Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker is a
longtime contributor to TomPaine.com. He is the
founder of the Real News Project, a new organization dedicated
to producing groundbreaking investigative journalism. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once in a very long time, a scandal comes
along that seems to capture the essence of our times. I’d say
that scandal appeared on Saturday, when most of us were too
busy getting out the honkers and the booze to notice.
Here’s the crux: Was the Republican leader Tom DeLay
working on behalf of Russians against the American public
interest—and being compensated for it?
That’s a pretty strong accusation, but unless I read my
Washington Post wrong, that is exactly what was
alleged in a front page story that appeared on Saturday, the
last day of 2005, and therefore may escape proper notice. The
article is even easier to miss because of the mundane “more of
the same” headline above it: " The DeLay-Abramoff Money Trail : Nonprofit
Group Linked to Lawmaker Was Funded Mostly by Clients of
First, some background. Tuesday, as the world knows by
now, Jack Abramoff, the powerful Republican lobbyist and major
DeLay associate, pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax
evasion charges, agreeing to cooperate in a federal corruption
probe in Washington. He faces up to 11 years in federal prison
and must pay $26.7 million in restitution.
For many months, we’ve been hearing stories about
Abramoff’s shakedowns and indiscreet e-mails mocking Indian
tribal leaders and other outrages, many of them with DeLay at
the periphery or more directly involved.
The problem with these stories—which range from
machinations over gambling licenses and Pacific island
sweatshops to golfing junkets in Scotland—is that they are
complicated, seemingly obscure and center on figures like
Abramoff, who, while important, is merely an enabler of a
larger and more troubling reality: How Republicans inside and
outside of the Congress are subverting democracy itself, with
public funds going to advance the personal interests of a
small set of powerful Americans.
The figures that really matter in this story are bigger
fish—among them DeLay, the architect and de facto leader of
the corporate takeover of Congress under cover of a social
That’s why the Post story should be one of the
biggest stories of the new year, even if it got lost on the
last day of the old one. It needed to be published on
another day, and it needed to be told differently. So, here’s
a stab at capturing what I see as most important about it.
Cumulatively, a careful reader comes away with the
following conclusion: DeLay was essentially being bribed by
Russians. Specifically, a phony nonprofit set up by DeLay’s
former top aide was used to transfer monies from powerful
Russians to DeLay, in return for his influencing legislation
that could direct U.S. taxpayer money into their pockets. The
Russians, working through super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, put up
most of the $2.5 million “contributions” that funneled through
DeLay got free international trips and fancy free office
space in a secret townhouse, and his wife got paid a sizable
monthly salary for doing nothing. Meantime, the nonprofit
presented itself to the public as devoted to promoting family
values, and ran ads attacking Democrats.
Monies were passed from Russian oil and gas executives
working with Abramoff through a now-defunct London law firm
and an obscure Bahamian company into an outfit, set up by
former DeLay Chief of Staff Ed Buckham, masquerading as a
grassroots advocacy group on family values. The group, the
U.S. Family Network, existed for five years, but apparently
did little or nothing on family issues, though it actually had
the temerity to send out fundraising letters to the public,
warning that “the American family is under attack from all
sides: crime, drugs, pornography, and… gambling.” It also paid
for ads attacking vulnerable Democratic candidates.
But what it was really doing, according to the article, was
influencing DeLay to support legislation favorable to wealthy
Russians—with the bill paid for by American taxpayers. DeLay
traveled to Moscow in 1997 and spent time with the Russians,
though he claimed to the House clerk that another nonprofit
paid for it and that he was in that country to “meet with
religious leaders there.”
Probably the most incendiary material in the Post
story was buried, beginning in paragraph 32. The former
president of the U.S. Family Network, a pastor no less,
actually says that Buckham explained to him in 1999 that a $1
million payment passed through to the organization was
intended specifically to influence DeLay's 1998 vote on a bill
that enabled the International Monetary Fund to use U.S.
taxpayer monies, in part, to bail out the Russian economy and
specific wealthy Russian investors involved with the
"Ed told me, 'This is the way things work in Washington,' "
[Pastor Christopher] Geeslin said. "He said the Russians
wanted to give the money first in cash." Buckham, he said,
orchestrated all the group's fundraising and spending and
rarely informed the board about the details.
Tom DeLay and his cronies appear to have been accepting
what amounted to bribes from Russians with connections to the
Yeltsin-Putin regimes who wanted U.S. taxpayer monies to keep
flowing to benefit them. They laundered the money, and,
worse, did it through a nonprofit organization, which, in
turn, claimed to be established to fight the decline in moral
standards in America. Even more appalling, while this phony
charity was doing this mercenary work, it was hitting up naïve
members of DeLay’s political base for contributions.
The fine print is equally tawdry. Mrs. DeLay’s salary
of “at least $3,200 each month for three of the years
the group existed” (that’s a total of at least $115,200) was
supposedly in compensation for supplying Buckham with a list
of "lawmakers’ favorite charities." The Post mentions
this only briefly, and with a straight face. But the
transparent ridiculousness of this on so many levels offers a
bounty for journalists who pursue it.
How better to capture the brazen hypocrisy of all this than
through tabloid-style headlines:
Revenue from the phony ‘family’ charity was used to
finance radio ads attacking vulnerable Democratic lawmakers.
So, let’s see:"Putin Buddies Paid For Attacks On Dems"
Other funds went to finance the cash purchase of a
townhouse near DeLay’s congressional office. DeLay’s guys
called it “the Safe House.” So, maybe this headline:
“Russian Cash Bought DeLay Safe House”
The point man for this, DeLay’s former aide Buckham,
had been executive director of the Republican Study
Committee, a group of ‘fiscally conservative’ House members.
Headline: “Fiscal Conservatives Give U.S. Money To Rich
The Russian angle is especially important, as recent
developments show a growing clampdown by Putin on democracy in
Russia—from arrests of political opponents to curtailment of
the press—along with blatant attempts to intimidate former
Soviet republics like Ukraine. This puts the so-called
freedom-loving GOP leadership in bed with the least savory of
the holdover Communists.
There will be many developments in the weeks ahead, now
that Abramoff has cut a deal with the feds. When he begins his
promised cooperation with the prosecution, he may have things
to say about many other matters, including the U.S. Family
But it’s important in these overwhelming times to stay
focused. Ultimately, these cases are not about Jack Abramoff,
a fellow most of us never even heard of until fairly recently.
They are about what has happened to this country. Put simply,
the American people were taken to the cleaners by a group of
charlatans in the guise of faith healers who didn’t even
believe in their own product.
I doubt The Washington Post would give front page
play to such a story—or have assigned a reporter with
experience covering national security—if this was not the big
Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce you to