Hot Document

Think Tanks for Sale

Amy Ridenour, Abramoff Fellow.

Welcome to Hot Documents, a new Slate feature that will publish and elucidate intriguing, outrageous, appalling, amusing, and instructive documents of all kinds. I will guide you through each document with an introduction (see below), a bit of explanation atop certain pages of the document, and annotations that will pop up when you place your computer mouse over portions of the document text highlighted in yellow. For the purposes of this feature, I will define “document” as broadly as possible. It may be a government report; it may be a corporate memo; it may be a wiretap transcript; it may be a photograph; it may be the instruction manual for the computer screen on which you’re reading this. Every entry will provide access to the full document (with only personal and confidential information such as e-mail addresses and Social Security numbers blacked out), plus explanation and analysis of certain choice parts. Today’s document is a series of e-mails back and forth between Jack Abramoff, the disgraced former Washington lobbyist, and the head of a nonprofit on whom Abramoff showered much cash. These e-mails have not previously been made public.

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Among the many revelations of the scandal surrounding the Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff is the remarkable degree to which the capital’s think tank “scholars” can be bought. Much attention has been lavished on Doug Bandow, who resigned from the libertarian Cato Institute after it was revealed that Abramoff had paid Bandow to write op-eds touting the entrepreneurship of the Choctaw Indian tribe and labor practices in the Northern Mariana Islands. (The Choctaws and the government of the Northerm Mariana Islands were both Abramoff clients.) For many think tanks, though, there was and remains no shame in belonging to the Society of Abramoff Fellows. Peter Ferrara, who got nailed in the same Business Week article that exposed Bandow, remains happily ensconsed at the Institute for Policy Innovation, a think tank started by Dick Armey, the former House majority leader. Unapologetically, Ferrara told Business Week, “I do that all the time.”

Another scholar whose Abramoff Fellowship has gone largely unquestioned is Amy Ridenour, who was and remains president of the right-wing National Center for Public Policy Research. Ridenour received some unwelcome attention last year when she testified before a Senate committee investigating Abramoff’s activities. The subject was a $1 million grant that Abramoff, a longtime friend of Ridenour’s who served on her board, funneled from his client, the Mississippi Choctaw Indian tribe, through NCPPR. Some of the money ended up in Abramoff’s pocket.  Ridenour testified that she was unaware of the latter transaction. But why did she agree to let NCPPR be a front group for these contributions in the first place? And why did she similarly agree to put NCPPR’s imprimatur on a congressional junket that Abramoff led to Great Britain, one that famously included a stop at the St. Andrews  golf course in Scotland? (Ridenour has said she didn’t know in advance about this side trip.)

The answer, of course, is that not all the money Abramoff directed from his clients to NCPPR—which ran to the millions—was transferred to third parties. Some of it remained at NCPPR. We don’t know how much, but apparently it was enough to make Abramoff address Ridenour less like a grantee and more like an employee. Ridenour, for her part, was eager to please her magnifico.

How eager? Eager enough, apparently, that Ridenour was willing to grind out an op-ed piece, a letter to the editor, and a press release extolling the virtues of Abramoff’s clients. What follows are some e-mail exchanges, published for the first time, in which Ridenour, Abramoff, and an Abramoff associate discuss some, ahem, scholarly work that Abramoff underwrote at NCPPR. To get started, click on “2,” in the navigation bar at the top or bottom of the page. After reading that, proceed to Pages 3 through 9.