The New York Times’ Carl Hulse wrote Friday:
Jack Abramoff must have been one heck of a lobbyist. He has not set foot on Capitol Hill in years yet is still a major player in everyday Congressional life…
Jack isn’t back – he never left. The staying power of the Abramoff corruption case that contributed to the downfall of Congressional Republicans and continues to tarnish the party’s name is impressive by any standard. There is evidently more to come.
“I don’t think the Justice Department is finished,” said Representative Henry Waxman, Democrat of California and chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “I think they are still looking into different aspects of it.”
Mr. Waxman added to the Abramoff canon this week with a report that documented the extent of the lobbyist’s relationship with the White House, a connection the White House has taken pains to minimize…
Segueing into the particular Abramoff angle we’ve been discussing for months in Colorado, Hulse continues:
The White House is not the only Republican entity suffering from Abramoff fatigue. Various Republican candidates with an Abramoff skeleton in their closet are being forced to explain actions of years past as they campaign.
In Colorado, former House member Bob Schaffer, the Republican candidate for Senate, has been under scrutiny for his 1999 Congressional trip to the Marianna Islands, a favored client of Mr. Abramoff. It was also a favored cause of former Republican leader Tom DeLay, whose connections to Mr. Abramoff were the original key to his rise. An ad by an independent group showed Mr. Schaffer preparing to go parasailing while traveling on the dime of an interest group tied to Mr. Abramoff. Mr. Schaffer has said he did not even know Mr. Abramoff.
Of the several problematic incidents in Bob Schaffer’s past that have come to light since he announced his candidacy, the Abramoff/Marianas scandal has unquestionably emerged as the one with the most traction: apart from some local deferential coverage this race has received, it’s practically always mentioned negatively when Schaffer is. Jack Abramoff doesn’t even need to be invoked by name anymore for people to get it, as we saw with Washington Post blogger Chris Cillizza’s latest Senate Line:
Schaffer has been forced back on his heels for much of this race — bouncing from slip up to scandal — and yet Udall hasn’t been able pull away.
It’s a question worth asking: for all the well-publicized bumbling mistakes the Schaffer campaign has made, and repeated brushes with major national scandals, why doesn’t opponent Mark Udall have a bigger lead? Part of the answer lies, as Cillizza noted later, in Colorado’s (dwindling) GOP plurality in voter registration.
It can also be argued that Udall hasn’t been as active as he might/should be in establishing his statewide brand, since most of what he’s seen the need to do heretofore has involved keeping out of the way while Schaffer self-immolates.
We see another component: more than two months after the original series of Denver Post articles raised their many questions about Schaffer’s role in the Abramoff-engineered lobbying campaign against labor and immigration reforms in the CNMI, a determined rehabilitation effort is underway from his campaign and supporters. We’ve heard the abridged version of Schaffer’s new Marianas talking points several times in the last few weeks, so we were not terribly surprised to see them being comprehensively trotted out at the Post’s own website by their principal right-wing blogger Thursday.
“Gang of Four” blogger Ross Kaminsky posted the first of what he promises will be an “eight-part series” of blog entries deconstructing the Schaffer/Abramoff scandal at Politics West, though he says that “for the time being” the rest of series will be posted at his personal blog, Rossputin.com (likely editorial call).
The type of misleading information and partisan rhetoric used in those “news” stories demands response, not only to the facts of the case but also to the likely source of the Post’s information.
In a series of articles, I shall not only demonstrate the multiple problems with the Denver Post’s stories but I’ll also provide information based on interviews with:
* Bob Schaffer
* A former senior staffer for Bob Schaffer
* Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition
* Benigno Fitial, Governor of the CNMI
* A government official from the CNMI who was involved with many Congressional (and other federal government) visits to the islands, including Schaffer’s visit
* A former Congressional staffer who investigated corruption in the Clinton Administration’s Department of the Interior specifically related to CNMI issue
Problematically, Kaminsky begins by noting that much of the source material for his articles is, well, unsourced:
Because most of the people I’ve interviewed for this series of articles work for government or in jobs where they must interact frequently with government, I will not be disclosing their names even though some of them gave me permission to do so if I felt it to be necessary.
Schaffer supporters may have taken two months to get a (meaningful) response together to the allegations at the core of the Schaffer/Abramoff scandal, but liberal-leaning media watchdogs responded to holes in Kaminsky’s narrative within hours. As Colorado Media Matters noted the next day:
Kaminsky’s list of interviewees did not include [Post reporter Michael] Riley — the author of the articles and the target of his allegations — or any representative of the Post. [Pols emphasis] Kaminsky also did not identify several of his purported sources…
Addressing one element of Riley’s series, Kaminsky claimed regarding Abramoff’s then-law firm that “[t]he only indication of Preston Gates having even a tangential relationship to the trip was that the airline tickets were possibly purchased through their travel agent.”
In making this statement, Kaminsky ignored passages in the Post article that also referred to the appearance of Preston Gates’ clients on Schaffer’s trip itinerary:
Schaffer and his wife stayed for free at a palm-studded beach resort and, besides factories, also toured historical sites and met with clients of Preston-Gates, Abramoff’s firm, according to a copy of the trip’s agenda archived in Schaffer’s congressional papers.
As the Post reported, handwritten notes on the agenda for Schaffer’s trip indicate “that a lunch meeting was with several current or former clients of the firm.” The progressive Colorado blog SquareState.net posted an image of the trip agenda showing an annotation above an August 28 luncheon item that reads: “Preston Gates, D.C. lobbying firm w/91 clients including CNMI (Inactive as of 2/98); Saipan Garment Manufacturers (Inactive as of 2/98); and Western Pacific Economic Council (Active as of 4/99).” Further, Kaminsky did not note that an image of the first page of the agenda shows, contrary to Kaminsky, that travel arrangements for the trip were made through Preston Gates itself…
In the body of his post, Kaminsky later stated, referring to the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), that Riley “trie[d]” to “tie TVC to Abramoff”:
Near the end of the article, Riley admits that TVC paid for the trip and quotes Dick Wadhams (whose late wife, Susan, was Schaffer’s Chief of Staff at the time) who re-emphasizes that “whatever involvement (Abramoff) had with Traditional Values Coalition wasn’t known at the time.” And while Riley then tries to tie TVC to Abramoff, he notes that it was only “later investigations” which made any connection between the two.
However, Kaminsky’s critique omitted that Riley’s article specifically referenced reporting in The Washington Post from 2005 that asserted TVC “acted virtually as a political arm of Abramoff’s lobbying operation…”
It’s odd–and telling–that Kaminsky never bothered to contact the publication he blogs for (and who wrote the stories he’s responding to) to get their reaction to his allegations. Maybe not so odd, though, when you consider that most of the counterpoints Kaminsky is relying on require his readers to ignore what the Post originally reported.
Rocky Mountain News media critic Jason Salzman, on the other hand, did call Riley’s bosses at the Post, getting this response from political editor Chris Hubbard:
Hubbard emailed me:
The Post’s reporting relied on documentary evidence showing clear parallels between Jack Abramoff’s lobbying efforts on behalf of the Northern Marianas Islands and its textile manufacturers and the actions of Congressman Bob Schaffer, among others.
The lobbying effort included arranging trips to the islands for members of Congress as a way to develop goodwill. Abramoff then pointed to those trips as the basis for being able to successfully stymie legislative attempts to reform labor practices there.
The strategy also called for discrediting Interior Department advocates for labor and immigration reform on the islands by Republicans on the House Resources Committee. Documents show numerous meetings between Abramoff (and his staff) and Resource Committee staffers prior to two key hearings – hearings in which Bob Schaffer played a major role and in which he largely worked to discredit the witnesses.
Schaffer has said he had no direct contact with Abramoff. If his campaign is claiming he unwittingly implemented Abramoff’s strategy (perhaps at the behest of Resource Committee staffers, the committee’s chairman, or other Republicans), he should make that clear.
If the campaign is claiming that the close similarity between Schaffer’s actions and Abramoff’s plan is pure coincidence, they are free to do so. But it is our responsibility to report those congruencies and let the readers decide.
And so the spin battle is on. It’s important to note that Kaminsky’s job here really isn’t to refute the Schaffer/Abramoff allegations in a way that will convince the media–in fact, his methodology makes it less likely that his counterclaims will be widely reported. If you’re hoping to get reporters to pick up your side of a story and run with it, it greatly helps to not be peremptorily dismissive of them.
But convincing the press to change their tune isn’t the point here: the goal is strictly to muddy the waters surrounding what virtually every impartial observer concedes is a highly damaging story, and to give Schaffer and his representatives something to say when asked about the scandal other than a two-word denial–at least one word of which usually being unprintable.
UPDATE: Check out Kaminsky’s Part II, which as we explained earlier isn’t making it to prime-time at Politics West (maybe it should). Distilled: ‘nobody’ knew the Traditional Values Coalition was an arm of the Abramoff lobbying machine at the time (they’re such nice people, too), everybody had their hands in this particular cookie jar back in 1999 so there was “no reason that any such relationship would or should have been a concern,” and (the kicker) Schaffer had to be “nearly arm-twisted into a few hours of relaxation and parasailing.”
We’ll say this much, the guy’s got chutzpah.