Features

Knee-deep in scandal?

Politics | Liberal ad campaign targets conservative religious leaders over "gambling problem"

Issue: "Broken promises," March 25, 2006

The Campaign to Defend the Constitution (DefCon), a new online group dedicated to "combating the growing power of the religious right," launched its first advertising campaign this month with a series of ads that had little to do with defending the Constitution.

The $200,000 ad campaign centered on Christian leaders Ralph Reed, Louis Sheldon, and James Dobson. DefCon's full-page ad in The New York Times on March 8 said the three men "have a serious gambling problem" and implied all three took money from gambling interests. Television ads airing for one week on cable networks CNN and Fox News in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Colorado Springs, Colo., said the men are "knee-deep in the Jack Abramoff scandal." (Mr. Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January to defrauding Indian tribes of millions of dollars, is scheduled for sentencing in federal court in late March.)

Two of the men in the DefCon ads-Mr. Reed and Mr. Sheldon-have clear connections to Mr. Abramoff and have been embroiled in the scandal. But now DefCon admits that its claims about Mr. Dobson lack evidence. DefCon interim director Jessica Smith told WORLD she acknowledges the difference: "Reed's and Sheldon's connections to Abramoff are clear. Dobson's are not." She added: "We don't accuse James Dobson of taking any money."

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Ms. Smith said DefCon began six months ago as a project of the Tides Center and Fenton Communications, both groups with strong ties to liberal organizations, including MoveOn.org, Air America, Greenpeace, and several gay-rights groups.

DefCon's current projects include supporting abortion, euthanasia, and stem-cell research, and opposing the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. Ms. Smith said the recent DefCon advertising campaign was designed to "expose the hypocrisy" of religious leaders, but she had difficulty explaining how the campaign achieved the group's stated purpose of defending the Constitution: "We're concerned about separation of church and state. . . . We just think American people need to know about the activities of their religious leaders."

The public has learned more in recent months about the activities of Mr. Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, who worked as a consultant for Mr. Abramoff. Mr. Reed has admitted he accepted payments from Indian tribes for anti-gambling work, and e-mails released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee show Mr. Reed obscured the tribal source of payments, as well as solicited help from evangelicals without disclosing his financiers.

But the allegations are fueled by the refusal of Mr. Reed and others to answer specific questions. Reed spokeswoman Lisa Baron called the DefCon ads "false," but Mr. Reed declined to respond to the ads' specific charges that in 1999 he received $1 million from the Choctaw Indian Tribe, and that during 2001 and 2002 he got $4 million from Mr. Abramoff and his partners.

Mr. Sheldon, president of the Traditional Values Coalition, worked with Mr. Abramoff to defeat the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act of 2000, according to The Washington Post. The online gambling firm eLottery hired Mr. Abramoff to help defeat the bill and donated $25,000 to Mr. Sheldon's group, according to e-mails published by the Post. Mr. Sheldon has not refuted the claims, which also appeared in the DefCon ads, and has not returned repeated phone calls from WORLD seeking comment.

Mr. Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family and the third subject of DefCon's ads, says he has no connection to Mr. Abramoff. Focus acknowledges fighting a Louisiana casino in 2002 while Mr. Reed fought the same casino for Mr. Abramoff, who was hired by the Coushatta Tribe. E-mails released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee show Mr. Reed told Mr. Abramoff he could get Mr. Dobson on the radio to oppose the casino, but Focus on the Family says Mr. Dobson did not record a commercial at the request of Mr. Abramoff or Mr. Reed.

Focus vice president and spokesman Tom Minnery declined to speak with WORLD about the DefCon campaign, but he released a press statement condemning the ads' claims as "wild allegations this group has cobbled together."

The DefCon ads, which ran for one week, didn't run in Georgia where Mr. Reed faces a tight July primary for lieutenant governor. That's because DefCon is a tax-exempt organization, and "not allowed to influence an election," according to Ms. Smith. But the DefCon ads pulled in plenty of Georgia media coverage, where Mr. Reed's primary race against Georgia senator Casey Cagle continues to gain national, including White House, attention.

President George Bush attended a state party dinner outside Atlanta in mid-March, musing about Georgia politics to some 1,300 attendees who paid $1,000 a plate. While singling out some candidates, Mr. Bush was careful to mention both Mr. Reed and Mr. Cagle, saying, "I appreciate them both being here tonight."

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