Every weekend in Philadelphia, Miss., hundreds of chip-laden fortune-seekers huddle around some 3,000 slot machines and 70 card tables under the neon glow of the Silver Star Casino on the Choctaw Indian Reservation. The Silver Star is one of two casinos on the tribe's property in central Mississippi that prove the adage that the house always wins: The Choctaw gaming enterprise raked in nearly $300 million last year.
Ralph Reed has publicly called that kind of enterprise "a cancer on the American body politic." Mr. Reed-former executive director of the Christian Coalition, now president of the Century Strategies consulting firm and a candidate for lieutenant governor of Georgia-has also publicly rallied evangelical Christians for years to protest legalized gambling on both federal and state levels, calling the practice immoral.
Considering Mr. Reed's conservatism and long-time, vigorous opposition to gambling, it's significant that one source of funding for his anti-gambling efforts in Alabama was the Choctaw Tribe of Mississippi. The Choctaws were eager to prevent legalized gambling in Alabama in order to prevent competition to their own casinos in the neighboring state.
Mr. Reed, 44, repeatedly refused to give an on-the-record interview to WORLD, but he has acknowledged that the tribe was the source for $1.15 million that he helped funnel to two anti-gambling groups in Alabama in 1999 and 2000.
The Choctaw incident is not isolated. A mound of recent reports and records indicates that Mr. Reed has solicited the support of tens of thousands of evangelicals on moral issues such as gambling and trade with China without disclosing the corporate interests that led to his involvement in those campaigns. The portrait that emerges is one of a shrewd businessman who has spent years leveraging his evangelical and conservative contacts to promote the economic interests of his clients, rather than the principles of the political movement he once led.
The China connection is one example. In 1998, a group of U.S. companies, including Boeing and the Business Roundtable, hired Mr. Reed to help get China's most favored nation trading status extended another year-a move aimed at bolstering the companies' international business markets. The extension was controversial: Some believed China shouldn't be rewarded with the recognition in light of its government's human-rights abuses.
Mr. Reed had opposed extending China's favorable trading status just one year earlier when he was still director of the Christian Coalition. In March 1997, he told Fox News that China was the most brutal of "any nation in the world outside of Sudan." He said the Christian Coalition would oppose extending the trade status.
A year later, he apparently changed his mind and turned to Christians to help his corporate clients. He hired the Georgia-based DeMoss Group, a public relations firm representing dozens of large evangelical organizations, to help form "The Alliance of Christian Ministries in China."
Mark DeMoss, president of the DeMoss Group, told WORLD that his company sent letters to about 48 U.S.-based Christian ministries with staff or missionaries in China, asking if they would join an alliance supporting China's favored trade status. The message: "A nation open to trade is a nation open to ministry."
The letter that the DeMoss Group sent to ministries asking them to join the alliance did not mention Mr. Reed's firm or the business interests behind the effort. About half the organizations signed on, and the DeMoss Group developed radio spots and print ads for The Washington Post, The Washington Times, and Roll Call, urging Christians to call for the extension of China's favored trade status.
One ad said that denying the status to China would provoke "an ill-advised and counterproductive trade war with China that would close the door to the Gospel." Another ad claimed: "The progress of democracy and the salvation of millions of souls depends on it." What the ads didn't say was that the business interests of Mr. Reed's corporate clients, who were behind the ads, depended on it as well.
The advertisements did not mention Mr. Reed's firm or the DeMoss Group, but only The Alliance of Christian Ministries in China. Later that year, Congress voted to extend China's favored trade status. Mr. DeMoss says his company "declined to work on the campaign the following year. . . . I don't disagree with the premise [of the campaign], but there are very good, evangelical Christians that would take either side of this particular argument, and a number of them happen to be our clients."
The Alabama campaign provides another example of Mr. Reed's lack of disclosure. The Choctaw Tribe of Mississippi did not want competition from casinos in Alabama, so in 1999 and 2000 it hired the powerful lobbyist Jack Abramoff to help keep gambling out of the neighboring state. Mr. Abramoff hired Mr. Reed, who arranged for money to be sent to the Christian Coalition of Alabama and to Citizens Against Legalized Gambling, a now defunct group.
E-mails made public by the U.S. Senate's Indian Affairs Committee show that Mr. Reed told Mr. Abramoff how much money he needed to conduct anti-gambling efforts in Alabama. Mr. Abramoff wrote that he would instruct the Choctaws to send the money through an intermediary organization to the Christian Coalition of Alabama (CCA). CCA later commissioned an investigation of the matter and has commendably posted on its website copies of canceled checks it received and invoices from Mr. Reed's firm that CCA identifies as requests for payment.
CCA did not reply to WORLD's request for further comment, but it has released a statement saying Mr. Reed never revealed that the anti-gambling donations came from tribal sources. In a June 2005 letter to the coalition's chairman, Mr. Reed admitted: "On reflection . . . I should have further explained that the contributions came from the Choctaws." Lisa Baron, Mr. Reed's spokeswoman, maintains that Mr. Abramoff's firm told Mr. Reed that any funding from tribal sources would come from the tribe's "non-gambling funds."
Dan Ireland, executive director of the anti-gambling Alabama Citizens Action Program, criticizes such a distinction: "I think anyone who is against gambling wouldn't take money if they thought it had anything to do with gambling." Gary Palmer, president of the conservative Alabama Policy Institute, says he has discussed the recent reports with Mr. Reed: "My impression is that Ralph now believes he shouldn't have taken the money. . . . I think we both concluded that this is in the gray area when we should be walking in black and white."
Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, argues that revelations about Ralph Reed will help anti-gambling efforts by showing that "gambling is corrosive at best and corrupting at worst. What it's done to Ralph Reed is an example of its corrupting power."
Ms. Baron, saying her boss's consulting work has been "legitimate, lawful, and effective," dismisses another apparent incident of nondisclosure: The Washington Post and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month that Mr. Reed in 2000 knowingly took money from eLottery, a small gambling services company, for his efforts to defeat the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act.
The legislation would have made it easier for authorities to crack down on online gambling sites. When the bill came to the House for consideration in 2000, Mr. Abramoff (hired by eLottery to oppose the bill) hired Mr. Reed's Century Strategies consulting firm. In his work for Mr. Abramoff's firm, Mr. Reed told his supporters that he opposed the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act because it contained exceptions that would have allowed for the expansion of certain types of gambling.
Mr. Reed wasn't alone in his opposition to the bill. A handful of conservative groups, and at least one prominent evangelical-Lou Sheldon, president of the Traditional Values Coalition-also opposed the legislation, citing the same reason. But e-mails published by The Washington Post suggest that Mr. Abramoff directed eLottery to send payments to Mr. Sheldon and Mr. Reed for their efforts, and that Mr. Reed may have attempted to obscure the source of the funds by arranging to have money sent through two intermediary organizations.
Mr. Sheldon's efforts in combating the bill included meeting with members of Congress and organizing direct mailings that accused GOP members who favored the bill of being soft on gambling. He later backed off the attacks on some House Republicans but continued to oppose the legislation. Mr. Sheldon did not return repeated calls from WORLD seeking an interview.
Mr. Abramoff is now the subject of a federal investigation into whether he defrauded Indian tribal clients of $82 million from 1999 to 2001, and whether he illegally lobbied members of Congress on behalf of tribal clients. (In a separate matter, Mr. Abramoff has been indicted on charges of multimillion-dollar bank fraud in a Florida business deal.) Mr. Reed has not been accused of any illegal activity and is cooperating with the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee's investigation of Mr. Abramoff.
If Mr. Reed doesn't divulge his business interests to the evangelical Christians he lobbies on behalf of his clients, he also doesn't disclose any anxiety he might have about political fallout from his business activities. Mr. Reed doesn't publicly acknowledge the controversies, and he remains the front-runner in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor, though the primary election won't take place until next July.
Meanwhile, the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling's Mr. Grey is one of many angered by Mr. Reed's conduct: "The money was given to Ralph to protect gambling interests, and Ralph Reed became an agent for gambling. . . . The real story here is that Ralph Reed used social conservatives for his own corporate ends. You don't get much more of a public betrayal than that."