Cover Story

Houses of cards

With Jack Abramoff pleading guilty to illegal lobbying activities and pledging to talk about his fraudulent deals, questions grow for evangelical leaders who-wittingly or unwittingly-became part of a strategy to "bring out the wackos to vote against something"

Issue: "God and mammon," Jan. 14, 2006

When the Coushatta Indian Tribe of Louisiana wanted to squelch competition to its Grand Casino's $300-million-a-year enterprise in 2001, tribal leaders knew just where to turn: Jack Abramoff, a Washington lobbyist with a history of protecting powerhouse tribal casinos. When Mr. Abramoff wanted a shrewd way to protect his client's massive gaming interests, he turned to Ralph Reed-former executive director of the Christian Coalition and a consultant who had a history of rallying evangelicals against legalized gambling.

Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Reed worked together to urge Christians and evangelical leaders to oppose casino openings and pro-gambling legislation in Louisiana. Behind the scenes, the pair's campaign succeeded, bolstering the Coushatta Tribe's casino business by eliminating competition. Now, five years later, Mr. Abramoff is at the center of one of the most sweeping political corruption scandals in Washington history. And though Mr. Reed has not been accused of illegal activity, the scandal has snared him and other prominent evangelicals associated with campaigns financed by Mr. Abramoff and his clients.

Mr. Abramoff, 46, pleaded guilty on Jan. 3 to three felony counts of conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion as part of a settlement with federal prosecutors. The deal sets the stage for Mr. Abramoff to testify against members of Congress, congressional staffers, and former business contacts in an expansive criminal investigation into lobbying efforts on behalf of Indian tribes and other gambling interests.

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While some politicians raced to create distance from Mr. Abramoff and return his contributions, evangelicals who became part of his elaborate pro-gambling schemes are hesitant to explain fully their connections with the lobbyist. Mr. Reed repeatedly has refused to give WORLD an on-the-record interview, but has maintained that though he knew funds for his anti-gambling work came from tribal sources, he believed what Mr. Abramoff's firm told him: that the money came from the tribe's "non-gambling funds." (Anti-gambling leaders in Alabama, such as Dan Ireland of the Alabama Citizens Action Program, have called that distinction illegitimate.)

Mr. Abramoff first hired Mr. Reed, a prominent evangelical who once called gambling "a cancer," to leverage his evangelical contacts to defeat pro-gambling legislation in Alabama in 1999. Mr. Abramoff hatched the campaign to protect the gaming interests of one of his clients, the Choctaw Tribe of Mississippi. While Mr. Reed worked to rally Christians for campaigns that benefited Mr. Abramoff's clients, Mr. Abramoff's partner, Michael Scanlon, wrote an e-mail to Kathryn Van Hoof, a former lawyer for the Coushatta Tribe, describing the plan to use Christians: "Simply put we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them. The wackos get their information [from] the Christian right, Christian radio, mail, the internet, and telephone."

To that end, Mr. Reed worked on at least three separate projects for Mr. Abramoff from 1999 to 2002. E-mails released by the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee suggest Mr. Reed worked with Mr. Abramoff to funnel tribal money through intermediary organizations to anti-gambling groups and to his own consulting firm, Century Strategies.

Mr. Reed has admitted funneling $1.15 million from the Choctaw Tribe to two anti-gambling groups in Alabama, including the Christian Coalition of Alabama (CCA), in 2000. In 2001, Mr. Abramoff hired Mr. Reed to rally evangelicals to oppose casino openings and pro-gambling legislation in Louisiana to protect the interests of the Coushatta Tribe. E-mails released by a Senate committee late last year show that Mr. Reed knew the Coushatta Tribe was Mr. Abramoff's client. (In his plea agreement, Mr. Abramoff has admitted charging the Coushattas $30 million for his work, and pocketing nearly $11.5 million without the tribe's knowledge.)

Other e-mails and faxes released by the Senate show that Mr. Reed organized TV and radio ads, as well as a letter-writing campaign, enlisting prominent evangelicals to help in the Abramoff-orchestrated campaign, including Focus on the Family's James Dobson and Tom Minnery, former presidential candidate and family-values guru Gary Bauer, Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly, and American Family Association head Don Wildmon.

Mr. Bauer, Ms. Schlafly, and Mr. Wildmon wrote letters to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton asking her to prevent a new casino opening in Louisiana. Each told WORLD that they had no knowledge of Mr. Reed's connections to Mr. Abramoff at the time, nor did they recall, they said, being asked by Mr. Reed to write the letters. "I'm against gambling anyway, and it wouldn't have mattered who asked me to write the letter," Ms. Schlafly said. A Feb. 19, 2002, e-mail from Mr. Reed to Mr. Abramoff stated that Mr. Reed "called Dobson this a.m. . . . letters are going to Norton, copied to others, from . . . Jim Dobson, Gary Bauer, Phyllis Schlafly." The correspondence also indicates Mr. Reed solicited and received help from Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

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