Seattle-area religious right org crashes and burns in Abramoff scandal

by Frederick Clarkson, Political Cortex

Toward Tradition, one of the leading organizations of the Jewish element of the religious right is going out of business due to it's involvement in the still-unfolding Abramoff scandal.

Abramoff had been as much a part of the life of the organization as the cause of its demise. He served on the Toward Tradition board until 2004 and served two terms as chairman.

It turns out that Senate investigators have shown how Abramoff used Toward Tradition head Daniel Lapin as a sock puppet for his corporate clients, notably the Channel One Network that pipes a little "news" and a whole lot of commercials into American public school classrooms.

The Washington Post reports that a just released Senate investigative report notes that five non-profit organizations laundered money on behalf of Abramoff and his clients, and probably violated their non-profit tax status as well.

The report includes previously unreleased e-mails between the now-disgraced lobbyist and officers of the nonprofit groups, showing that Abramoff routed money from his clients to the groups. In exchange the groups, among other things, produced ostensibly independent newspaper op-ed columns or press releases that favored the clients' positions.

Officers of the groups "were generally available to carry out Mr. Abramoff's requests for help with his clients in exchange for cash payments," said the report, issued by the Democratic members of the Senate Finance Committee after a one-year investigation.

Abramoff has pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy and is cooperating with federal investigators in the ongoing influence-peddling probe that has resulted in seven guilty pleas and convictions.

The report states that the groups probably violated their tax-exempt status "by laundering payments and then disbursing funds at Mr. Abramoff's direction; taking payments in exchange or writing newspaper columns or press releases that put Mr. Abramoff's clients in a favorable light; introducing Mr. Abramoff's clients to government officials in exchange for payment; and agreeing to act as a front organization for congressional trips paid for by Mr. Abramoff's clients."

The groups are Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform; the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, which was co-founded by Norquist and Gale Norton before she became Secretary of the Interior; Citizens Against Government Waste; the National Center for Public Policy Research, which was a spinoff of the Heritage Foundation; and Toward Tradition, a religious group founded by Abramoff friend Rabbi Daniel Lapin.

Lapin, whose group was at the center of some of the most infamous lobbying schemes with Abramoff, told the committee that he was shutting down the Seattle-based nonprofit because of negative news coverage related to Abramoff.

The report itself is rich with details. The report shows via email traffic how Abramoff could count on Lapin to write collumns that would cast his clients in a favorable light. The report also highlights Abramoff's intention to use Lapin to gain a meeting with James Dobson for Jeff Ballabon of the Channel One Network. On another occasion, Ballabon wrote to Abramoff and Lapin about the draft of a proposed newspaper column that would go out under Lapin's name attacking critics of Channel One's controversial in-classroom commercial television network.

The op-ed was titled: "Is it immoral to make an honest living? Your children think so." According to the report, it was syndicated by Knight-Ridder newspapers, on April 15, 1999.

In email correpsondence about the article, Ballabon decribed the company's critics as "radical, anti-business operators and academics" and "outside commie agitators." Ballabon's idea of "commies" included the PTA, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Federation of Teachers. The concerns being expressed by groups like these at the time were that the company sold school systems on child appropriate news they provide, along with free equipment to view it on -- but that they really deliver mostly commercials and what little news there is is poorly done. They thought that maybe allowing the classroom to be hijacked by commercial interests wasn't such a good idea.

Abramoff worked at the time for the Seattle-based law firm, Preston Gates. The Lapin op-ed was evidently part of a more far-reaching political and PR campaign that sought to head off hearings on the matter by Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL). Russ Baker, wrote in 2001 in The American Prospect about the effort:

Channel One dumped almost $1 million into a lobbying effort led by former Christian Coalition Director Ralph Reed and the powerful law firm of Preston, Gates, and Ellis--and effectively kept a lid on further action or hearings. Last spring a Shelby-sponsored sense-of-the-Senate resolution opposing commercialization of the schools was blocked by Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and heavy lobbying by Reed and former New York Senator Alfonse D'Amato. The company has other means of winning support: Channel One's Ballabon insisted on faxing me a mound of positive letters; several from students mentioned free trips to Channel One's Los Angeles production studios.

It certainly is stirring the "values" the likes of Channel One's Jeff Ballabon, Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed and Daniel Lapin seek to bring to children in America's classrooms.

I wonder if Channel One News has been reporting on the Abramoff scandal, and the role of its top executives in running bought-and-paid-for copy on a national news wire? I am sure America's school kids would find it a valuable lesson in the ethics of modern journalism and politics -- and the values of the religious right.

article originally published at http://www.politicalcortex.com/story/2006/10/13/2228/6156.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey