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County attorney weighs Ralph Reed inquiry

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.statesman.com/news/content/news/stories/local/12/20reedtexas.html County attorney weighs Ralph Reed inquiry Georgia candidate may have lobbied in
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 20, 2005
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      http://www.statesman.com/news/content/news/stories/local/12/20reedtexas.html

      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
      work.

      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
      in 2002.

      One of Reed's weapons of choice was automated phone
      banks, according to documents released by a U.S.
      Senate committee.

      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.

      Master organizer

      Reed has long made a distinction between lobbying and
      "grass-roots" campaigning.

      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
      casinos.

      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
      said.

      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,
      R-Ariz.

      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
      Austin Democrats.

      "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
      to others.

      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
      McCain's committee.

      The efforts were financed by the Louisiana Coushatta
      tribe, which operates a $300 million-a-year casino in
      southwestern Louisiana.

      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
      introduced.

      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
      lobbyist.

      •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.
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