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Coushatta chronicle

News analysis | Where did all that big casino money go?

Issue: "Muddy Gras," March 4, 2006

It's not one of Dante's circles of hell, but it could be a distant suburb. The Coushatta Casino Resort in Kinder, La., is not kind to the elderly people-yes, with walkers, or balancing on canes, or in wheelchairs or electric carts-who move almost like zombies from one slot machine to the next. In Norman Rockwell's world they would be surrounded by grandchildren, maybe with steam rising from a turkey; here, the smoke rises from the cigarettes some hold in the left hand as they pull on a one-armed bandit with the right.

The rural area surrounding the casino looks run-down and poor. If there is a nicer part of Kinder it is well hidden, and even the casino falls far short of Las Vegas glitz. It all makes a reporter wonder about the destination of the $300 million per year that the casino brings in-and then the Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed memos come to mind, with their notation of tens of millions of dollars spent by the Coushatta tribe to stop the emergence of competitors who could attract the addicts who would otherwise come to Kinder.

If you're not familiar with this scandal, take a look at WORLD issues of Nov. 19, 2005, and Jan. 14 and Feb. 4, 2006. Essentially, Mr. Reed received millions of dollars from Mr. Abramoff for getting anti-gambling evangelicals to act (mostly unknowingly) to keep hundreds of millions rolling to the Coushatta tribe. Whether Mr. Reed, now running for lieutenant governor of Georgia, actually did what he said he was doing and was paid to do-such as getting Focus on the Family to energize its listeners to contact government officials-is still unclear.

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What is clear is that Mr. Reed boasted to Jack Abramoff of "negotiating" with Focus on the Family to prompt a response of the kind Mr. Abramoff's Coushatta clients wanted. To put his tale into context, here are some of the relevant e-mails that have emerged during Senate hearings (see complete hearings):

  • March 20, 2001: Jack Abramoff (JA) and Ralph Reed (RR) are manipulating evangelicals for the benefit of their casino clients, and Mr. Reed wants his pay: JA writes to an associate that RR "is out of money. He has asked us to get another $250K asap." Here come the checks: "Pay to the order of Century Strategies [RR's company] Two Hundred Thousand Dollars. . . . Pay to the order of Century Strategies One Hundred Ninety-Eight Thousand Dollars."
  • April 6, 2001: RR brags to JA how he is pulling strings on a gambling bill in Texas: "One of our operatives attends the same church" as a key legislator, so the operative convinced his pastor to visit the legislator "and urge him to vote against the casino bill. This happened just hours before the [committee] met to consider the casino bill!" Here come the checks: April 17, "Pay to the order of Century Strategies One Hundred Thousand Dollars." April 30, "Pay to the order of Century Strategies Three Hundred Ninety-Eight Thousand Dollars." May 2, "Pay to the order of Century Strategies One Hundred Thousand Dollars." May 8, "Pay to the order of Century Strategies Seven Hundred Fifty Thousand Dollars."
  • At some point JA decides he's not getting his money's worth for all those checks. On Oct. 8, 2001, he writes to associate Michael Scanlon (MS), "Call Ralph and get him moving." Two days later RR writes to JA that he's working hard, and "can we please get the invoice paid?" On Nov. 8, RR tells JA, "We are in overdrive and all pistons are firing." On Nov. 12 he writes, "We have over 50 pastors mobilized, with a total membership in those churches of over 40,000."
  • JA is still not satisfied that he's getting what he paid for. On Dec. 4 JA writes to MS, "Ralph is toast from now on, or we'll only give him a scrap. Pathetic." On Jan. 4, 2002 JA declares to MS, "No more money for him." RR has to show that he's worth millions of dollars, so he apparently makes the case to JA that he can manipulate James Dobson, and one result is this excited "Ralph and Dobson" e-mail from JA to MS on Feb. 6: "He got to Dobson who is going to mail Louisiana and get on the radio!" RR follows that claim with a request on Feb. 11 for more money: "can we now get an 'attaboy' budget. . . ?"
  • RR wants more, and on Feb. 14 JA blows off some steam in a note to MS: "I know you (we!) hate him [Reed], but it does give us good cover and patter . . . give him some chump change." RR, again having to prove that he's worth all that money, receives a direct question from JA on Feb. 19: "Can we get Dobson on the air?" RR responds that same day in one e-mail, "yes. We're negotiating that now," and in another, "called Dobson this a.m." On Feb. 20 JA writes to MS that maybe they haven't wasted money on RR: "He may finally have scored for us! Dobson goes up on the radio on this next week!"

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