The Democratic minority of the Senate Finance Committee recently released a 608-page report detailing former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s scandalous dealings with five conservative non-profit groups. The report asserts that the groups acted as an extension of Abramoff’s business, accepting donations from Abramoff’s clients in return for lobbying and public relations efforts. Lobbying for a fee is a clear violation of the non-profits’ tax-exempt status.
Though Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud, conspiracy, and tax evasion, the non-profits’ involvement is a bit murky and is still under investigation. Ultimately, the groups may have put their tax-exempt status at risk by helping Abramoff.
Two of the five groups, the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA) and the National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR) focus on environmental issues. Plenty investigated these groups and their involvement with Abramoff.
Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy
Background and Mission: Founded in 1997, this conservative, D.C.-based group aims “to foster environmental protection by promoting fair, community-based solutions to environmental challenges, highlighting Republican environmental accomplishments, and building on our Republican tradition of conservation.”
Though the group claims to be conservation-minded, its stance on environmental issues would make most greenies cringe. The organization supports issues like drilling for oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, the Bush administration’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, and loosening Clean Air Act regulations to allow power companies and other industries to operate without installing pollution controls. CREA is backed, in part, by chemical and mining industries. The group isn’t shy about bashing more liberal environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters. CREA’s website refers to the Sierra Club as an “eco-hypocrite,” even though Doug Wheeler, an honorary board member of CREA, is the former executive director of Sierra Club.
Head Honchos: Founders of the group include current president Italia Federici, former secretary of the interior Gale Norton, and Grover Norquist, the leader of Americans for Tax Reform, another non-profit linked to the Abramoff scandal. Federici is a longtime pal of Gale Norton, and even helped with her Senate bid in 1996. The report asserts that Federici used her contacts in the Department of the Interior (including Deputy Secretary Steven Griles) to assist Abramoff with lobbying in exchange for donations to CREA.
Involvement with Abramoff: According to the report, Federici accepted nearly $500,000 from various Indian tribes, who were Abramoff’s clients. Based on recovered e-mail exchanges, the Committee believes Federici aided Abramoff with lobbying for the tribes, particularly where tribal gaming was concerned, through arranging meetings and speaking with her connections at the Department of the Interior. The report also says that CREA hosted events at no cost to the organization at Signatures, Abramoff’s restaurant in D.C.
The report includes e-mails between Abramoff, his colleagues and clients, and Federici. “I hate to bother you with this right now, but I was hoping to ask about a possible donation to CREA,” Federici said in an e-mail to Abramoff on January 9, 2003. “I thought I’d see if there was any way you could help us reach out to some of your folks who were so generous last year?”
Abramoff seemed willing to comply, and asked a favor of Federici concerning one of his tribal clients, the Coushattas. “Absolutely,” he wrote. “We’ll get that moving asap. The Coushattas are coming to DC next Thursday so I’ll hit them [up] immediately. By the way Gov. [Mike] Foster (Louisiana) just sent Gale another letter pushing a new compact he signed for jena [a band of Choctaw Indians whose proposed casino in Louisiana would’ve rivaled one run by the Coushattas]. Can you make sure Steve knows about this and puts the kibosh on it?”
National Center for Public Policy Research
Background and Mission: Founded in 1981, NCPPR, which is also based in Washington, describes itself as a “communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems.” The group deals with many facets of policy, including an environmental branch through its John P. McGovern M.D. Center for Environmental and Regulatory Affairs.
Much like CREA, most of the organization’s stances differ from those of the typical environmentalist. The group received donations from ExxonMobil, and voices its skepticism about global warming, particularly in the National Center Blog, which NCPPR’s president writes. The group touts the Endangered Species Act as an ineffective piece of legislation that punishes private landowners, and insists that drilling in ANWR would not harm the environment.
Head Honchos: The group’s president and founder, Amy Ridenour, may have assisted Abramoff. Ridenour’s long-time relationship with Abramoff dates back to their involvement with the College Republicans. At one point, Abramoff also sat on NCPPR’s Board of Directors. Ridenour’s husband, David Ridenour, serves as vice president of the organization.
Involvement with Abramoff: According to the Committee’s report, NCPPR engaged in a number of activities that violated its tax-exempt status. For instance, the group accepted donations from Abramoff’s clients, and then used the money to finance trips for various members of Congress, such as the infamous golf outing in Scotland that Tom DeLay attended. Two months later, DeLay voted against legislation opposed by Abramoff’s clients. Coincidence? That’s the question. Abramoff also supposedly donated client money to NCPPR, and then directed the group to give the money to other organizations. In one instance, the report suggests that NCPPR simply re-routed the money directly back to Abramoff’s own foundation, possibly to provide him with a greater tax write-off on the donation—which amounts to tax evasion. Finally, the Committee alleges that Ridenour published favorable op-ed pieces about Abramoff’s clients in exchange for donations to NCPPR. Writing op-ed pieces is part of the organization’s work, and between 1998 and 2005, the group claims to have published 5,801 opinion pieces in newspapers. Ridenour maintains that she wrote pieces about Abramoff’s clients independently, but e-mail exchanges between Abramoff, his clients, and Ridenour suggest otherwise.
On May 19, 1999, Abramoff wrote to Jeff Ballabon, then executive vice president of public affairs at Primedia’s Channel One, a client of Abramoff’s. At the time, a coalition sought to ban the network in public school classrooms because Channel One showed advertisements, which they said was inappropriate.
“When we are through the hearing, we have to discuss getting Amy a contribution as we discussed,” Abramoff wrote. “She was going to do 5 pieces for $10K. We can chat on this next week.”
Story by Sarah Parsons. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October, 2006.