Call it Tonto's revenge: The outrageous rip-off of Native American tribes by a top Republican lobbyist is leading inexorably to a reckoning for the allegedly morally superior religious and political right.
"I don't think we have had something of this scope, arrogance and sheer venality in our lifetimes," said Norman J. Ornstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, writing in Roll Call. "It is building to an explosion, one that could create immense collateral damage within Congress and in coming elections."
Selling firewater to the natives -- or in this case, charging them $82 million for government breaks on slot machine and other gaming licenses -- is not exactly what the prophets of the Republican revolution promised. And to see behind the scenes as Christian right superstar Ralph Reed, bought off by top Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, dupes his "pro-family" followers into supporting casino-rich Indian tribes under the guise of anti-gambling initiatives is to witness moral corruption of biblical proportion.
Reed, now a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in Georgia, at first denied knowing the $4 million he acknowledges receiving from Abramoff to run the pseudo-anti-gambling campaigns in the South came from tribes hoping to retain local monopolies for themselves. Once the investigation picked up steam this past summer, however, he changed his mind and said he was assured that the tribal money didn't come directly from casino proceeds -- a hair-splitting attempt at face-saving, since the goal of the payments was clearly to benefit the casinos.
Furthermore, the release of documentation on the Abramoff investigation to the Internet by Senator John McCain of Arizona, chair of the Senate's Indian Affairs Committee, makes it clear that Abramoff and his colleagues had no interest in the finer points of morality when they were transferring huge sums of cash from the tribes to the accounts of such allegedly high-minded heavyweight pro-Republican outfits as Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform.
Reading the documents, in fact, is a horrifying look at democracy for sale. For example, an Abramoff e-mail to Reed about a conversation the lobbyist had with Nell Rogers, a Choctaw representative: "Spoke with Nell. They have a budget issue. They want to know if we can get through to October on $1 million. Can we? If not, let me know."
In response, Reed lays out what it costs, in very precise amounts, to kill legislation on Capitol Hill: "I believe [$1 million will be enough]. If we can kill it in the House, definitely. If it goes to the Senate, the worst case scenario is what the pro-family groups spent to defeat video poker and the lottery -- each about $1.3 million."
Overall, both Reed, once the religious right's boy savior, and Abramoff, the former head of the College Republicans, a "pioneer"-grade fund-raiser for President Bush, and a stalwart friend of Tom DeLay, come off as morally degenerate political savants. Reed seems possessed by the gods of greed as he exults, "I need to start humping in corporate accounts!"
But Abramoff-gate goes much higher than these two political pimps. In e-mails between Abramoff and lobbyist (and former DeLay aide) Michael Scanlon, it is clear that they trafficked in their ties to DeLay and others in the Republican leadership. As The Washington Post reported, Abramoff "cultivated a reputation as the best-connected Republican lobbyist in Washington," and it was not a false claim. DeLay, who referred to Abramoff as "one of my closest and dearest friends," received no fewer than three free golf trips to Scotland from Abramoff, among other payoffs.
Both DeLay and Abramoff are under indictment for charges in other cases but not, as of yet, this one. Scanlon has already pleaded guilty to conspiring with Abramoff to defraud various Indian tribes and bribe government officials. Former White House official David Safavian has been indicted for lying about his ties to Abramoff. The bet now is that Abramoff will also cop a plea bargain instead of spending many years in jail and paying even larger fines than the $19.7 million Scanlon has accepted.
If so, more depressing tales of corruption may be detailed publicly. But what is already clear is that the Republicans' reputation for moral superiority is as dead as the Lone Ranger.