May 12, 2010

In his heyday, Jack Abramoff handled high-powered clients for high-powered prices. By day, he was the serious, pious, well-intentioned lobbyist. But behind closed doors, he was a wheeler-dealer with no particular allegiance to ideology or people. Money was his game, and he played it well. Lobbyists, after all, don't need to believe in their cause, only in their ability to win.

But if you really look at the records of what Abramoff did, a pattern emerges that's no different than what's going on today with the Tea Parties. Abramoff, with the assistance of Michael Scanlon, hit a formula for success that lives on today.

Without climbing too far down into the details (suggest you see the CASINO JACK movie for that -- it's easier to visualize), Abramoff and Scanlon created a turnkey PR grassroots/grasstops formula they could apply to any situation where they sought to influence the outcome. It could be an election such as the one where they targeted Robert Torricelli, committee hearings like the ones they sought to stop around Channel One being broadcast in schools, or legislative matters concerning casinos on Native American land. It didn't matter what the campaign was. The formula was the same.

That formula has now become the Tea Party formula. It consists of a few basic ingredients. I've taken these bullets directly out of a memo to Jack Abramoff and Grover Norquist written to outline the strategy for defeating Robert Torricelli in New Jersey:

  • Polling and Research
  • The Independent Expenditure - TV, radio, direct mail and telephone banks
  • Grassroots Issues - Here I'll quote from the actual memo:
    • An excellent way to energize the taxpayer movement in New Jersey would be to conduct statewide rallies on Tax Day (April 14), New Jersey Tax Freedom Day (mid-May), New Jersey Cost of Government Day (mid-July), Taxpayer Action Day (TBD), and Get the Government Off Our Backs Day (October 10, the anniversary of repealing Prohibition.) A drive to enlist all state legislators as signers of the state-level New Jersey Taxpayer Protection Pledge is worth considering.
    • School choice and home schooling: The school choice movement led by Mayer Bret Schundler of Jersey City expected school choice legislation from the Republican-controlled state assembly but have disappointed in receiving it. Home schoolers are an extremely well-organized group everywhere.
    • Property rights are an especially significant issue in the coastal areas of New Jersey. Organized property rights activists would most likely oppose Torricelli...
    • Crime and quality of life
    • Social Welfare spending
    • Gasoline tax
    • Cuba: Advertising may possibly tie Torricelli to President Clinton, who could be portrayed as soft on Castro
    • Collapse of the welfare state. This would be a major issue in New Jersey's depressed urban areas...
    • ...New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani might help frame the election as a referendum on "pro-tax" candidates [vs] "anti-tax" candidates...
  • Other considerations - These included running support for issues Torricelli opposed; in this case, Indian gaming.

This is no different from what FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, American Majority and the other corporate-driven PR front groups are doing. It's the same campaign. I can list the polling firms, independent expenditures, alliances of traditional culture conservatives such as the evangelical Christians, Catholics, home school movement, the Patriot movement, the libertarians and the senior citizens, but if you've been watching, you already know who they are.

Those faces at the front of the Tea Party are paid to be there. It's no different than a reality show in that regard. Deborah Johns, Amy Kremer, Loyd Marcus? All make around $5,000/month for their participation in the Tea Party Express tours. Tea Party Nation has Mark Skoda and Judson Philips on their payroll.

On even a more meta level, have a look at the relationships of the very top of these groups.

FreedomWorks, primary sponsor of the Tea Party Express. Chairman is Dick Armey, close associate of Jack Abramoff's, recipient of an Abramoff all-expenses paid trip to Scotland, and other goodies. As the video highlights, Armey's last corporate gig was as a top lobbyist for DLA Piper, the lobbying firm representing FreedomWorks and other conservative organizations.

Americans for Prosperity, primary sponsor of Tea Party Nation. President is Tim Phillips, Ralph Reed's former partner in Century Strategies, the firm Reed used to mobilize the Christian right for Abramoff clients. Ralph Reed was the go-to for religious right grassroots efforts. If Abramoff needed some Christian opposition to something, Reed was the guy to supply it, for a hefty price. There was no wedge issue too small or too hot for Reed to touch. As long as his hundreds of thousands rolled in to him with one degree of separation, he was more than happy to take gambling money to oppose gambling for the unfortunate tribe who didn't hire the Abramoff machine.

Americans for Tax Reform, sponsor of both efforts, with Grover Norquist prominent at rallies, on their videos and in their literature. Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform was the organization Abramoff used to launder money, along with several others. Norquist was also very happy to be the "tax objector" voice in Abramoff's PR blitz, provided a substantial contribution was made to ATR for his services.

The architects of Abramoff's schemes are once again together, sans Abramoff, who is still in jail. It isn't coincidence. They are together for a purpose and a reason, employing strategies that worked to garner millions of dollars, but more importantly, to create a manufactured body politic to give the impression to legislators and media alike that this was a "movement", a political force to be reckoned with, worth lots of attention and air time.

Now their campaign is beginning to bear fruit, beginning with Bob Bennett in Utah. Meg Whitman is losing ground to Tea Party favorite Steve Poizner, who is no grassroots kind of guy. He's worth millions, self-financing his own campaign.

The money is still flowing to the same people. Perhaps it's legitimate this time. There's no way to tell, really, because they hide behind the IRS tax-exempt facade of non-profit and civic organizations.

In 2006, the Senate Finance Committee minority report had recommendations for reforms to make these organizations more transparent. Among them:

  • 501(c)(3) Tax Exempt Charities (FreedomWorks Foundation, Americans for Tax Reform and Americans for Prosperity Foundation):

    Consider whether to provide for special rules for section 501(c)(3) organizations with respect to which a Member of Congress is a founder or exercises control (alone or together with related parties and paid staff of the Member). For example, section 501(c)(3) organizations could be required to disclose any contributions made by a corporation or a registered lobbyist.

  • 501(c)(4) Civic Organizations (FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity):

    Require that section 501(c)(4) organizations that engage in lobbying publicly disclose all corporate donors.

The committee's parting remarks are still quite relevant today, especially in light of the Citizens' United ruling and the activities of the Tea Party PR Machines.

Activity that is no different from the operations of lobbying and public relations firms -- who are paid by clients to lobby and do public relations on a specific issue -- should not be treated as a social welfare activity and granted tax-favored status. What is the rationale for allowing tax-favored entities, organized as nonprofits, to engage in the same behavior as lobbying and public relations firms? If this activity is permitted, then should not lobbying firms and public relations firms enjoy the same tax-exempt status?

There it is, in black and white, written in 2006. Today we have a whole wellspring of well-funded nonprofit lobbying and public relations firms. The answer to their question is right in front of them. The only reason to have lobbying and public relations outfits dressed in a nonprofit tuxedo is to fool the general public -- the earnest, engaged people out there -- into believing that it is something other than a lobbying and public relations effort.

Oh, and possibly to mask the movement of funds between said non-profit organizations to the personal benefit of a few. That's certainly a possibility, too. It would most certainly be a stronger possibility if Abramoff weren't behind bars. If he weren't, he'd be leading the charge, a million at a time.

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