County attorney weighs Ralph Reed inquiry
County attorney weighs Ralph Reed inquiry
Georgia candidate may have lobbied in Texas
By Jim Galloway
COX NEWS SERVICE
Monday, December 19, 2005
Suzii Paynter, a lobbyist for Southern Baptists in
Texas, says she has never met Ralph Reed, the former
head of the Christian Coalition who is now running for
office in Georgia. But she thinks she recognizes his
In the spring of 2001, while she was strolling the
grounds of the Texas Capitol, her cell phone rang.
A state senator screamed in her ear: "Stop it. Stop
the phone calls." His office had been swamped with
calls demanding the defeat of a measure to allow an
Indian tribe to operate a casino.
Paynter was puzzled. First, it was widely known that
the legislation was doomed to fail. Also, Paynter
maintained close contact with other anti-gambling
groups and could not imagine that any of them could
afford automated phone banks. "I didn't know who it
was," said Paynter, director of public policy for the
Christian Life Commission. "Now I think I do."
That year, and the next, Reed secretively worked Texas
officials and the Legislature to kill pro-gambling
initiatives on behalf of Washington lobbyist Jack
Abramoff and a Louisiana Indian tribe out to protect
its casino. He even pitched Abramoff what he called a
multimillion-dollar "TX Political Plan" targeting
three Democratic state senators and four House members
One of Reed's weapons of choice was automated phone
banks, according to documents released by a U.S.
This month, three government watchdog groups called on
Travis County Attorney David Escamilla to investigate
Reed, arguing that he violated a Texas law requiring
lobbyists to register with the state.
Escamilla, a Democrat, said he will decide in the next
few weeks whether to open a criminal investigation.
An inquiry would come at an inopportune time for Reed.
The Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in
Georgia his first run for office has already faced
unwelcome questions about his work with Abramoff, who
is the target of a federal bribery investigation.
A campaign spokesman for Reed called the Texas
complaint "partisan" and "specious."
"We were not retained to lobby Texas public officials.
Texas law does not require registration by firms
engaged in the work that we did," campaign manager
Jared Thomas said in a statement.
Reed has long made a distinction between lobbying and
Since leaving the Christian Coalition in 1997 to open
a political strategy firm in Georgia, Reed has forged
a reputation as a master of grass-roots organizing.
Reed's firm has been hired to energize conservative
Christians to contact their elected officials on
issues including trade with China and shutting down
Reed maintains that such work is not covered by Texas'
ethics laws. Any contacts by Reed with Texas officials
were of a "fact-finding, informational nature," Thomas
But the Texas watchdogs Public Citizen, Texans for
Public Justice and Common Cause Texas say Reed
crossed the line, lobbying officials himself. As
evidence, they point to e-mails between Reed and
Abramoff that were made public by a U.S. Senate
inquiry into Abramoff.
Contact by a paid agent with a Texas legislator, state
administrator or staffer can require registration as a
lobbyist and disclosure of the client whose
interests are being served.
If Escamilla pursues an inquiry, it would be the first
criminal investigation into Reed rising out of the
Abramoff scandal. Failing to register as a lobbyist is
a Class A misdemeanor punishable by a maximum fine of
$4,000 and up to one year in jail.
An investigation would focus more attention on Reed's
work for Abramoff a three-year partnership in which
Reed conducted anti-gambling campaigns in Texas,
Louisiana and Alabama. Two of Abramoff's tribal
clients, eager to preserve their casino markets,
funneled Reed more than $5 million toward his efforts.
Reed's work was part of a larger effort by Abramoff
and his partner, Michael Scanlon, to sell the
Louisiana Coushatta tribe on the need to expand its
political clout into Texas.
"Can you imagine the power of controlling legislative
districts in the state of Texas in the same fashion as
your home state?" Scanlon wrote to a tribal official,
according to an e-mail released by the Senate Indian
Affairs Committee, whose chairman was John McCain,
Another e-mail released by the committee shows that in
March 2002, Reed claimed victory in Texas for
thwarting gambling in the state and recommended that
Abramoff help target such incumbents as state Sen.
Gonzalo Barrientos and state Rep. Ann Kitchen, both
"To preserve our hard-fought victories in Texas, we
recommend active involvement in the 2002 elections in
an effort to defeat pro-gambling candidates for
governor and the state legislature," he wrote.
He suggested spending about $90,000 against
Barrientos, who won that November, and $55,000 against
Kitchen, who lost, although it is not clear if money
was ever spent.
His plan does not appear to be related to U.S. Rep.
Tom DeLay's efforts to help Republican candidates that
year. DeLay was indicted this year in connection with
his role in the 2002 elections.
Several months after laying out his political plan,
Reed sent another e-mail claiming "total victory."
However, Abramoff forwarded that e-mail to co-workers
with the note to "forget about Ralph" and gave credit
A three-part plan
Reed, a staunch opponent of gambling, has said he was
unaware that any of his financial backing came from
gaming sources. He has yet to address that several
e-mails between him and Abramoff indicate that the
source of funding was well-known.
Reed had three tasks in Texas: to push John Cornyn,
then the Republican attorney general, to file suit in
an effort to close an illegal casino operated by the
Tigua tribe in El Paso; to push Cornyn to file a
similar lawsuit against the Alabama Coushatta tribe in
Texas; and to kill bills in the Legislature that would
have allowed both tribes to operate their gambling
establishments, according to documents released by
The efforts were financed by the Louisiana Coushatta
tribe, which operates a $300 million-a-year casino in
Hundreds of thousands of dollars were budgeted for
phone banks and mailings.
In the e-mails and other documents released by
McCain's committee, Reed and others mention direct
contact with Texas legislators, then-Lt. Gov. Bill
Ratliff and Cornyn.
Despite the content of the e-mails, Reed never made
contact with Texas officials except on a "superficial"
level, Thomas said.
Reed never contacted the legislators mentioned, he
said, and the legislation mentioned was never
Reed's spokesman offered a threefold defense:
Any contact that Reed had with Texas officials did
not rise to a level that required registration as a
Lobbyists in Texas who spend less than 5 percent of
their "compensated time" communicating with officials
are not required to register.
Reed's work in Texas was conducted in 2001 and 2002.
In Texas, the statute of limitations on misdemeanors
is two years. But Craig McDonald, executive director
of Texans for Public Justice, argues that the clock
should not start ticking until the alleged violation
is discovered, meaning 2004.
Another hurdle for prosecutors may be finding someone
to corroborate what Reed outlined in his e-mails.
No one in Austin has recalled seeing Reed. Only one
person has admitted speaking with him. According to
the e-mails, much of Reed's footwork was performed by
the executive director of the Texas Christian
Coalition, who has declined to comment.
In 2001, Ratliff was the reason that lobbyists knew
any gambling bill was predestined to fail. "I made it
known early on that I would not allow any casino bill
to come to the floor," he said.
Ratliff said he talked to Reed once, on the phone. "My
recollection is he called me about redistricting, but
I can't say that for sure. I don't remember it being
about gambling," said Ratliff, now a lobbyist.
Cornyn, now a U.S. senator, said he does not recall
speaking with Reed about casinos. Cornyn spokesman Don
Stewart described any contact between Reed and
Cornyn's office as inconsequential. "Anybody can go in
and ask for the status of something," Stewart said.
He said Reed may have exaggerated his clout in the
e-mails to impress those who were paying his bills.
Reed's spokesman declined to comment on that, but
Stewart said the practice was common in Washington.
"It's like someone lobbying the sun to come up
tomorrow," he said.