of the accounts,” Carlson said about Abramoff.” I have experienced it personally and I think it’s real and I’m willing to vouch for that. So I’m impressed with anybody in Washington who exudes that level of kindness to other people.”
Last month came word that Abramoff was hired by United Republic, a nonprofit political reform group, to blog. His new boss there, Nick Penniman, a former publisher of The Washington Monthly and former executive director of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, sat on that National Press Club panel with him, and eagerly touted him as a reformer.
“It has been abusive how the mainstream media has sought to resurrect and give him a platform on the backs of Native Americans,” Rodgers said. Meanwhile, Abramoff’s past sins against Indians are getting less and less ink, and he’s ducking interviews with the Indian press, including ICTMN. Rodgers said he was initially asked to sit on the press club panel due to his role in uncovering Abramoff’s crimes, but Abramoff said he would not sit on a panel with him, so the invitation was withdrawn.
In turn, Rodgers decided to confront Abramoff from the audience, while the handful of tribal leaders and Indian advocates stared down Abramoff from the front row throughout his 90 minutes onstage—about two thirds of which was devoted to question-and-answer—but they did not ask him any questions.
“To do what he did, he had to dehumanize us,” Rodgers said, noting that he had helped assemble the tribal attendees for the Press Club event. “And it must be hard for him to confront that.”
Abramoff, responding to concerns raised by Rodgers, issued the following statement to The Hill, published March 7: “From the advent of the scandal which ended my lobbying career, I reached out to as many of my clients as possible to offer my profound apology for anything I did which was either illegal, wrong or offensive. I continue to express my heartfelt and sincere apology to my friends, family and clients—including my Indian tribal government clients—for anything I did that caused any harm to them.” This followed another statement he made to the El Paso Times in December when he apologized to the Tigua Tribe for cheating it out of $4.2 million.
To date, Abramoff has not met with tribal citizens, and some Indians, including Rodgers, have deemed his words hollow. A sincere apology to Indians, Rodgers said, would involve volunteering on a reservation to help improve the lives of Indians. But when getting that is dependent on the vigilance of a mainstream press that is increasingly cozy with Abramoff, that resolution seems all too far away.