Friday, September 05, 2008

Who's The Reason?

September 5, 2008, 9:30 a.m.

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Looking for "The Reason"

Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty sing a song in which they search for the reason their lives (and their children) are what they are. It begins:

Conway: You're the reason I'm a-ridin' around
on recapped tires.

Loretta: And you're the reason I'm hangin'
our clothes outside on wires.

Loretta Lynn, "You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly"
and goes on from there.

Have you ever asked yourself those kind of questions?

Like, who's the reason my car get 24 miles to the gallon instead of 50 or more? Indeed, why am I even still buying gasoline? Why am I not already in an electric, hydrogen fuel cell, or natural gas car? Or better yet, using the kind of train system that other countries seem to have?

Who's the reason I'm watching TV commercials for "illegal drugs" -- drugs the pharmacist cannot legally sell me without a prescription? And when I buy them, why are they so much more expensive than in other countries? How come my health insurance doesn't cover the cost? Or, better yet, why do I have to bother with insurance at all; why don't we have the universal single-payer health care other industrialized countries give their people -- with superior results in infant mortality and life expectancy and at far less cost?

Who's the reason, If we want to cut taxes, that our government spends more on the military than many retired officers say we need, more than the next few nations combined -- including some weapon systems the military doesn't even want?

Who's the reason?

Well, actually there are a lot of folks who are the reason.

And a goodly number of them were gathered in Denver last week and Minneapolis-St. Paul this week.

But if I had to pick one, as a symbol of the phenomenon I'm talking about, it would be this man. [Photo credit: Associated Press.] Don't recognize him? Read on.

Surely you watched at least some of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions over the past couple weeks.

They were carefully choreographed to make you feel good about America, our political and governmental systems, and -- if you were a political activist who worked for a candidate or party -- that it was all worthwhile and rewarding. There wasn't all that much talk of "issues" or the parties' platforms, but there were, after all, platform committees and an opportunity to participate, along the way (in Iowa, from precinct caucus to state convention) in creating them.

It was left to ABC News to cover what I consider the real story, the portrayal of how Washington actually functions, what I sometimes discuss as Washington's "sub-governments." See, e.g., Nicholas Johnson, Are We There Yet? (2008), pp. 82-83, 95-96.

Only ABC offered its viewers an answer to "Who's the reason?" and "What is this convention really about, anyway?" and "Who's calling the shots here when it comes to what our taxes are going to, why we don't have the social programs and services from government we need, and why we have to pay so much in the marketplace?"

"Who's the reason?" are the folks who offered more than $100 million in "soft money" to cover the costs of putting on these conventions -- many of whom paid both the Democrats and the Republicans. "Who's the reason?" are the folks who paid millions more for private parties where lobbyists could press their demands on governors, senators and members of Congress. "Who's the reason?" are the folks who got the upscale hotel rooms, and watched the conventions from skyboxes, with free gourmet food and open bars, rather than from seats on the floor.

ABC's pictures and commentaries about these goings on were, in my opinion, a far more accurate explanation of our government and politics than anything ever discussed in a K-12 (or college) classroom about our "three equal branches of government" or that gets played out on a political party's convention floor, or most newspaper and television "news" coverage throughout the year.

I've already included in an earlier blog entry excerpts from ABC's "The Money Trail" series on the Democratic National Convention in Nicholas Johnson, "Important Things in Politics," August 29, 2008 (quoting Marc Hanna's observation that "There are two important things in politics. The first is the money and I can’t remember the second.").

Today's blog entry contains excerpts from ABC's similar coverage of the Republican National Convention.

So, for me, "The Person of the Week," to use another ABC feature, is not from among Senators Obama, Biden, Clinton, McCain or Governor Palin. It is -- have you guessed yet? -- Jack Abramoff.

Because the highlight of the last two weeks, the culminating event, the symbolic portrayal of what it's all about, was the sentencing of this famous lobbyist to four years in prison. Matt Apuzzo, "'Broken man' Abramoff gets 4 years in prison," Associated Press, September 4, 2008 ("Defense attorney Abbe Lowell [acknowledged Abramoff] corrupted politicians with golf junkets, expensive meals and luxury seats at sporting events. . . . With Abramoff's help, the Justice Department has won corruption convictions against former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, former Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles and several top Capitol Hill aides. Defense lawyers predicted more convictions would follow.").

OK, OK, I know. Abramoff did things that were illegal. Much of what the lobbyists, corporations and other institutions were doing the last two weeks are within the law.

Of course, as I often say, the problem with corporate power is not that corporations violate the law, it's that they don't have to because . . . well, they wrote the law. The "soft money" loophole is there because they want it there. They get their 1000-to-one to 2000-to-one return on these soft money "investments." (For documentation see "Either Way It's 'Public Financing of Campaigns,'" in
Nicholas Johnson, Are We There Yet? (2008).) Who wouldn't want to create, and hang onto, that kind of return?

Far be it from a law professor to minimize distinctions between what is and is not legal.

But the fact is, as Matt Apuzzo's AP story, linked above, notes, "In The Perfect Villain: John McCain and the Demonization of Lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Boston journalist Gary Chafetz portrays Abramoff as an innocent man who excelled in an already corrupt system and was undone by biased prosecutors, reporters and political enemies."

You don't have to believe that Abramoff was "innocent" to agree that he "excelled in an already corrupt system."

The distinction between capital C Coruption and small c corruption is the difference between who is inside, and who is outside, of prison. It's an important distinction; a legal distinction with significant consequences.

But the fact remains that our political/governmental system is a small c corrupt system, in which the elites with money and power, and views from skyboxes, are able to, and do, with what's sometimes called "influence peddling," bend the government to their own economic benefit. It's the sort of thing that led Warren Buffett to acknowledge as a matter of course, “There’s class warfare, all right,but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

So Jack Abramoff is my "Person of the Week." Keep his image before you as you read these excerpts from ABC News' additions to its "The Money Trail" series, this week coming to us from the Republican National Convention.

Emma Schwartz, "Conventions 2008: Brought to You By Whom?; Unlimited Money and Little Disclosure at Political Conventions,"
ABC News, August 24, 2008 ("The contributions that fund the massive, four-day affairs come mostly from businesses, unions and other organizations which often have business before lawmakers. And their contributions to the fetes can run into the millions of dollars, unlike money given to candidates, political action committees or national parties. While many donors tout their sponsorship, by law the host committees don't have to disclose their donors until roughly two months after the convention -- just days before the presidential election. That means that most voters will go to the polls without knowing which interests gave millions to boost the candidates and buy access. . . . And the committees are certainly taking advantage of it. Their fundraising strategy has been geared with one clear message: the bigger the donor, the better the access to events and members of Congress. . . . [A]t least 173 organizations – largely companies and trade unions – have given money to the conventions so far. Of those, 48 have given to both party conventions. Those 173 companies have spent $1.3 billion in lobbying expenditures over the past three years, according to a report by the Campaign Finance Institute. And during that same period, those companies' political action committees and employees have contributed $180 million to federal candidates and political parties – all perfectly legal.").

As residents of New Orleans were fleeing Hurricane Gustav . . . many corporate sponsors and their lobbyists carried through with plans for lavish entertainment of GOP lawmakers and others despite calls from the campaign of Sen. John McCain that Republicans should tone down the convention festivities. . . .

Yet, last night lobbyists for the National Rifle Association, Lockheed Martin and the American Trucking Association put on a raucus six-hour party at a downtown bar featuring music by the band "Hookers and Blow." There was no evidence of any actual prostitutes or cocaine.

Congressman Bill Shuster (R-PA), a GOP House deputy whip, was seen meeting with a group of lobbyists who bemoaned McCain's call to tone down the parties which had already been paid for.

Shuster said . . . there was no need to curtail corporate parties until after the Hurricane hit land.

Along the Mississippi last night, corporate lobbyists for the chemical industry were entertaining Ohio Republicans on two large yachts.

Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH), one of about 700 guests, said he "could not remember" who paid the costs of the river cruise. . . .

Saturday night, 22 big corporations sponsored a pig roast and "booze cruise" for California Congressmen and delegates on Lake Minnetonka, west of Minneapolis. . . .

Many delegates at a party Saturday night for GOP convention CEO Maria Cino said they saw no reason to stop the good time because of events in New Orleans.

"Everyone goes through hard times," said Wisconsin delegate Jeff Larson.

More than a hundred people jammed a Minneapolis restaurant where waiters wore pink wigs and guests danced through the night as they wrapped themselves and their partners with pink boas.

Five pink spotlights were set up outside of the invitation-only party. ABC News reporters were told they could not enter.

Asked about the appropriateness of the gathering, Republican National Committeeman Tony Parker walked away from ABC News cameras, saying, "I don't want to talk with you."

Another Republican guest hid his face from cameras, wrapping a pink boa around his eyes and nose. . . .

At least 200 parties had been scheduled by corporate executives and lobbyists for the Republican gathering . . ..
Brian Ross, Rhonda Schwartz, Avni Patel, Asa Eslocker, and Anna Schecter, "Money Trail: What Hurricane? Lobbyists, GOP Party On; As NOLA Residents Flee, Republican Party Officials Don Pink Boas and Swig Vodka Shots," ABC News, September 1, 2008.

Tom DeLay, the former House GOP majority leader whose connections to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff brought scandal and disgrace to the Republican party, returned to the spotlight in Minneapolis last night, helping to host a private party that drew hundreds of delegates and Republican officials. . . .

DeLay arrived at the Minneapolis night club for his party last night in a gold mini-van . . ..

He declined to answer questions from ABC News as he entered the back door of the club through a loading dock.

[T]he featured entertainment at DeLay's party was the band Smash Mouth.

Asked his reaction to DeLay's appearance in Minneapolis, Cong. John Mica (R-FL) declined to answer and then head-butted the ABC camera. . . .

Ethics watchdog groups were appalled that DeLay would be back in the spotlight at the Republican convention.

"Why would they welcome back one of the most obvious examples of corruption," asked Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation . . ..

No longer in office, and awaiting trial on state election law violations in Texas, DeLay disappeared from the Washington scene two years ago after deciding not to seek re-election from his Congressional district south of Houston. . . .

The convicted lobbyist, Abramoff, who once boasted of his close ties to Delay, is cooperating with authorities.

Abramoff is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday by a federal judge in Washington. . . .

"Why one of the most disgraced members of Congress would think that he had an opportunity now to redeem himself is beyond me," said Miller of the Sunlight Foundation.
Brian Ross, Rhonda Schwartz, Asa Eslocker, and Emma Schwartz, "Money Trail: He's Baaaack! Tom DeLay Hailed as GOP Hero; Despite Scandal, Indictment, 'The Hammer' Big in Minneapolis," ABC News, September 2, 2008.

From the moment they arrived at the Twin Cities airport, Republicans have been reminded that this convention is being brought to them by corporate America.

Including a Swiss-based bank, UBS, under investigation by the government for allegedly helping the rich avoid billions of dollars in US taxes. The bank says it is cooperating with Congressional and federal authorities.

"I think it's very clear that those who give to the host committees are getting access and influence that they desire, said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center.

In addition to spending millions on lavish parties, big corporations have put up $58 million dollars for the Republican convention. . . .

Nine conventions after Nixon, many of the corporate sponsors still try to keep what they're doing from being seen by the press or the public.

But inside, the corporations make sure the Congressmen know just who is responsible for the good times.

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the top House Republican, was seen dancing at the "Best Little Warehouse Party", an event put on by corporate lobbyists close to Boehner at the last four conventions.

In some places around town this week, the corporate logos were even flashed on giant TV screens. . . .

"We have to have campaign finance reform and return the government to the people and take it out of the hands of special interests," McCain said in 2000.

Yet, at his nominating convention this week, the big money donors were seated in the prime skyboxes overlooking the proceedings below. . . .

"If we don't do anything about the way the conventions are financed, we have a danger that our democracy is going to be severely damaged by unequal access and unequal influence by convention donors," said Steve Weissman, of the Campaign Finance Institute.
Brian Ross and Avni Patel, "Money Trail: Big Business Means Big Fun for Congress Members at RNC; Corporations Spoil Congressmen, Throw Lavish Parties All Thanks to a Federal Loophole," ABC News, September 4, 2008.

Want to bet on the odds -- whoever wins -- we're going to see meaningful campaign finance reform, or anything remotely close to government either "of the people" or "by the people" or "for the people," let alone all of them?

# # #


Benjamin Wright said...

Nick: E-mail records were central to the investigation of Jack Abramoff. Electronic records are profoundly changing our society. They combat all manner of corruption and abuse of authority or privilege. --Ben

Anonymous said...

I'm the author of The Perfect Villain. I became involved in this writing project because the news stories seemed too good to be true. No one could be so evil. I did my best to bleach out my political leanings. (I'm a registered independent, but I've never voted Republican.)
I had no connections to Mr. Abramoff whatsoever. But I was able to persuade him to meet with me. The interviews began five months before his incarceration. I also visited him 13 times in prison. Prison interviews are not allowed without the warden’s permission. No paper or pencil or tape recorders are permitted. Hence, these were strictly social visits, but I couldn’t help writing down what I remembered when I got back to my car.
After exhaustively looking at publicly released documents, those never released to the public, media stories, conducting interviews with Abramoff, as well as his former SunCruz partners—Adam Kidan and Ben Waldman—and many others, I arrived at these seemingly implausible conclusions:
In my opinion, Abramoff never defrauded his Indian clients. The evidence shows he provided benefits to his tribal clients that far exceeded his fees, which is why they kept hiring him year after year. His clients, hardly unsophisticated, operated lucrative casinos. They hired the best lawyers, accountants, and consultants. Also, Abramoff never bribed any congressmen or staff. He simply played the lobbying game better than most. The “kickback scheme” with Michael Scanlon was a referral fee, perfectly legal. Lawyers, mortgage brokers, orthopedic surgeons do it all the time without disclosing it to their clients. Abramoff is certainly not guilty of income-tax evasion. Essentially, he gave away most of his money to tax-exempt, non-profit organizations. He didn't even pay off his own home mortgage. As for the bank fraud (wire fraud) charges down in Florida, Abramoff would have never been found guilty had it gone to trial. Kidan told me Abramoff knew nothing about the $23 million forged wire transfer. The lender knew Kidan was bankrupt and did not demand to escrow the $23 million cash down payment, because it wanted its huge closing fees for a loan that was safely over collateralized.
As for The Washington Post, its first stories were actually misleading, because the reporter, who had no expertise in Indian Country, relied on information from unnamed sources—namely, Abramoff’s competitors. However, the Post did run a story on September 26, 2004, that crossed the line. It claimed that Abramoff was the world's most underhanded sleaze, because he had specifically, secretly, and deliberately shut down a tribe's casino in El Paso, so that he could then persuade the tribe to hire him to get their casino re-opened for a fee of millions of dollars. This story was false, possibly deliberately. For this transgression, the Post's 2006 Pulitzer Prize should be rescinded.
The morning after the Post broke the first story, Sen. McCain launched an investigation into Abramoff. For reasons that will be clear if you read The Perfect Villain, McCain was seeking political retribution for something notorious (and reprehensible) in which Abramoff had been unwittingly involved during McCain's presidential bid 2000. In 2006, McCain released his 373-page Senate Indian Affairs Report. He has called it “fair, accurate, and neutral.” I have examined this report. McCain’s description could not be further from the truth. The report was truly mendacious.
So why did Abramoff’s tribal clients turn against him? Their consultants advised them to. They could sue his former employers—law firms that did not want their e-mail traffic made public—and win huge settlements, which is what those tribal clients did. They got Abramoff’s brilliant lobbying services at a huge discount.
Why did Abramoff plead guilty? I believe he was terrified not to. Federal prosecutors have a 95.5% conviction rate and unlimited resources. They threaten white-collar defendants that they will be found guilty of some technical crime, after which they will be put in a maximum-security prison with violent offenders for 30 years. Also, the legal fees will bankrupt them. Or, they can plead guilty, agree to cooperate, receive a much-reduced sentence in a prison camp, and be out of jail in three years or so. A risk-averse person would plead guilty. Now, Abramoff could not admit to me that all of this was true, because the prosecutors might charge him with perjury for not being sincere and remorseful when he pleaded guilty.
In the end, Abramoff wasn't a saint, but The Washington Post, McCain, and the Justice Department--the white hats--turned out to the villains, a rather counterintuitive conclusion.
The problem for me with McCain was his fraudulent report. He also employed an underhanded tactic. He only released about 2% of the Abramoff documents he had subpoenaed, which meant that independent investigators like me could not confirm McCain's conclusions. (Fortunately, I was able to get my hands on some of these documents.) It made me wonder if McCain is also withholding information about what really occurred during his 5 1/2 years as a POW. (I was also able to obtain four obscure documents-- published in Hanoi and Havana--of interviews he gave during his captivity that contradict McCain's claims in his later and multiple autobiographies.) McCain adamantly refuses to release his POW records. He adamantly refuses to release his Navy Service records. I've got to wonder what is he afraid of and what is he is trying to hide. Maybe there's nothing there, but I'd like to see for myself. At the moment, we're relying on John McCain as the only source and those records may contain information that may influence how the American electorate votes in the upcoming presidential election. Certainly, Vladimir Putin (the Soviet Union ran the Hanoi Hilton), the CIA, and North Vietnam have these documents. What makes the request for full disclosure so urgent is that if they contain compromising or damaging information on McCain, and if he were to become president, he might well be in a position to be blackmailed. The implications are unsettling, to say the least.
If you do end up reading The Perfect Villain, I'd be curious to know if you are persuaded that this story has gone from a black-and-white, open-and-shut narrative to a far more nuanced and complex one.

Gary S. Chafetz