With lobbyist Jack Abramoff cooperating with a Capitol Hill corruption probe, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are taking great pains to show they’re committed to ethics reforms. Because Republicans and Democrats benefited from the dirty lobbyist’s largesse. Or at least that’s what it would seem like from the news coverage. Rick Karr evaluates the accuracy of the reporting with Massie Ritsch of the Center for Responsive Politics.
RICK KARR: And I'm Rick Karr. This week on Capitol Hill, both parties introduced new ethics proposals in response to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty plea on charges of mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion. Democrats alleged that the Abramoff affair is a Republican problem. Here's party chairman Howard Dean on CNN.
HOWARD DEAN: This is a Republican finance scandal. There is no evidence that Jack Abramoff ever gave any Democrat any money, and we've looked through all those FEC reports to make sure that's true.
RICK KARR: But legislators from both sides of the aisle have either returned Abramoff-related campaign contributions or given them to charity, and so some reporters have been referring to the scandal as a bipartisan one. Here's ABC's Robin Roberts on Wednesday's Good Morning America.
ROBIN ROBERTS: Right. And also Americans know it's not just Republicans taking money but Democrats as well. You bring up Jack Abramoff, but a third of the money that his clients raised, a third of those contributions went to Democrats, so that's a significant amount of money.
RICK KARR: Yet at the same time, the Washington Post was getting a blogful from Democrats who blasted the paper for characterizing the scandal in pretty much the same way. So what's a reporter to do? Check the facts, according to Massie Ritsch, the Communications Director for the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. Ritsch says that as soon as the Abramoff scandal hit the radar, the Campaign Finance Reporting Group was on it.
MASSIE RITSCH: We had gotten requests from the New York Times, in particular, to take a look at who Jack Abramoff had given money to as well as who had gotten money from the Indian tribes for which he was lobbying. And so what we did with our database was take a look at any contribution that came from Jack Abramoff or his wife, Pamela, as well as any contribution from an Indian tribe for which he was lobbying during roughly the time when he was listed as their lobbyist. We put that information out on our website, opensecrets.org, after the New York Times used it for their story, and particularly once Abramoff entered his guilty plea on January 3rd that set off a barrage of media inquiries about the information that we'd put out. The most popular question was, you know, so-and-so is my Congressman, did he receive money from Abramoff? And we were able to say that with great confidence. The next question was, well, my Congressman got this money from these Indian tribes, is that Abramoff money. And that's where the confusion began.
RICK KARR: This is a fairly subtle point. It's not necessarily an easy thing to get across in short sentences or short paragraphs. How do you try to explain that to reporters?
MASSIE RITSCH: Campaign finance is one of the more difficult kinds of stories that you can cover because you can't always fully connect the dots. So I've spent a lot of time talking to reporters, explaining that these contributions from Abramoff and from the tribes he worked for, we have to assume that those were perfectly legal contributions. We learned about them from the Federal Election Commission, so they were disclosed in what would appear to be a legal manner. And unless the investigation by the Department of Justice tells us otherwise, we have to assume that they were given in accordance with the law.
RICK KARR: I want to ask the partisan question here. You know – [OVERTALK]
MASSIE RITSCH: Okay.
RICK KARR: - Jack Abramoff spent most of his life tied very closely to the Republicans, involved with the college Republicans at, you know, at a relatively young age. Most news outlets, though, have been reporting that Abramoff money made its way into both Republican and Democratic hands. I want to get to the bottom of this right now. Did Abramoff's money or Abramoff's clients' money go to Democrats, as well as Republicans?
MASSIE RITSCH: If you're talking about money that came from Jack Abramoff's own pocket or from his wife Pamela, then only Republicans received that money, according to our research. Now, if you include the Indian tribes who had hired Jack Abramoff as their lobbyist, they gave to Republicans and to Democrats. The overall picture is about 3.7 million dollars. Seventy percent or so of it went to Republicans and thirty percent or so went to Democrats.
RICK KARR: The fact that some Democrats are giving money back, does that perhaps increase the likelihood that people in the media and in the public at large would see all of this money as tainted?
MASSIE RITSCH: Well, certainly some Democrats who have chosen not to give money back have made that choice for that particular reason, that doing so just acknowledges that there's some sort of blemish on this money. And, again, as far as we know, these were perfectly legal contributions. Let's be clear that the money has been given back, either refunded to the people who gave it or given away to charity, for purely political reasons, because come the heat of the campaign season, you can bet that opponents are going to be running ads where some sinister voice is going to be connecting them to Jack Abramoff.
RICK KARR: [CHUCKLES] What's your recommendation to a reporter who gets this sort of first wave of information, X dollars given to Congressperson Y, to look into whether there was a quid pro quo or whether maybe there was more of an appearance of impropriety in this particular case? I mean, if a reporter calls and says, "I don't know a lot about this, where do I go next," what do you say?
MASSIE RITSCH: The only people who really know the details surrounding a particular gift are the giver and the recipient. And in this Abramoff case, we've been telling that to reporters a lot - listen, we don't know why this money was given at the time it was, we suggest you talk to the people who were involved. And in some cases, they have, and we've learned interesting things about, you know, the particular timing of gifts. Some gifts we were able to eliminate from our list, actually, because Abramoff wasn't working for the tribe at that point as their lobbyist. But you really have to spend some time digging. You have to go to a variety of sources to try and correlate these things, because not everything is reported to the same organization. The Federal Election Commission doesn't collect everything. Lobbying reports, for example, are filed with House and Senate offices, so you have to cross-check with that. A lot of this stuff is done on paper. It's not going to be a quick-hit story. Most likely, these were perfectly legitimate contributions. There's a fine line between a legal/political contribution and a bribe, but it's that line that's going to keep members of Congress out of jail or maybe send some to jail.
RICK KARR: Massie Ritsch, thanks very much for coming in.
MASSIE RITSCH: I'm glad to be here. Thanks, Rick.
RICK KARR: Massie Ritsch is the communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics. The group's website is opensecrets.org.