They've got muck; we've got rakes. TPM Muckraker

Abramoff: a "Selfless Patriot" Scarred by Early Life in Beverly Hills

The defense team for disgraced GOP superlobbyist Jack Abramoff is pulling out all the stops as his first trial enters its sentencing phase.

They found over 260 people who would still admit to knowing the guy, and got them to write letters expressing varying degrees of support of the man who has come to personify Beltway corruption. In one of the letters acquired by AP, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) tells the judge that Abramoff, who bilked millions from Indian tribes and funneled millions of dollars through a labyrinth of fraudulent charities for personal gain and political leverage, was a "selfless patriot, most of the time I knew him."

In another effort to gin up sympathy for the convicted felon, Jack's defense constructed a farcical hagiography of the guy which stretches both facts and credulity. For instance, when his family moved to Beverly Hills, the defense writes Jack was ''among the non-upper class in a land of spoiled kids." Ah, the poor, destitute non-upper class of Beverly Hills.

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Recently, the Washington Post and TPMmuckraker.com have been reporting on the DeLay-Buckham front group, U.S. Family Network. Ed Buckham, you'll remember, was Tom DeLay's Chief of Staff until he left the Hill to open up his lobby shop, Alexander Strategy Group. USFN purported to be a grassroots activist group pushing causes dear to social conservatives. In fact, it functioned as a slush fund and all-purpose political favor mill through which Jack Abramoff clients (Russian tycoons, Marianas sweatshop owners and the Mississippi Choctaw Indian tribe) funneled money to Buckham, his lobbying shop and other DeLay causes.

One thread of the USFN story was the townhouse it bought near Capitol Hill. Called the "Safe House" by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay's aides, it was the headquarters for DeLay's ARMPAC, Buckham's lobby shop, Alexander Strategy Group, and of course it even had a little office for the USFN itself.

By 2000 the FEC was starting to look into the USFN, and the USFN's Capitol Hill neighbors had begun to complain that it was a business operating in a residential area in violation of local zoning laws. In their big piece on the U.S. Family Network yesterday, the Washington Post reported that when Buckham's USFN had to part with the beloved "Safe House" in late 2000 it took a $19,000 loss.

Now, that got us to wondering. A loss of that scale is far from Duke Cunningham territory. But the DC housing market was pretty hot back then and the USFN held the property for just about 2 years.

So who got such a good deal?

The buyer was Rep. Jim Ryun (R-KS).

D.C. property records show that the townhouse was sold to Ryun for $410,000 on December 15, 2000. According to the Post, the USFN purchased the townhouse for $429,000; the deed was signed January 12, 1999.

(To confirm that this was the same Jim Ryun, we found this 2004 FEC contribution listing in which a Jim Ryun who identifies his profession as "congressman" lists the former "Safe House" address, 132 D Street, as his place of residence. Roll Call, it turns out, briefly noted Ryun's purchase on June 4th 2001, but long before the scope of Buckham's and Abramoff's bad acts had come to light.)

Property sold to a member of Congress at substantially under market value can, in some instances, be construed as a de facto gift. In this case, that would be from the Buckham-controlled and Abramoff-client-funded front group USFN to Rep. Ryun.

Naomi Seligman of CREW told TPMmuckraker.com that Ryun's house deal should prompt a House Ethics Committee investigation. "Who else in America has lost money on a real estate transaction except [Cunningham contractor felon] Mitchell Wade?"

According to Ryun spokesperson Michelle Schroeder, Rep. Ryun was on a plane Monday and unavailable for comment.

The AP is reporting that the newest indictment in the New Hampshire phone jamming case is Duane Hansen, the former co-owner of the Idaho telemarketing firm that executed the jamming of Democratic phone lines on Election Day, 2002.

Hansen was basically the low-level enforcer - so it looks like we'll have to wait a little longer to see if the investigation bags any more heavies like RNC New England political director James Tobin. As we noted last week, Tobin was in close contact with the White House on the day of the jamming.

An exoneration for Ralph Reed in Texas...sort of.

Texas Travis County Attorney David Escamilla has just released a statement saying that he will not pursue a formal criminal investigation into Ralph Reed's lobbying activities in Texas. Not because Reed didn't break any laws - actually he says quite the opposite - but because there is a two-year statute of limitations for prosecuting misdemeanors in Texas. So Reed gets off the hook.

Reed was facing a possible investigation for not registering as a lobbyist in Texas in 2001 and 2002 while he was working there for Jack Abramoff. As I pointed out before, Reed didn't register because he wanted his work for Abramoff to be as much off-the-books as possible.

Texas law generally requires people to register as lobbyists "if they receive more than $500 a quarter to directly communicate with a state official on public policy." It was evident from emails released as part of the Abramoff investigation that Reed had done a lot of traditional lobbying - contacting public officials and the like. And Reed was certainly getting a lot more than $500 a quarter. So Common Cause Texas, Public Citizen Texas, and Texans For Public Justice filed a complaint with Escamilla's office and asked for an investigation.

But they were too late. It just took too long for all this to come to light.

Here's what Escamilla had to say about it:

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For those of you who didn't get a chance to read through yesterday's Post story on the U.S. Family Network, the Post had a handy graphic that broke down the money going in and out of the fund. It is, simply put, the finest example of a GOP slush fund that you'll ever hope to see.

There's been a lot of focus on how Ed Buckham, Tom DeLay's former chief of staff who ran the network, was getting rich off of it. But the point of such a slush fund is not just to get rich (although that's certainly part of it) - it's also to feed the political machine.

Russian oil, sweatshop labor, Indian casino, big tobacco, and political committee money goes in... and where does it go?

First, there are the general expenses of running a political machine. It financed attack ads against Democrats, paid for the townhouse used by Ed Buckham's lobbying firm and Tom DeLay's PAC (which in turn spread money to Republican congressional candidates throughout the country), and helped pay for Abramoff's skyboxes.

And then there's just straightforward personal enrichment. $1 million to Buckham and his wife, his travel costs, a Salvador Dali print, etc.

Jack Abramoff had a handful of these types of organizations (Capital Athletic Foundation, Grassroots Interactive, Eshkol Religious Academy, Toward Tradition, and the American International Center), but it seems to me that none of them were quite as successful as the U.S. Family Network. And all of them were formed later - which makes me wonder if the U.S. Family Network was his inspiration.

Here's the graphic. Enjoy.

"The systems that exist right now wouldn't be able to handle it."

That's what current Citizenship and Immigration Services director Emilio Gonzalez said of President Bush's proposed temporary guest worker program.

He said it last October, before he was confirmed as CIS head. Now he's got a different line -- something out of George Bush's old cheerleading days. "Can we do it? Yes we can," he told reporters earlier this month about the administration's proposal.

There are reasons to doubt his new enthusiasm. Many of them came from Michael Maxwell, Gonzalez's former chief of investigations, who became so disgusted by the rampant security problems at CIS that he quit his post and blew the whistle to Congress.

Why would Gonzalez strike back? Maxwell had some pretty startling revelations. Among them:

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DeLay Denied His Concealed Handgun

Well, I for one feel safer. It's against Texas law for an indictee to carry a concealed handgun - so they're taking Tom DeLay's away. (Raw Story)

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Move along people, nothing to see here! Move along now.

By some strange coincidence, Robert Novak had the following item in his column today:

Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff has advised friends that he has no derogatory information about former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and is not implicating him as part of his plea bargain with federal prosecutors.


Funny. Seems like there was plenty of derogatory information in that story today in the Post.

Today's Washington Post story on the U.S. Family Network adds crucial details about how Ed Buckham, Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay worked their money wheel. Go read - but first, keep this in mind.

Ed Buckham, who founded and controlled the U.S. Family Network, was DeLay's chief of staff. He left at the beginning of 1998 to run his own lobbying firm, Alexander Strategy Group - but even then he was widely known to be at DeLay's right hand. He was serving essentially the same function; he'd just privatized his role.

Buckham's business model at Alexander Strategy Group was simple - he provided access to DeLay, something that companies would pay a lot for. And what we've learned is that Jack Abramoff was the first customer in line; in fact, for quite awhile, he was the only customer. It's key to keep that in mind as the Abramoff scandal unfolds: Alexander Strategy really started up as an extension of Abramoff's machine.

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I've been trying to keep up this week with Tom DeLay's various schemes and the details of Gov. Rick Perry's sweet lobbying deal, but it seems like Texas Republicans are always going to be one long step ahead of me. News of further ingenuity from the San Antonio Express News:

Exactly how much did a major political donor give a state official as a gift? According to the Texas Ethics Commission, the public doesn't have a right to know.

State law requires officials to file personal financial disclosure statements including a description of gifts they get in excess of $250.

But the commission, in a case involving a check received by a prominent Republican and trustee of the Employees Retirement System of Texas, has found that describing such a gift simply as "check" is enough. No amount is necessary.

That means the gift could be $251 or any amount over that - whether it's $1,000 or $1 million - in a decision one lawmaker called an "Alice in Wonderland" interpretation.


Genius! Let's see if the trend catches on.

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