Right Wing Watch: In Focus | July 2006 |

Ralph Reed: The Crash of the Choir-Boy Wonder

Religious Right power-broker Ralph Reed’s first bid for elected office crashed and burned on July 18 amid the stench of the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal. Losing in the Georgia Republican primary race for Lt. Governor was a stunning defeat for the man who helped build a GOP majority in Congress and oversaw the rise of the Religious Right’s political power in the 1990s. And it’s an embarrassment for the movement he once led.

Ralph ReedRalph Reed entered politics as a youthful, ambitious right-wing activist in the late 1970’s, eager to root out the rampant “moderation” he found at the University of Georgia.1 Within a decade, he had gone from local right-wing activist to national head of the College Republicans. But he did not stop there; by the late-1980s he was the executive director of the fledgling Christian Coalition, quickly turning it into one of the most effective right-wing political organizations in the country. After a series of setbacks and scandals, Reed left the Christian Coalition in the late 1990’s to found a consulting and public relations firm through which he earned millions of dollars only to become deeply embroiled in a widespread corruption scandal link to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff 2  – a scandal that stopped his transformation from a behind-the-scenes, right-wing operative to respectable Republican candidate is dead in its tracks. 3

Reed’s campaign for Lt. Governor of Georgia was merely the latest manifestation of his decades-long quest to merge his grassroots right-wing political clout with his personal desire for recognition as a member of the Republican establishment. By portraying himself as a “mainstream … conservative” running on a “faith, family, and freedom” platform,4 Reed sought to capitalize upon the network of support he had built over his years in the right-wing trenches while simultaneously downplaying his controversial past. But it was not to be, as the very enthusiasm for hard-nosed and duplicitous tactics that had catapulted him to right-wing political stardom ultimately became his undoing.

Arriving on the campus of the University of Georgia in the fall of 1979, Reed became entranced with right-wing political activism and street theater after witnessing a vitriolic protest in response to the hostage crisis in Iran, where participants chanted “nuke ‘em ‘til they glow,” demanding that Iranian students in the US quit “taking our jobs and go home.”5

Reed soon began to attend College Republican meetings on campus but was nonplussed by the organization’s apparent moderation.  Setting out to counter it, Reed quickly created a network of supporters within the organization and got himself elected president, a position from which he then became the center of ultra-conservative activism on campus. With the College Republicans behind him, Reed threw himself into campus, local and national politics; holding “mock elections” and, at one point, even convincing the University Union to co-sponsor a supposedly nonpartisan event during which Reed and others passed out flyers that made it appear as if the Union was attacking a Democratic senate candidate for failing to appear.[refGang of  Five, p.115-117] Reed eventually apologized to the Union for the “error,” but as Nina Easton explained in her book Gang of Five, “after-the-fact apologies and explanations issued too late to alter the victory that Ralph craved, would become a hallmark of his career – from College Republican shenanigans in the 1980s to the Christian Coalition’s stealth campaigns and biased portrayals of opponent’s political records in the 1990s.” As one of Reed’s political allies would say years later, “[Reed] is completely Machiavellian.  He will do anything to win.”6

In college, Reed was also a columnist for the school newspaper The Red and Black, but was fired after writing a column attacking Mohandas Gandhi as a man who “urged the entire Jewish race to commit collective suicide … and spent his mornings rolling around in bed with naked teen-age girls.”  It was not for spouting these outrageous views that Reed was fired, but rather for the unethical practice of plagiarizing them from an article that had earlier appeared in Commentary magazine.[Gang of  Five, p.131]

When Reed petitioned to join the University of Georgia’s prestigious debating society, his “win at all costs” approach actually got him “blackballed” by members who worried about his enthusiasm for dirty tricks and hard-ball politics and feared that he would attempt to use the organization to further his own political agenda.7 Though he was eventually accepted, the rebuke did not convince him to change his ways, at least when it came to politics.  As Reed was preparing to graduate, he rewrote the organization’s bylaws to allow new members to register up until the day of the vote.  He and his supporters then promised a keg party to more than a hundred “new members” and one-time voters willing to support Reed’s chosen candidate, who handily won the election.  Reed was eventually reprimanded by the national chapter of the College Republicans, but his candidate remained in office (and later conceded that they “ran a dirty election.”) 8

Upon graduating, Reed moved to Washington, DC to join hard-core right-wing activists Grover Norquist and Jack Abramoff, where he even slept upon the latter’s couch, as he joined their quest to both purge the national College Republicans of “in-house dissenters” and “destroy the enemy Left.”9 Some twenty years later, both Reed and Norquist have been closely linked to the corruption scandal surrounding Abramoff.

Working closely with Norquist, Reed helped turn the College Republicans, which had been, since its inception, little more than a party-building organ and farm system for the Republican National Committee, into “a place for hard-core ideologues” which Norquist dominated with Stalin-like control.10 Whereas Norquist was a nose-to-the-grindstone, right-wing revolutionary, Abramoff preferred to use his personal connections and wealth to build relationships with established Republican players, which he then parlayed into his campaign for national chairman of the College Republicans.  Abramoff’s election to the post was assured when his campaign convinced the only challenger, Amy Ridenour (nee Moritz), to drop out in exchange for a promise to make her executive director under Abramoff. But after Abramoff’s election, Norquist decided that she was not loyal enough and her desk went instead to Reed.11 Years later, Ridenour went on to become president of the right-wing National Center for Public Policy Research, which has also been connected to the Abramoff scandal.12

Working at the College Republicans “for the Ambramoff-Norquist-Reed triumvirate,” wrote Easton, “required slavish devotion.”  With Reed serving as Norquist’s acolyte, new recruits were tested for ideological loyalty by being peppered with questions about whether they supported the death penalty for adultery and were required to memorize passages from the movie “Patton” with the word “Democrats” replacing references to “Nazis”:  “The Democrats are the enemy.  Wade into them!  Spill their blood! Shoot them in the belly!”13To Reed and the others, politics was war; a view he seems to have held onto throughout his career.

The College Republicans cultivated close relationships with like-minded up-and-coming House members such as Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich; so much so that their ultimate mission became to get Kemp elected President of the United States and Gingrich Speaker of the House.  Blinded by their ambitious goals and ideological zeal, the College Republicans under Norquist, Reed, and Abramoff had no time for trivial tasks such as bill paying and operating within budget, leading a one-time Republican National Committee deputy director to accuse them of hypocrisy for “spouting the conservative message [when] they don’t even pay their own bills. They were totally, totally irresponsible fiscally.”14

In 1983, Ralph Reed found God. Or rather, as one of his college classmates put it, “He didn’t change his views.  He just found out that God agreed with him.”15 Reed’s newfound faith reportedly compelled him to seek forgiveness for some of his past transgressions and ultimately led to the founding of Students for America (SFA), a spin-off of Young Americans for Freedom that sought to get college-aged evangelicals involved in politics.16

The skills and contacts he had developed during his stint with the College Republicans came in handy as the head of Students for America, an organization which he claimed – just one year after it was founded –consisted of more than “7,000 students on approximately 200 college campuses in 41 states.”17

Reed’s love of political theater and right-wing activism served him well at SFA.  For instance, when he found out that there was a women’s health clinic just down the street from SFA’s headquarters, Reed rented a powder blue Cadillac to serve as a hearse and organized protests and “pray-ins” outside the clinic, even going so far as to picket the home of the doctor who had founded the clinic.18

Reed’s Washington connections were a big draw for SFA, which held training sessions for activists that featured right-wing stalwarts such as Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, Bill Bennett, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Jesse Helms.17

Reed eventually became “burned out” on politics and retreated to Emory University where he obtained a PhD. in American History.20 But he would soon return to right-wing politics as the man behind the newly formed “Christian Coalition.”

The Christian Coalition was born out of Rev. Pat Robertson’s failed 1988 campaign for president.
Though Reed had volunteered for Jack Kemp’s campaign that year, he was seated next to Robertson at a Students for America dinner during the inaugural festivities for the eventual victor, President George H.W. Bush.  Robertson was reportedly so impressed with Reed that he offered him a job running his fledgling organization.  The scandalous fall of televangelists such as Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, along with the decline of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority,” had left a vacuum that Robertson was eager to fill and he set out to do so by turning his campaign supporters and mailing list into a political grassroots powerhouse.21

Reed was initially hired as the “acting executive director” and was in charge of ensuring that the organization lived up to its mission to “reverse the moral decline and encroaching secularism in this country.”[refPeople For the American Way Action Fund, “The Christian Coalition: The Moral Majority of the 1990s,” September 1992] Reed plotted a course designed to create an organization that would have three million members, 350 chapters, and a $10 million budget by the 1992 election.22 After receiving more than $60,000 in “seed money” from the National Republican Senatorial Committee,23 the organization began modestly in a Virginia warehouse, and soon, through a Reed-orchestrated direct mail campaign blasting the National Endowment for the Arts for funding supposedly offensive works, quickly managed to raise more than $80,000.24

With this initial money, Reed focused on building a massive grassroots organization that trained activists across the country on how to draw crowds, hold rallies, and run political campaigns.25 As he was building the Coalition from the ground up, Reed pored over demographic surveys and hit upon the “faith, family, and freedom” platform he continued to use right up through his primary election defeat; a platform that targeted nervous suburbanites with children who were worried about the state of American schools, culture, and morals. Rather than presenting the Christian Coalition as just another right-wing organization seeking to impose its political agenda on America, Reed chose a “totally different kind of marketing”; one that advertised the Christian Coalition as an organization that would stand up for the political, moral, and religious values of average Americans.26

As the organization grew, Reed sought to navigate the fine line between catering to Robertson’s and the Coalition’s hard-core right-wing base and the less-radical baby-boomer conservatives he hoped to reach.  It would be a balance he would struggle to maintain throughout his time at the Christian Coalition. And even as he hoped to reach out to a wider audience, Reed could not let go of the combat mentality that drove his political work, as evidenced by his claims that much of the Coalition’s success was based on “stealth … It’s like guerilla warfare.  If you reveal your location, all it does is allow your opponent to improve his artillery bearings.  It’s better to move quietly, with stealth, under cover of night.”  Elsewhere he stated “I want to be invisible.  I do guerilla warfare.  I paint my face and travel at night.  You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag.”27

Despite a $12 million budget and a quarter-million dues paying members, the Christian Coalition could not successfully help George H.W. Bush win re-election in 1992.  At the time, Reed was preaching to the Coalition that “the first strategy [for success], and in many ways the most important strategy, for evangelicals is secrecy.”28  But the chapters Reed was creating around the country were anything but subtle about their right-wing agendas and quickly began writing party platforms that called for everything from mandatory reporting of AIDS “carriers” to bans on homosexuals in health care, day care and teaching positions.  The Washington state chapter even went so far as to demand US reoccupation of the Panama Canal.29

Reed’s stealth strategy did not work and after Bill Clinton won the election, he, the Coalition, and the rest of the right-wing were forced to shoulder much of the blame – mainly because they had taken over the Republican National Convention and turned it into a prime-time, right-wing pep rally, frightening off many of the voters Reed had been hoping to court.30

Reed’s goal of making the Religious Right a key part of the Republican mainstream had failed, at least temporarily, and the loss prompted Reed to contemplate getting out of politics all together.  But such thoughts were fleeting, because when President Clinton attempted to lift the ban on gays serving in the US military, Reed sensed an opportunity and pounced.  Via Robertson’s “700 Club” broadcast, Reed orchestrated a flurry of opposition to the move, generating so many calls that they managed to jam the Capitol Hill switchboard.31 Reed had managed to politically and powerfully mobilize the right-wing grassroots by exploiting Robertson’s reach into the homes of evangelicals and was quickly back in the game.

Yet he still maintained his hopes of “casting a wider net,” to quote the title of one of his own articles, beyond the Coalition’s right-wing, evangelical base.32 But that proved difficult with Robertson publicly making statements such as “the feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.”29

With the mid-term elections in 1994, the Christian Coalition was revitalized and back at work, helping to elect right-wing candidates to Congress.  The Republican take-over prompted Reed to boast that the election “signaled our political arrival.” 23 Yet the Coalition’s election work was so blatantly political that it led to an investigation by the Federal Election Commission.  As a tax-exempt organization, it was illegal for the Coalition to engage in express political advocacy, yet the organization had distributed more than 30 million voters’ guides that distorted candidates’ positions in a manner that inevitably benefited Republican candidates.35 Because of this and other political activities, the organization was finally stripped of its tax-exempt status by the IRS in 1999.36

After the “Republican Revolution” in 1994, Reed closely aligned the Coalition’s agenda with that of the right-wing Republicans who had just captured control of the House of Representatives, even introducing his own “Contract With the American Family” that echoed the Republicans’ “Contract With America.”37 After the election, Reed stated that passage of a school prayer amendment was “not our top priority,” but when Reed appeared, flanked by a mass of high-ranking Republican leaders, at a press conference unveiling the “Contract With the American Family,” the prayer amendment was listed as its “top priority.”29 For Reed, the election signaled that “we have finally gained what we have always sought: a place at the table.”39

Still, Reed was growing worried that the Right had allowed itself to become defined and, in his words, “ghettoized by a narrow band of issues like abortion, homosexual rights and prayer in school” that hampered its ability to become a mainstream force.  To counter this “ghettoization,” Reed set out to broaden the Coalition’s agenda to include issues like health care.  Thus, when President Clinton announced his health care plan, Reed unleashed the Coalition’s most expensive grassroots campaign ever.  The organization spent $1.4 million opposing the plan by focusing primarily on its supposed ramifications for abortion, homosexual rights, and sex education, with Reed warning at one point that it was nothing but “a Trojan Horse for a not-so-hidden agenda to …promote a radical social agenda.”29

Just as Reed worked to put the Coalition’s muscle behind the Republican leadership’s agenda, he likewise continued his efforts to make the organization a key player within the Republican Party and, in 1996, turned the Coalition into a driving force behind Sen. Bob Dole’s presidential campaign. The more moderate Dole was not the Right’s first choice – that honor went to ideologue Pat Buchanan, who managed to place second in the Iowa Republican primary and win the primary in New Hampshire.  It was at that point that Reed pulled out all the stops and delivered South Carolina, and the nomination, to Dole.41  But it came at a price.

While Reed was being hailed in the mainstream press as a political wunderkind, the Coalition’s right-wing base was growing increasingly uneasy with Reed’s willingness to soften its positions on controversial social issues, especially abortion, in exchange for political power and a place at the Republican table.  After Reed refused to criticize Colin Powell’s support for abortion rights, other right-wing leaders like James Dobson publicly lashed out at him, asking “is power the motivator of this great crusade?” and warning him not to give in to the “temptation … to bend to the pressures of pragmatism and personal ambition.”42  When he wrote a book in which he seemed to distance himself from calls for a “human life amendment,” he was likewise pilloried and told he “no longer represents those … who feel very strongly about family values and life.”  Reed issued an “urgent statement” stating that the Coalition “opposed abortion in every case except when a mother’s life is in danger” and would “oppose with every fiber of our being any effort to include a rape and incest exception in the [Republican National Committee’s] platform.” 43 But the damage had been done.  And when Bob Dole lost the election, much of the Coalition’s clout evaporated again.

But Reed soldiered on. In 1996, in an attempt to reach out to religious African American voters and bring them into the right wing movement, Reed announced that the Coalition was going to raise one million dollars to help rebuild black churches in the South that had been destroyed in a series of fire bombings.  What had initially been planned as a one-day fundraising event ended up taking seven months.  Similarly, Reed announced in 1997 the creation of the Samaritan Project, “A bold plan to break the color line and bridge the gap that separates white evangelicals and Roman Catholics from their Latino and African American brothers and sisters.” Reed pledged that the Coalition would raise $10 million for inner city churches, but less than a year later the project was abandoned after raising less than $50,000.44

Around the same time, a scandal erupted within the organization over allegations by the Coalition’s chief financial officer that the organization’s direct-mail vendor, run by one of Reed’s close friends and business associates, had been routinely over-billing the organization to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.  She also alleged that Reed had turned over the Coalition’s mailing list, valued at nearly a million dollars, to the vendor free of charge.  When the CFO took her concerns to the US Attorney’s office, she was suspended by the Coalition and eventually fired.  Reed denied the allegations, but after his departure from the organization, the Coalition filed suit claiming that its mailing list had been fraudulently obtained and used by the vendor to solicit donations for other organizations.45

After Reed’s 1997 exit, the Christian Coalition continued to deteriorate and, by 1999, found itself $2.5 million in debt, as well as facing the repayment of back taxes after having had its tax-exempt status revoked and fines for having improperly supported Newt Gingrich’s election and sharing its mailing list with right-wing Senate candidate Oliver North.46

The Coalition moved its headquarters to Washington, DC in 2000 and just a few months later was sued by 10 black employees who alleged that they had been forced to eat in a segregated section and enter the office through the back door. The Coalition settled the suit for a reported $300,000 and its decline continued.  Revenue shrank from a high of $26 million in 1996 to just $1.3 million in 2004 and the organization soon found itself facing lawsuits from landlords, lawyers, and clients for failure to pay its bills.  In 2002, nearly broke and in shambles, the organization was forced to relocate to South Carolina, and was even sued by its moving company as it tried to collect $1,890 on an unpaid bill.47

While the Christian Coalition crumbled, Reed was off raking in hefty consulting fees from some of the most successful and influential corporations in the nation.

After leaving the Christian Coalition, Reed founded Century Strategies, a “public relations and public affairs firm with offices in Atlanta and Washington,”48 but his political consulting business got off to an inauspicious start.  In 1998, only 50 percent of Reed’s clients had won their election races, and that figure was only derived by counting a number of clients that Reed would not identify.49 In fact, “just about every one of his publicly known clients who faced an even remotely competitive opponent went down to defeat.” Reed’s candidates were often reduced to relying on outrageous, last-minute attacks, such as running an ad featuring an actor resembling one candidate’s opponent shuffling down a hallway in a psychiatric hospital clad in a tattered bathrobe.50

Despite these political setbacks, Reed served as an advisor to the Bush campaign in 200051 and stepped up to play a key role during the Republican primary in South Carolina.  After then-Governor George W. Bush lost the New Hampshire primary to Sen. John McCain by nearly twenty points, Reed went to work targeting evangelical voters in South Carolina, just as he had done for Bob Dole four years earlier. Relying on a network of grassroots activists and radio ads, Reed orchestrated a campaign that launched some 400,000 phone calls and mailings attacking McCain on everything from abortion to campaign finance reform.52 Bush won the state handily. 53

Reed went on to become chairman of the Georgia Republican Party in 2002 and served as the Southeast director for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004. But in between his high-profile election work, Reed was busy building his consulting business. Shortly after starting Century Strategies, Reed wrote to his long-time friend, Jack Abramoff, of his “need to start humping in corporate accounts” saying “I’m counting on you to help me with some contacts.” 54

Reed eventually landed contracts, thanks to Karl Rove, with the likes of Enron, which paid Reed in excess of $300,000 for work on energy deregulation before it went bankrupt.55 But it was through his personal ties to Abramoff that Reed eventually earned millions of dollars and found himself implicated in one of the largest corruption scandals in recent history.
Jack Abramoff and his business partner, public affairs specialist Michael Scanlon, are at the center of a complex, multi-million dollar scandal that involves several high-ranking government officials and members of Congress.  Scanlon has already pled guilty to conspiring to bribe public officials,56 while Abramoff has pled guilty to conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud.57 Both of these guilty pleas came from cases unrelated to their work with Reed, which is still under investigation.

As part of their “business strategy,” Abramoff and Scanlon worked together to rake in more than $80 million in lobbying and public relations fees from six Indian tribes over a three year period.  Abramoff, a lobbyist, was required by law to disclose his clients and fees, whereas Scanlon, a former press secretary for Rep. Tom DeLay, was merely a “public affairs strategist” and not required to make any such disclosures.  Together, the two developed a system, nicknames “Gimme Five,” whereby Abramoff would get hired by a tribe and urge them to hire Scanlon’s firm to handle PR at a cost of millions of dollars.58 The money paid to Scanlon was then funneled through a series of fraudulent foundations and think tanks, including one that operated out of the basement of a beach house in Delaware and was run by two of Scanlon’s childhood friends; one a lifeguard, the other a former yoga instructor.59 The money would then be sent back to Scanlon and split between him and Abramoff.58

But in some cases, the money was passed on to others – such as Ralph Reed.  Given Reed’s close personal ties to Abramoff and his position as the head of an influential “public affairs firm,” it seems only natural that Scanoln and Abramoff would turn to Reed when they needed the right-wing base ginned up in order to help their casino-owning clients – in Scanlon’s words, to “bring out the wackos to vote against something.”61

For his part, Abramoff dismissed his Indian clients as “morons,” “monkeys,” and “troglodytes” in widely publicized emails to Scanlon62 and was primarily concerned with getting his “mitts on [their] moolah.”63 But in order to do that, he needed to show the tribes that he could actually deliver something in exchange for the millions he and Scanlon were being paid.

Beginning in 1999, Reed, who had once called gambling “a cancer on the American body politic,” was hired by Abramoff on more than one occasion to employ his expertise in mobilizing the right-wing grassroots to help shut down gambling initiatives that threatened the interests of Abramoff’s casino-owning clients.

In 1999, Abramoff subcontracted Reed’s firm to generate opposition to attempts to legalize a state-sponsored lottery and video poker in Alabama, an effort that was bankrolled by the Choctaw Tribe in order to eliminate competition to its own casino in neighboring Mississippi.64  Reed promised that Century Strategies was “opening the bomb bays and holding nothing back” and his firm ultimately received $1.3 million from the Choctaws for this effort, which included engaging the Alabama chapter of the Christian Coalition, as well as influential right-wing figures such as James Dobson, to work to defeat the proposals.[Ibid]
The strategy had one small problem: the Alabama Christian Coalition had an explicit policy that it “will not be the recipient of any funds direct or in-direct or any in-kind direct or indirect from gambling interests.” (Emphasis in original.)65  Knowing this, Reed and Abramoff worked to hide the source of the $850,000 paid to the Christian Coalition for its anti-gambling efforts by funneling money from the Choctaws through Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington, DC anti-tax organization headed by their old College Republican friend Grover Norquist.66 When asked why the tribe’s money had to be funneled through conduits such as ATR, a Choctaw representative stated it was because Reed did not want it known that casino money was funding his operation: “It was our understanding that the structure was recommended by Jack Abramoff to accommodate Mr. Reed’s political concerns.”67

Nonetheless, Reed repeatedly assured the Christian Coalition that the funding for its work was not coming from gambling interests.  This was technically true as the Choctaws were paying for it out of their non-gambling revenue, though their objective was obviously to protect their own gambling interests and revenue.68  According to emails obtained during a Senate investigation into Abramoff’s activities and reported in the media, Reed was well aware of who was paying for this anti-gambling effort.  When the information began to surface in the press and the Christian Coalition learned of the source of the $850,000 it had received, it demanded an explanation from Reed who apologized in a letter saying he should have “explained that the contributions came from the Choctaws,”50 this admitting that he had been fully aware of the source of the funding. But by the time Reed offered his “after-the-fact apology,” the gambling initiative had been defeated and the Christian Coalition had been duped.70

When word of Reed’s work for Abramoff first broke, Reed claimed that he had “no direct knowledge of [Abramoff’s lobbying firm’s] clients or their interests.”71 But according to the report recently released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Abramoff’s bilking of the tribes, Reed was informed by Abramoff as early as 1999 that the money that was funding his anti-gambling operations was coming from the casino-owning Choctaw tribe.

The report published an email Abramoff sent to Reed instructing him to “page me with a page of no more than 90 words … informing me of your completion of the budget and giving me a total budget figure with category breakdowns. Once I get this, I will call Nell [Rodgers] at Choctaw and get it approved.” A subsequent email to Reed asked him to send “invoices as soon as possible so I can get Choctaw to get us checks asap.”72

Thus, Reed was clearly aware that the funding for his anti-gambling work was coming from the Choctaw and that he was indirectly working to protect the tribe’s multi-million dollar gambling interests.    Despite the repeated references to the Choctaw in Abramoff’s emails, Reed continued to publicly insist that he did not know the source of the funding.73

n 2000, Abramoff was hired by eLottery, an online gambling services company, to fight the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act.  The legislation was designed to make it easier to stop online gambling and appeared headed for easy passage, at least until Abramoff and Reed went to work.  Abramoff seized on language in the bill that exempted jai alai and horse racing and worked to portray the bill, because of these exemptions, as actually expanding legalized gambling.74

Abramoff instructed eLottery, just as he had with the Choctaw Tribe, to send money to Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform; only this time, the money went from Norquist to a small right-wing group in Virginia called the Faith and Family Alliance before finally ending up at Century Strategies.50

The money went to the Faith and Family Alliance at Reed’s insistence.  The organization had been set up by two of Reed’s colleagues and was headed by a former Regent University Law student who is now serving a seven-year term in prison for soliciting sex with minors.  Prior to his incarceration, he acted as a “shell” for the eLottery money, telling the Washington Post that Century Strategies had called him and told him to expect a package from Americans for Tax Reform.  When the package arrived, it contained a check for $150,000, which he was instructed to deposit and then write a check for the same amount to Century Strategies.50

Abramoff was also working closely with Tony Rudy, then a senior aide to Rep. Tom DeLay, and Rev. Lou Sheldon of the right-wing Traditional Values Coalition.  Thanks to the combination of Rudy’s inside access and Sheldon’s outside agitation, the bill failed to get the requisite number of votes on the House floor, much to the bafflement of its many anti-gambling supporters.50

While Abramoff and his eLottery clients were ecstatic, many on the right, such as James Dobson and the Christian Coalition, were outraged and the bill’s supporters went to work to bring it up for another vote.  To fight this new effort, Abramoff instructed eLottery to send another $150,000 to American Marketing Inc. because “This is the company Ralph is using.”  A few weeks later, a mailer was issued by the Traditional Values Coalition attacking Rep. Robert Aderholt, a vocal opponent of gambling, for having initially cast his vote in favor of the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act or, in the twisted words of Abramoff’s scheme, “in support [of a bill] the gamblers want on horse and dog racing.”   The bulk rate stamp on the mailing stated that it had been paid for by American Marketing, and though Reed’s spokesperson insists that the American Marketing responsible for the mailing was “a different company,” the Washington Post reports that “records show that the company is run by … the president of Reed’s direct-marketing subsidiary.” 50 The anti-gambling bill never came up for another vote.

Reed claimed that he was unaware that his work for Abramoff was being done on behalf of eLottery and didn’t even learn of it until 2005, but emails obtained by The Atlanta Journal Constitution show that he was told of “the elot project” as early as 2000. In early 2001, after the eLottery project had succeeded, Reed even mentioned the company by name in an email to Abramoff about the White House’s choice for “technology czar,” teasing him to “Tell your elottery friends that the next czar will be an anti-gambling [Pentecostal] Christian whose main interest in life is banning smut from the Internet.”79

In 2001, Reed was involved in another Abramoff-driven effort to fight a loosening of restrictions on riverboat gambling in Louisiana, which would increase competition to a casino operated by the Coushatta tribe in that state.  Again, the funding for Reed’s operation was funneled through a third party because, according to the tribe’s former vice-chairman, “it wouldn’t look good if [he’s] receiving money from a casino-operating tribe to oppose gambling.  It would be kind of like hypocritical.”80 This time around Reed sought to help protect the Coushattas‘ gambling interests by reaching out to Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Tony Perkins, then a state representative who now heads the Family Research Council.81  While Perkins lobbied his colleagues in the legislature, Reed launched a phone-banking operation that targeted tens of thousands of Louisianans with calls from Robertson and Falwell opposing the bill.  When the bill went down in defeat, Reed received an ecstatic email from Abramoff reading “You are the greatest!!!”50

The following year, Reed again worked with Abramoff to fight a proposed casino to be operated by the Jena Band of Choctaws in Louisiana that threatened the interests of Louisiana’s Coushatta tribe.83Again Reed tapped into his network of right-wing leaders to oppose the effort, getting the American Family Association, the Eagle Forum, American Values and Focus on the Family to besiege Interior Secretary Gale Norton with opposition to the casino.81

The involvement of Focus on the Family’s James Dobson was, according to Abramoff’s emails, an especially important accomplishment.  The Jena Tribe had reportedly hired former RNC chairman Haley Barbour to lobby on its behalf, and Reed worked to get Dobson to publicly attack Barbour on his daily radio program heard by millions.  Abramoff was thrilled, writing to Reed: “Let me know when Dobson hits him. I want to savor it.” He also e-mailed Scanlon, “[Dobson] is going to hit Haley by name! He is going to encourage people to call Norton and the [White House]. This is going to get fun.”50 Though Reed took credit for this coup, Focus on the Family insists that it became active on the issue at the request of the Louisiana Family Forum and that FOF’s involvement was, according to World Magazine, limited to recording “a segment for a state-only broadcast, and FOTF did so, with Rep. Perkins appearing in a February 2002 ‘drop-in’ on FOTF’s radio program and urging listeners to contact Secretary Norton to oppose the casino.”86

Reed also worked with then-Representative David Vitter of Louisiana, reporting to Abramoff that Vitter was “feeling the love” and was also contacting Norton in opposition to the casino.  In turn, Reed’s misleadingly named Committee Against Gambling Expansion mailed out thousands of postcards to voters praising Vitter’s stand and gave Vitter permission to use the organization’s name in his own phone-banking efforts.  The increased profile Vitter obtained from taking on the gambling issue helped him win election to the US Senate in 2004.83

Perhaps the most audacious of all of Abramoff’s efforts on which Reed worked was the successful attempt on behalf of the Coushatta Tribe to shut down a rival casino in Texas.  After doing so, Abramoff then sold his lobbying services for $4 million to the same Texas tribe – the Tiguas – vowing to reopen the very casino he had just managed to shut down.88

Reed was instrumental in the initial effort, building public support for then-Texas Attorney General, now a US Senator, John Cornyn’s drive to close the casino.  Reed organized a group of Texas pastors to “provide cover” for Cornyn’s effort to shutter the casino, at one point pledging to send “50 pastors to give him moral support” when it appeared as if Cornyn was going to be confronted by protestors.89

Reed also developed close ties with sources in Cornyn’s office who kept him informed on developments, which he shared with Abramoff.  When Reed found out from Cornyn’s office that a court decision shutting down the casino was expected soon, he emailed Abramoff.  Thinking ahead, Abramoff was already preparing to fly to Texas to meet with the tribe whose casino was about to be closed thanks, in large part, to his handiwork.  In an email he sent to Reed just before his trip, he wrote “I wish those moronic Tiguas were smarter in their political contributions. I’d love to get my hands on that moolah!! Oh well, stupid folks get wiped out.”50

Just days after the Tigua’s casino was closed, Abramoff met with them and offered to work to reopen the casino at no charge, though Scanlon’s PR work was going to cost them more than $4 million.  Abramoff declared himself outraged by the “gross indignity perpetuated by the Texas state authorities” – an “indignity” that he had helped orchestrate and for which he had been well paid. 88

Abramoff sold the Tiguas a plan where he would get the law that had shut their casino amended by using his Capitol Hill connections to slip language into an entirely unrelated bill, the Help America Vote Act, then working its way through Congress.  Abramoff reportedly got Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) to agree to insert the language, after which Abramoff instructed the Tiguas to make $300,000 worth of political donations to political action committees controlled by Republican Reps. Tom DeLay, Roy Blunt, and Ney.89

The plan was doomed to failure as Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) refused to insert the language into the Senate version of the bill, but that did not stop Abramoff from attempting to get the Tiguas to fork over $50,000 to pay for a golfing trip to St. Andrews Scotland for himself, Scanlon, Ney, and Reed.  The tribe declined, but Abramoff managed to set up a meeting two months later between Ney and the tribe, which still held out hope of getting its casino reopened.  But it was not to be, as the language was never included in the bill. The Tiguas were out $4 million, their $60 million in annual revenue was gone, their casino remained closed and nearly every one of its 1000 employees had lost their medical insurance, retirement programs and jobs.93

Reed himself came under investigation for his Abramoff-related work in Texas for failing to register as a lobbyist with the Texas Ethics Commission as required by law, but the case was dropped because the two-year statute of limitations had expired.94

With news about the Abramoff scandal severely damaging Reed’s campaign for Lieutenant Governor, he insisted that he was not aware that his anti-gambling activities were being funded by competing gambling interests or the extent of Abramoff’s corruption. The latter may be true, but the former has been proven demonstrably false.  Emails that have emerged from the investigation of Abramoff’s lucrative lobbying business have made it clear that Reed was fully aware that his anti-gambling activities were being bankrolled by casino-owning tribes and that his work fighting the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act in 2000 was being funded by eLottery.

The Reed campaign’s insistence, despite evidence to the contrary, that he “did not know who [Abramoff’s] specific clients were or their specific interests”95 ultimately did serious damage to his campaign, at one point reducing him to offering to cover the entrance fee and hotel costs in an attempt to get his supporters to attend the Georgia Christian Coalition’s annual conference.[refJim Galloway, “Reed Drums Up Crowd for Evangelical Event,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,” January 21, 2006] It didn’t help that Reed was sued in a high profile Abramoff-related lawsuit just a week before his primary.96

Reed’s ambition, his right-wing ideology, and his willingness to use dirty tricks to further his own personal and political agenda have been in evidence ever since he first became involved in politics.  From his days as a right-wing rabble-rouser on the campus of the University of Georgia, through his years at the College Republicans and Christian Coalition, and on into his consulting business, Reed has tried to balance his history of operating as a right-wing “guerilla” who leaves his enemies in rhetorical body bags with his preferred image of himself as a moderate, family-friendly Republican.

One of the most audacious elements of that public relations strategy was his 1996 book, Active Faith, which brought him a lot of attention for his call for more civility in politics. Reed wrote that “politics is a contact sport. I have a job to do, and it involves trying to advance my agenda.  In that combat, I play hard and I try to win.  But I never hit below the belt, I play according to the rules of fairness and courtesy.”97  Of course, at the time, he was running the Christian Coalition, and his boss Pat Robertson was on the air every day violating this principle.  And all evidence is that  when push comes to shove and money or power are on the line, Reed tends to default to what he knows best: right-wing zealotry and political dirty tricks.

It did not bode well for Reed when it was revealed that admitted felon Abramoff wrote to Scanlon, his partner in crime, to complain about Reed’s business practices, grumbling that he “is a bad version of us! No more money for him.”54

That probably didn’t sit well with Reed’s church-going base, who may have found his hypocrisy too much to take.  Or maybe a lot of potential supporters made the hard political calculation – backed by polls – that Reed’s presence on the ticket would have been a drag on the GOP’s chances of holding on to the governorship.99

Either way, Reed’s willful participation in Abramoff’s schemes, coupled with his refusal to own up to his role, meant that it would have taken a minor miracle for him to have escaped the scandal unscathed – a miracle that even the man dubbed “The Right Hand of God” ultimately couldn’t pull off.  Of course, Reed is still young.  And American politics is full of redemption stories. No doubt Reed is already writing his.

  1. Nina Easton, Gang of Five: Leaders at the Center of the Conservative Crusade, Simon and Schuster, Copyright 2000, p.114
  2. Matthew Continetti , “A Decade of Reed,” The Weekly Standard, June 27, 2005
  3. Shaila Dewan, “Ralph Reed Loses Georgia Primary Race,” The New York Times, July 19, 2006
  4. Remarks Delivered to TeenPact, December 9, 2005
  5. Gang of  Five, p.113
  6. Gang of  Five, p.117
  7. Gang of  Five, p.125
  8. Gang of  Five, p.130
  9. Gang of Five, p.135
  10. Gang of Five, p.138
  11. Gang of Five, p.140
  12. R. Jeffrey Smith, “DeLay Airfare Was Charged To Lobbyist’s Credit Card,” The Washington Post,  April 24, 2005
  13. Gang of Five, p.143
  14. Gang of Five, p.145
  15. Gang of Five, p.200
  16. Gang of Five, p.202-203
  17. Gang of Five, p.204
  18. Gang of Five, p.205
  19. Gang of Five, p.204
  20. Ralph Reed for Lt. Governor, Biography, http://www.ralphreed.com/v2/biography.asp
  21. Gang of Five, pp.208-210
  22. Gang of Five, p.210
  23. Weekly Standard, “A Decade of Reed,” June 27, 2005
  24. Gang of Five, p.213
  25. Gang of Five, p.214-215
  26. Gang of Five, p.216-218
  27. People For the American Way Action Fund, “The Christian Coalition: The Moral Majority of the 1990s,” September 1992
  28. People for the American Way, “The Christian Coalition After Ralph Reed,” September 1997
  29. People For the American Way, “The Two Faces of the Christian Coalition,” September 1995
  30. Gang of Five, pp.241-248
  31. Gang of Five, pp.253
  32. Gang of Five, p.257
  33. People For the American Way, “The Two Faces of the Christian Coalition,” September 1995
  34. Weekly Standard, “A Decade of Reed,” June 27, 2005
  35. People For the American Way, “Breaking the Rules: The Christian Coalition and Elections,” August 1996
  36. Thomas B. Edsall and Hanna Rosin, “IRS Denies Christian Coalition Tax-Exempt Status,” The Washington Post, June 11, 1999
  37. Gang of Five, p.286
  38. People For the American Way, “The Two Faces of the Christian Coalition,” September 1995
  39. Rob Boston, “King of the Hill?,” Church & State, June 1995
  40. People For the American Way, “The Two Faces of the Christian Coalition,” September 1995
  41. Gang of Five, pp.346-347
  42. Gang of Five, p. 348
  43. Gang of Five, p. 351
  44. Gang of Five, p. 326-329
  45. Gang of Five, p. 386-387
  46. Gang of Five, p. 389
  47. Bill Sizemore, “Once Powerful Christian Coalition Teeters on Insolvency,” Virginia Pilot, October 8, 2005
  48. Century Strategies, “Our Team – Ralph E. Reed, Jr.” http://www.censtrat.com/index.cfm?FuseAction=Team.View&Biography_id=1
  49. Joshua Micah Marshall, “The Firewall Next Time,” The American Prospect, January 31, 2000
  50. Ibid
  51. Joe Stephens, “Bush 2000 Adviser Offered To Use Clout to Help Enron,” The Washington Post, February 17, 2002
  52. Paul West, “Bush Battles to Key Victory in S.C. Vote,” The Baltimore Sun, February 20, 2000; “Second Coming,” The Atlantic Monthly, April 2004
  53. The hardball tactics followed the campaign to Michigan, where Pat Robertson delivered an automated phone message to Republican voters attacking McCain for having on his staff “a vicious bigot who wrote that conservative Christians in politics are anti-abortion zealots, homophobes and would-be censors” and urged voters to “protect unborn babies and restore religious freedom once again in America.” Reed denied any involvement — David Espo, “In Message to Voters, Robertson Attacks McCain Official,” Associated Press, February 22, 2000, Keith Bradsher & Gustav Niebuhr, “After Loss in New Hampshire, Bush Gets Push From the Right,” The New York Times, February 22, 2000
  54. Thomas B. Edsall, “In Ga., Abramoff Scandal Threatens a Political Ascendancy,” The Washington Post, January 16, 2006
  55. Jack Newfield, “Ralph Reed’s Gamble,” The Nation, July 12, 2004
  56. Pete Yost, “Ex-DeLay Aide Pleads Guilty in Conspiracy,” Associated Press, November 21, 2005
  57. Associated Press, “Abramoff pleads guilty in corruption case,” January 3, 2006
  58. Andrew Ferguson, “A Lobbyist’s Progress,” The Weekly Standard, December 20, 2004
  59. Dana Milbank, “One Committee’s Three Hours of Inquiry, in Surreal Time,” The Washington Post, June 23, 2005
  60. Andrew Ferguson, “A Lobbyist’s Progress,” The Weekly Standard, December 20, 2004
  61. Jamie Dean, “House of Cards,” World Magazine, January 14, 2006
  62. Peter Whoriskey, “A Tribe Takes Grim Satisfaction in Abramoff’s Fall,” The Washington Post, January 7, 2006
  63. Susan Schmidt,  “Insiders Worked Both Sides of Gaming Issue,” The Washington Post, September 26, 2004
  64. Alan Judd, “Reed E-mail Upset Anti-Gambling Allies,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 26, 2005
  65. Christian Coalition of Alabama, Internal Investigation Regarding Contributions from Americans for Tax Reform conducted by Bopp, Coleson & Bostrom,  June 29, 2005
  66. Jim Galloway, “E-mails: Reed Knew Tribal Money Funded Anti-Gambling Campaigns,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 23, 2005
  67. Committee on Indian Affairs, “Gimme Five: Investigation of Tribal Lobbying Matters,” June 22, 2006, p.30
  68. Michael Kranish, “Reed is Linked to a Casino Donation,” The Boston Globe, July 6, 2005
  69. Ibid
  70. “After-the-fact apologies and explanations issued too late to alter the victory that Ralph craved, would become a hallmark of his career” – see Endnote 6
  71. Associated Press, “Ralph Reed Firm Works With Gambling Lobby,” August 31, 2004
  72. Committee on Indian Affairs, “Gimme Five: Investigation of Tribal Lobbying Matters,” June 22, 2006, p.25
  73. Susan Schmidt and James Grimaldi, “Nonprofit Groups Funneled Money For Abramoff,” The Washington Post, June 25, 2006
  74. Susan Schmidt and James Grimaldi, “How a Lobbyist Stacked the Deck,” The Washington Post, October 16, 2005
  75. Ibid
  76. Ibid
  77. Ibid
  78. Ibid
  79. Jim Galloway, “E-mails Undermine Reed Claim,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 4, 2006
  80. Committee on Indian Affairs, “Gimme Five: Investigation of Tribal Lobbying Matters,” June 22, 2006, p.56
  81. Max Blumenthal, “Abramoff’s Evangelical Soldiers,” The Nation, February 20, 2006
  82. Ibid
  83. Susan Schmidt, “Casino Bid Prompted High-Stakes Lobbying,” The Washington Post, March 13, 2005
  84. Max Blumenthal, “Abramoff’s Evangelical Soldiers,” The Nation, February 20, 2006
  85. Ibid
  86. Jamie Dean and Marvin Olasky, “Ideologue for Hire,” World Magazine, July 1, 2006
  87. Susan Schmidt, “Casino Bid Prompted High-Stakes Lobbying,” The Washington Post, March 13, 2005
  88. Susan Schmidt, “Insiders Worked Both Sides of the Game,” The Washington Post, September 26, 2004
  89. Lou Dubose, “No Picnic at Speaking Rock,” The Texas Observer, December 17, 2004
  90. Ibid
  91. Susan Schmidt, “Insiders Worked Both Sides of the Game,” The Washington Post, September 26, 2004
  92. Lou Dubose, “No Picnic at Speaking Rock,” The Texas Observer, December 17, 2004
  93. Josephine Hearn, “Rep. Ney says he was ‘duped’ by Abramoff,” The Hill, November 18, 2004, Fox Butterfield, “For a Tribe in Texas, an Era of Prosperity Undone by Politics,” The New York Times, June 13, 2005
  94. Associated Press, “Prosecutors Conclude Reed Investigation,” March 27, 2006
  95. David Kirkpatrick & Philip Shenon, “Ralph Reed’s Zeal for Lobbying is Shaking His Political Faithful,” The New York Times, April 18, 2005
  96. Rick Lyman., “Abramoff and 4 Others Sued by Tribe Over Casino Closing,” The New York Times, 7/13/06
  97. Ralph Reed, Active Faith: How Christians are Changing the Soul of American Politics, Simon & Schuster, Copyright 1996, p.24
  98. Thomas B. Edsall, “In Ga., Abramoff Scandal Threatens a Political Ascendancy,” The Washington Post, January 16, 2006
  99. Tom Baxter and Jim Galloway, “Political Insider: Legislature 2006: Poll: Reed a drag on GOP ticket,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 22, 2006