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The House Jack Built

Washington’s rats are scurrying for cover as one of their own goes down–and threatens to take others with him. Lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a major player in Washington, pled guilty last week to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials, after making a deal to cooperate with federal prosecutors.

The scandal is a perfect illustration of the sleaze in Washington politics–including the particular puddle surrounding former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

But it’s also something more–a glimpse inside the highly successful political machine of the Republican right. Politicians like George Bush, Newt Gingrich and John McCain were the outward face of that machine, but make no mistake: crooks and fixers like Abramoff are at work on the inside, greasing the wheels the whole time.

That’s the reality of the system that’s promoted around the planet as the “world’s greatest democracy”–political influence is for sale, and right-wing fanatics are able to impose an unpopular agenda that would be rejected outright by ordinary people.

As one of Washington’s highest-paid and most influential lobbyists, Abramoff was able to buy political access for his wealthy clients that ordinary citizens couldn’t begin to imagine.

But Abramoff is in hot water not for that, but for ripping off some of those clients. In his guilty plea, he admitted to bilking four Native American tribes–the Louisiana Coushattas, Mississippi Choctaws, Saginaw Chippewas of Michigan and Tigua of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in Texas–out of tens of millions of dollars.

The tribes hired Abramoff to represent their interests in Washington regarding casino and gambling issues. Abramoff instructed them to make political donations to certain politicians, while also recommending that they hire Michael Scanlon–a one-time aide to Tom DeLay–as their publicist.

What he didn’t tell them was that Scanlon was his business partner–and that in some cases, the two were working for groups with agendas directly opposed to the tribes’ interests. In 2002, for example, Abramoff and Scanlon worked with religious conservatives to persuade the state of Texas to shut down the Tigua tribe’s Standing Rock casino on the grounds that it violated Texas gambling laws–while Abramoff charged the Tiguas $4.2 million for promising to use his influence to reopen the casino.

In addition to being a thief, Abramoff exposed himself as a racist of the first order. In e-mails made public during 2004 Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearings, Abramoff refers to tribal members as “trogdolytes” and “morons.” “I have to meet with the monkeys from the Choctaw tribal counsel,” he wrote in an e-mail to Scanlon.

The money Abramoff stole didn’t just line his own pockets, but was funneled into his pet projects. According to Newsweek’s Mike Issikoff, Abramoff used money from a charity that was supposed to benefit inner-city youths to provide sniper scopes, night-vision binoculars, camouflage suits–and even sniper lessons–for right-wing Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

“Now here’s the thing,” commented Iraq expert Juan Cole. “If a Palestinian-American had diverted $140,000 from a Muslim charity to ‘security equipment’ and ‘sniper lessons’ for Palestinians on the West Bank, that individual would be in Gitmo so fast that the sonic boom would rattle your windows…But here’s a prediction. None of the Jewish extremists, some of them violent, who are invading the West Bank and making the lives of the local Palestinians miserable will ever be branded ‘terrorists’ by the U.S. government, and Abramoff’s foray into providing sniper lessons will be quietly buried.”

Abramoff is being dismissed by many politicians–including some of the ones he bought as a lobbyist–as “just” a corrupt lobbyist. But he’s more than that. Abramoff is a fixture of the Washington political establishment–which is why this scandal is potentially so damaging to so many powerbrokers.

He made his name in the early 1980s as a national chair of the College Republicans–alongside friends that include future anti-tax guru Grover Norquist and Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed–with stunts like the “adopt-a-contra” appeal, to support the counter-revolutionary guerrillas fighting to overthrow the left-wing Nicaraguan government.

Along with Norquist and Reed, he became an important Republican operative. During the mid-1980s, Abramoff helped to sell the “Reagan Doctrine” to Congress as head of the Oliver North-connected “Citizens for America.”

Abramoff took $1.5 million from the racist apartheid regime in South Africa to found the “International Freedom Foundation,” which demonized Nelson Mandela in the West and targeted groups like Oxfam for supporting sanctions against apartheid. Abramoff even helped right-wing Angolan guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi organize a “convention” of anti-Communist forces from Laos, Nicaragua and Afghanistan.

In the mid-1990s, Abramoff moved from the political to the financial side of the Republican machine, becoming a full-time lobbyist.
According to reports, this was the point when Abramoff struck up a close friendship with Rep. Tom DeLay.

Showering DeLay staffers with gifts, Abramoff was granted a seat at the table in exchange for putting money and political muscle behind DeLay’s favored causes and candidates. Abramoff developed such a close relationship with DeLay’s deputy chief of staff Tony Rudy that Abramoff reportedly bought Rudy a text-messaging pager so that they would never be out of touch.

As DeLay’s power increased, so did Abramoff’s–especially after George Bush’s selection as president in 2000, when DeLay came into his own as the political “muscle” behind the Bush administration’s most right-wing policies.

Abramoff got his clients–not just Native American tribes, but businesses and government officials in foreign countries–to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars, often making contributions to nonprofit foundations that would then finance lavish trips for DeLay and other lawmakers. In exchange, DeLay and Abramoff were able to make legislation that threatened his clients’ interests go away.

Now, in exchange for a reduced prison sentence of about 10 years, Abramoff has agreed to testify against former associates in the influence-peddling case.

That’s bad news for Abramoff’s bought-and-paid-for friends in the Republican Party–as well as some Democrats. One official involved with the Abramoff inquiry told Time that investigators see Abramoff as a “the middle guy”–suggesting that there may be bigger targets to come.

At the top of that list is DeLay who, already under investigation for violations of Texas campaign finance laws, was forced this week to give up on regaining his former role as House Majority Leader.

But plenty of other politicians are running for cover, too. A whole parade of Republicans and Democrats has dumped any campaign contributions associated with the lobbyist–“[perpetuating] the fiction that ‘bad’ contributions can be segregated from ‘good’ contributions in some orderly fashion that allows politicians to raise millions without compromising their independence,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Ron Brownstein.

The Democrats are hoping to use the Abramoff scandal to make gains this coming November by chiding Republicans for the “culture of corruption” in Washington. But they are every bit a part of that culture as the Republicans.

Washington politics thrives on exactly the kind of influence peddling that Abramoff specialized in.

That’s the truth about the “world’s greatest democracy.” The White House lies to go to war and spies on anyone who disagrees with it–and filthy-rich super-lobbyists buy political power and impose their right-wing agenda.

NICOLE COLSON writes for the Socialist Worker.


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NICOLE COLSON writes for the Socialist Worker.

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