A columnist from a libertarian think tank admits accepting payments to promote an indicted lobbyist's clients. Will more examples follow?
A senior fellow at the Cato Institute resigned from the libertarian think tank on Dec. 15 after admitting that he had accepted payments from indicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff for writing op-ed articles favorable to the positions of some of Abramoff's clients. Doug Bandow, who writes a syndicated column for Copley News Service, told BusinessWeek Online that he had accepted money from Abramoff for writing between 12 and 24 articles over a period of years, beginning in the mid '90s.
"It was a lapse of judgment on my part, and I take full responsibility for it," Bandow said from a California hospital, where he's recovering from recent knee surgery.
After receiving BusinessWeek Online's inquiries about the possibility of payments, Cato Communications Director Jamie Dettmer said the think-tank determined that Bandow "engaged in what we consider to be inappropriate behavior and he considers to be a lapse in judgment" and accepted his resignation. "Cato has an excellent reputation for integrity, and we're zealous in guarding that," Dettmer said.
Bandow has written more than 150 editorials and columns over the past five years, each identifying his Cato affiliation. His syndicated column for Copley News Service is featured in several hundred newspapers across the country. Bandow's biography on the Cato Institute Web site says he has also appeared as a commentator on all the major television broadcast networks and the cable news channels.
MULTIPLE TRAVAILS. A former Abramoff associate says Bandow and at least one other think-tank expert were typically paid $2,000 per column to address specific topics of interest to Abramoff's clients. Bandow's standing as a columnist and think-tank analyst provided a seemingly independent validation of the arguments the Abramoff team were using to try to sway Congressional action.
Bandow confirms that he received $2,000 for some pieces, but says it was "usually less than that amount." He says he wrote all the pieces himself, though with topics and information provided by Abramoff. He adds that he wouldn't write about subjects that didn't interest him.
Abramoff was indicted in Florida in August on wire-fraud charges in relation to his purchase of a Florida casino-boat company. He faces trial in January in that case.
Separately, a Senate committee and a Justice Dept. task force are investigating allegations that Abramoff defrauded some of his clients -- a handful of American Indian tribes that had gotten wealth from running casino-gaming operations on their reservations. Abramoff's business partner, Michael Scanlon, pleaded guilty in November to conspiring to corrupt public officials with gifts, including political contributions, and defrauding clients, and is cooperating with the ongoing probe.
ATTITUDE SWING. A review of Bandow's columns and other written work shows that he wrote favorably about Abramoff's Indian tribal clients -- as well as another Abramoff client, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands -- as far back as 1997. One column, syndicated by the Copley News Service, saluted one Abramoff client tribe, the Mississippi Choctaws, for their entrepreneurial spirit, hard work, and commitment to free enterprise. "The Choctaws offer a model for other tribes," Bandow wrote.
Bandow wrote a column earlier this year -- well after the disclosure that Abramoff was under federal investigation -- saying that wealthy Indian tribes had become yet another "well-funded special interest seeking political favors." In response to BusinessWeek Online's inquiry, Bandow said his views of Indian gambling have shifted over the years. "It's gone well beyond what it once was," he said.
In none of Bandow's op-eds were any Abramoff payments disclosed, however -- nor were they disclosed to the Cato Institute. On Dec. 16, Copley News Service announced it is suspending Bandow pending its own review. In a statement, Glenda Winders, Copley News Service editor and vice-president, said: "We want to make sure we have all the facts before we take final action. But it had never been our policy to distribute work paid for by third parties whose role is not disclosed by the columnist."
For years, rumors have swirled of an underground opinion "pay-for-play" industry in Washington in which think-tank employees and pundits trade their ability to shape public perception for cash.
"NAIVE PURITY STANDARD." Bandow isn't the only think-tanker to have received payments from Abramoff for writing articles. Peter Ferrara, a senior policy adviser at the conservative Institute for Policy Innovation, says he, too, took money from Abramoff to write op-ed pieces boosting the lobbyist's clients. "I do that all the time," Ferrara says. "I've done that in the past, and I'll do it in the future."
Ferrara, who has been an influential conservative voice on Social Security reform, among other issues, says he doesn't see a conflict of interest in taking undisclosed money to write op-ed pieces because his columns never violated his ideological principles.
"It's a matter of general support," Ferrara says. "These are my views, and if you want to support them, then that's good." But he adds that at some point over the years, Abramoff stopped working with him: "Jack lost interest in me and felt he had other writers who were writing in more prominent publications," Ferrara says.
"SIMILAR ARRANGEMENTS."Ferrara's boss has a very different take on the Abramoff op-ed writing than did his peers at Cato. "If somebody pinned me down and said, 'Do you think this is wrong or unethical?' I'd say no," says Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation. Giovanetti says critics are applying a "naive purity standard" to the op-ed business. "I have a sense that there are a lot of people at think tanks who have similar arrangements."
Ferrara began working at the Institute for Policy Innovation after the period during which he wrote the op-ed pieces for Abramoff. Earlier, he worked at the activist anti-tax organization Americans for Tax Reform.
Ferrara wouldn't say which publications have published pieces for which Abramoff paid him. But a review of his work shows that he wrote articles for The Washington Times that were favorable to the Choctaw Indians and the Mariana Islands. He also wrote a 1998 book called The Choctaw Revolution: Lessons for Federal Indian Policy. Ferrara says the tribe paid him directly for his work on the book, which was published by the Americans for Tax Reform Foundation and is still available for sale on Amazon.com (AMZN ).