Dark Christianity
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May 2008
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Unholy Alliance


This Time Magazine article connects a player in the spreading White House scandal, Jack Abramoff, with former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed.

An Unholy Alliance?
A TIME investigation shows the lobbyist now at the center of a federal probe had a good friend eager to open doors at the White House: former Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed

There was only one reason that clients ranging from Native-American tribes to Fortune 500 CEOs to Pacific Island potentates were willing to pay Jack Abramoff millions. The lobbyist at the center of a spreading scandal that has touched numerous lawmakers, including former House majority leader Tom DeLay, had access like few others to people in power. But in the place that mattered most, even someone as well-connected as Abramoff needed help. When he had to make sure his clients' concerns got the attention of the right people in the George W. Bush White House, Abramoff often turned to a longtime friend and business associate whose ties there--especially with the President's most trusted adviser, Karl Rove--were far better than his: former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, an operative of such political talent that he made the cover of TIME in 1995, at age 33, with a line that declared him "the Right Hand of God."

Reed, a key Bush campaign strategist and the favorite in the 2006 race to become Lieutenant Governor of Georgia, was an obliging, even eager middleman, judging by e-mail exchanges between the two, which have been obtained by TIME. (The e-mails have attracted the interest of federal investigators already looking into whether Abramoff defrauded his Indian clients--a charge he denies.) Ten days after 9/11, for instance, Abramoff was promoting a business venture to rent cruise ships to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to billet rescue workers off New York City. Reed assured Abramoff he had "put in a tag call to karl to find out the best contact at fema." Four months later, Abramoff wrote Reed that he needed some "serious swat from Karl" to get the Justice Department to free $16.3 million for a jail that his Choctaw Indian clients were planning to build in Mississippi. As it happened, Abramoff had caught Reed at a ripe moment. "Am at a lunch with Rove at the [Republican National Committee] meeting and just talked to the AG [then Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, now a U.S. Senator]," he e-mailed Abramoff on his BlackBerry. "Will report the substance shortly." Reed agreed to give Rove materials arguing the Choctaws' case.

Did he? Or was Reed humoring his old friend? "Ralph receives unsolicited requests all the time for assistance on such matters," says his spokeswoman Lisa Baron, "but he does not recall following up on these matters." The cruise-ship scheme never came to fruition. The Choctaws got their jail, but so far, there's no evidence that the White House lifted a finger to make it happen. Abramoff declined to comment.

But in at least one instance, Reed acknowledges he used his White House access for Abramoff. In December 2001 the lobbyist was eager to prevent Angela Williams from being appointed head of the Interior Department's Office of Insular Affairs, which oversees the government's dealings with the Northern Mariana Islands, an important Abramoff client. Williams is married to former Federal Trade Commissioner Orson Swindle, who was a Vietnam POW with Senator John McCain. The subject header of Abramoff and Reed's e-mail exchange (it is unclear who initiated it) contained a misstatement about Williams that is practically Freudian in what it reveals about their animosity toward McCain: "Were you able to whack McCain's wife yet?" Reed assured Abramoff he had "weighed in heavily" with the White House personnel office to block her appointment but had received no commitment. "Any ideas on how we can make sure she does not get it?" Abramoff asked. "Can you ping Karl on this? I can't believe they just don't get this done?" Reed replied, "I am seeing him tomorrow at the WH and plan to discuss it with him as well." Baron says, "Ralph passed the information on to the White House. He is confident the Administration's decision was based on the merit." As for Rove, White House spokeswoman Erin Healy tells TIME, "It is my understanding that Mr. Rove does not recall any of these incidents."

Williams didn't get the job. She and her husband wrote it off to hard feelings from the bruising 2000 Republican presidential primaries. "I just assumed it was my close friendship with Senator McCain and her being married to me," Swindle tells TIME.

Abramoff was not without his own ties inside the White House--including his former executive assistant Susan Ralston, who now works in that capacity for Rove. Although Abramoff repeatedly tried to contact Rove, sources tell TIME, he had been able to arrange only one private meeting with Bush's top political strategist, early in 2001. Ralston subsequently referred his occasional requests to the White House intergovernmental-affairs office. When Abramoff pleaded by e-mail in February 2003 for her to help arrange a "quiet message" from Rove to the Interior Department on behalf of a tribal client, Ralston rebuffed him: "Karl and others are aware, but the WH is not going to get involved." So Abramoff sent a copy of Ralston's curt e-mail to Reed, who replied, "this is ridiculous. want any help ...?"

Abramoff's friendship with Reed goes back to their political organizing in the early 1980s, when Abramoff was national chairman of the College Republicans and Reed was executive director. Reed slept on Abramoff's couch at one point and introduced him to the woman he married. After Reed started his consulting firm in 1997, Abramoff threw him what would end up being as much as $4 million worth of business on campaigns to stop gambling--which Reed had once called "a cancer on the American body politic."

However mutually beneficial that relationship was, it has returned to haunt Reed in his first campaign for elected office. Reed, a former Georgia G.O.P. chairman who was considered the engineer of an impressive sweep of Republican victories in that state in 2002, has tapped his national connections and swamped his rivals at fund raising in his race. Lieutenant Governor is largely a ceremonial job, but it could give Reed, 44, a leg up for a gubernatorial bid in 2010.

Yet in recent months Reed has mostly been on the defensive. Questions have been raised about his golfing trip with Abramoff to Scotland in 2002 and whether Reed knew that the ostensibly antigambling campaigns he waged with Abramoff were actually paid for by gambling interests eager to get rid of their competition. It is a particularly uncomfortable situation for a politician famous for his ability to rally religious conservatives. Those supporters largely dismiss the revelations as a left-wing smear, but Rusty Paul, Reed's predecessor as Georgia G.O.P. chairman, acknowledges "a lot of very nervous people around waiting for other shoes to drop." Allies of his chief rival in the primary have circulated a memo among local Republicans warning that having Reed on the ticket could jeopardize incumbent Governor Sonny Perdue and the G.O.P.'s legislative majorities.

Reed has rested his defense on fine distinctions, saying the payments he received from Indian tribes didn't come from gambling. But that line may be tested when the Senate Indian Affairs Committee--chaired by his old nemesis McCain--holds another hearing on the Abramoff scandal next week. Reed has not yet been called to testify, but the hearing will focus on the Louisiana Coushattas, whom Abramoff arranged to pay more than a million dollars to Reed for his services. Inconveniently, the tribe has no profitmaking ventures other than gambling.

For transcripts and further details on the Abramoff-Reed e-mails, visit time.com