Imagine, for a moment, that you are the Magazine Publishers of America. You want to fight a planned increase in postal rates that would hurt business by raising your fixed costs. You hire the lobby firm Preston Gates, among whose most valuable assets is an influence-peddling wunderkind named Jack Abramoff. As part of a multipronged strategy, Abramoff decides that $25,000 might help persuade a high-ranking aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay named Tony Rudy to help stop the postal rate increase. Simply to hand Rudy $25,000 in cash would be a tad obvious, so Abramoff decides to pay Rudy’s wife Lisa. The question then becomes: What pretext can be found for paying Lisa the money? One well-worn path (pioneered in the 1960s by the wives of Sen. William Proxmire, D.-Wis., and lobbyist Tommy Boggs) is to hire the missus to plan some public event or other. If anyone suggests that the arrangement smells fishy, the standard response has long been to call the accuser an anti-feminist jerk. But this diversionary tactic isn’t as effective as it once was, because nowadays the wives in question tend to be conservative Republicans off whose tongues the word “anti-feminist” does not roll easily. So, as an extra precaution, it’s probably best to funnel the money through some innocent-sounding organization before it arrives at its destination.
This is Abramoff’s specialty. He has relationships with many philanthropic organizations that boil down to this: I will bankroll you if you will launder my bribes. One such philanthropy is Toward Tradition, a Jewish anti-secularist organization closely allied with the Christian right. Abramoff was once its chairman. The rabbi who runs Toward Tradition is so shameless that he once agreed to provide “letters” or “plaques” pronouncing Abramoff a Talmudic scholar so that Abramoff could gain admittance to Washington’s pretentious Cosmos Club, whose membership is ostensibly limited to intellectuals.
But you digress.
Abramoff bundles the payment from the Magazine Publishers of America with another payment from a company seeking state contracts to run online lotteries; he gives the money to Toward Tradition; and Toward Tradition, on Abramoff’s “recommendation,” hires Lisa Rudy to plan some event. Everybody wins.
At least until the whole thing starts to unravel. Abramoff’s high-flying schemes eventually attract attention, first from a Senate committee and then from a prosecutor. Abramoff ends up copping a plea. Now everyone who ever shared an elevator with Abramoff is being placed under a microscope. It isn’t long before your payments to Toward Tradition get noticed. What is a sober and nonpartisan group like the Magazine Publishers of America doing writing checks to a cockamamie sectarian group like Toward Tradition?
You are the Magazine Publishers of America. Your mission is to clear a path through cant and obfuscation and to tell the American people the truth, without fear or favor. You are the very heart and soul of journalism in this country. You tell it like it is.
Ahem, well, you say through your spokesman, the corporate public-relations macher Howard Rubenstein.
Through Rubenstein, you say that you are “deeply disturbed by the recent allegations concerning Abramoff’s conduct and … are in the process of looking into the nature of his involvement in Preston Gates’ work on behalf of MPA.”
You identify yourself as one of Abramoff’s “victims.”
But, again: What about that $25,000 contribution to Toward Tradition?
Well, first off, you say, through Rubenstein—these are questions best left to the pros—that the Preston Gates employee who told you to give Toward Tradition the $25,000 wasn’t Abramoff. You hope that nobody notices this is a red herring, since Abramoff has already confessed in his plea agreement that he arranged the payments.
Then you say—again, through Rubenstein—that you had “no idea that it would be used the way it was used.”
But again, you’re asked. What the hell did the Magazine Publishers of America think Toward Tradition would use its $25,000 for?
This last question is posed to Chris Giglio, a vice president at Rubenstein Associates, Inc., by a Slate columnist who has placed a late-afternoon phone call to Howard Rubenstein and been told that Rubenstein is in a meeting. So, the Slate columnist asks Giglio. It isn’t likely that the Slate columnist is the first person to have asked this elementary question.
Nevertheless, you say, through Giglio, “Let me get back to you on that.”
Fifteen minutes later, your man Giglio calls back to say, “All I’ve got is what’s been said.”
You elaborate, through Giglio, “MPA was advised by Preston Gates to make the gift, and they made it.”
You decide that “gift” isn’t quite right and substitute “donation.”
So: “MPA was advised by Preston Gates to make the donation, and they made it.”
You are told that MPA seems to be exceptionally generous. You are told that it’s a pity Preston Gates didn’t advise MPA to make a $25,000 donation to a certain Slate columnist.
You do not laugh.