Thursday, June 23, 2005

Senators accuse Toward Tradition director Jack Abramoff of `outright fraud', associates take the fifth, crazy Abramoff email to Rabbi David Lapin


At 8:27 PM, Blogger jewishwhistleblower said...

See also:


Posted on Wed, Jun. 22, 2005

Senators accuse lobbyist of `outright fraud'
The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON - (KRT) - In a hearing Wednesday fraught with accusations of deceptions large and small, a Senate committee investigating Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff accused him of outright fraud.

Documents released by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs involving Abramoff's dealings with the Mississippi Band of Choctaws suggest that he and his partner, Michael Scanlon, earned millions from the tribe through questionable invoices, diverted charitable contributions and padded expenses.

The committee estimates that in 2001 alone, the two pocketed $6.5 million of $7.7 million billed to the Choctaws. In all, Indian tribes with casino interests paid more than $66 million to the men for help in dealing with state and federal regulators.

In a statement Monday, a spokesman for Abramoff reiterated his contention that his clients "benefited immensely from the hard work he and his team did on their behalf." He has continuously and vigorously denied any wrongdoing.

Wednesday marked the third round of hearings by the Indian affairs committee regarding Abramoff's lobbying on behalf of tribal casino interests. Abramoff attended hearings in September but refused to testify. Scanlon has declined to testify.

Committee chairman Sen. John McCain urged the Justice Department to review the committee's evidence. "If proven true, such activity could well constitute a violation of the mail and wire fraud statutes," McCain said.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., summing up the hundreds of pages of documents released, said Abramoff-Scanlon billings to the Choctaws appear to be "outright fraud."

Invoices, checks, letters and e-mails released Wednesday indicate that Abramoff directed his staff to fabricate thousands of dollars in billable hours and channel money from the tribe to organizations and accounts he controlled personally.

When the Choctaws made a $1 million grant to a nonprofit group, it was to be used by various grass-roots organizations to promote conservative causes. But the committee said there was no evidence that grass-roots organizations received any of the money.

Instead, $500,000 went to Scanlon and $450,000 went to an Abramoff-controlled foundation that used most of the money for a school founded by Abramoff for his sons and for an instructor at an Israeli sniper school. The last $50,000 was used by Abramoff to pay off a personal loan.

Discussions about padding Choctaw bills were bold and detailed. When one of his employees advised Abramoff in an e-mail that legitimate billable hours were short of the firm's unofficial $150,000 monthly minimum, Abramoff told him to "add 60 hours for me" and to "pump up" the hours of other employees.

Two former Abramoff associates, Kevin Ring and Shawn Vasell, were asked to explain the billing. Both refused on the grounds of possible self-incrimination.

No expense appeared too insignificant or personal to bill to the tribe's account. One employee asked that his fees at a Washington social club be "buried" in a Choctaw invoice. Scanlon requested that a family outing at a restaurant owned by Abramoff be billed to the tribe. Both requests appeared to be granted.

Even in a request to join the Cosmos Club, an elite group of Washington leaders, Abramoff found reason to deceive.

In an e-mail to Rabbi David Lapin, a West Coast talk show host, Abramoff lamented that the club had members with Nobel prizes but he had no awards to speak of. He asked if the rabbi's organization, Toward Tradition, could concoct one for him: "Perhaps something like Scholar of Talmudic Studies?"

"Indeed, it would be better if it were possible that I received these in years past, if you know what I mean," Abramoff said in an e-mail.

Abramoff and Scanlon, a former aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, have been the subject of a grand jury investigation based in Washington involving agents from the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice's Public Integrity Division.

That investigation has gained great political resonance because of Abramoff's close ties to DeLay. The House Ethics Committee has agreed to hear complaints related to several of DeLay's golf trips arranged by Abramoff.

One of the most controversial of those trips was a golf jaunt to Scotland arranged by Abramoff on behalf of the National Center for Public Policy Research. Amy Ridenour, executive director of the organization, told the committee that she is a longtime friend of Abramoff, who was on the organization's board.

She told the committee Wednesday that she feels betrayed by Abramoff.

Ridenour said she had invited lawmakers to attend a trip to Britain in 2000. She thought the legislators would meet with members of Parliament, discuss that government's approach to several social issues and return to the United States

Having asked Abramoff to handle the arrangements, she said, she was bewildered when the trip became a golf trip to Scotland.

"I was thinking London, not Scotland," Ridenour said.

Ridenour's organization received the $1 million contribution from the Choctaws allegedly diverted by Abramoff.

Ridenour testified that the money was described to her as a "pass through" - a contribution intended for distribution to other nonprofits for promoting conservative causes. She said she later learned that the money wasn't used as intended and was worried that would jeopardize her group's tax exemption.

"I trusted Jack," Ridenour said of her friend of 22 years.

Asked if she had been lied to, Ridenour answered firmly, "Certainly, I don't know how I could reach any other conclusion at this point in time."

The committee also called David Grosh and Brian Mann, two former directors of the American International Center, which identified itself on its now-defunct Web site as an international "think tank" based in Rehoboth Beach, Del. The group, which received millions in money from the Choctaws and other tribes, was founded in 2001 under the "high-powered directorship" of Grosh and Mann, the site said.

Mann, introduced by the committee as a yoga instructor, refused to answer questions on the grounds of potential self-incrimination.

Grosh, who said he works in construction and "other beach-type jobs," seemed to relish the spotlight. He said Scanlon, whom he has known since childhood, created the nonprofit group.

"He called me up and asked me if I'd like to be head of an international corporation," the former lifeguard said. "That's a hard one to turn down. I asked him what I had to do. He said, `Nothing.'"

Grosh said the board met only once, "for about 15 minutes." He said the group rented the ground floor of the building he lived in. He was paid "$2,000 to 2,500" during his tenure.

He decided to quit when the group seemed to be having troubles. "When I heard that the group was involved with the federal government and Indian tribe gambling, I figured it was headed down the wrong way," Grosh said.

McCain ended the hearing Wednesday with an apology to the Choctaws, saying the tribe had been unduly tarnished by its association with Abramoff and Scanlon.

He promised further hearings, but none have been scheduled.


One Committee's Three Hours of Inquiry, in Surreal Time
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, June 23, 2005; Page A06

Yesterday's Senate hearing into superlobbyist Jack Abramoff's alleged defrauding of Indian tribes had something for everyone. There was the yoga instructor who took the Fifth. There was the lifeguard selected to run a think tank from a beach house at Rehoboth. And there was Exhibit 31, an e-mail from Abramoff to a rabbi friend.

"I hate to ask you for your help with something so silly but I've been nominated for membership in the Cosmos Club, which is a very distinguished club in Washington, DC, comprised of Nobel Prize winners, etc.," Abramoff wrote. "Problem for me is that most prospective members have received awards and I have received none. I was wondering if you thought it possible that I could put that I have received an award from Toward Tradition with a sufficiently academic title, perhaps something like Scholar of Talmudic Studies?"

There were titters in the audience as Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) read aloud the e-mail, then outright laughter as he continued reading: "Indeed, it would be even better if it were possible that I received these in years past, if you know what I mean."

The rabbi, conservative radio host Daniel Lapin, gave his blessing. "I just need to know what needs to be produced," he wrote. "Letters? Plaques?"

"The point of all of this," Dorgan said, "is there's a lot of deception going on."

In three hours yesterday, Dorgan and John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, quizzed witnesses on what the lawmakers described as an elaborate web of fraud and greed -- "even by Washington standards," as Dorgan unkindly put it.

There were phony grass-roots Christian groups. Phony billing statements. Nonprofits with phony purposes. And, perhaps phoniest of all, a "premiere international think tank" called the American International Center, directed by two boyhood friends of Abramoff partner Michael Scanlon: yoga instructor Brian Mann and lifeguard-cum-excavator David Grosh. Mann refused to answer questions, but Grosh, who never consulted a lawyer, was happy to tell his story.

"I'm embarrassed and disgusted to be a part of this whole thing," Grosh said in his two-sentence statement. "The Lakota Indians have a word, wasichu , which aptly describes all of us right now."

Grosh didn't say what wasichu means (literally, "he who steals the fat"), and McCain, not being fluent in Lakota, merely thanked Grosh and read from the think tank's self-described mission of "bringing great minds together from all over the globe" under the "high power directorship" of Mann and Grosh -- who now does construction work and tends bar.

Grosh, with tousled hair and long sideburns, told about a call from Scanlon asking, "Do you want to be head of an international corporation?" That, Grosh added, was "a hard one to turn down." The lifeguard/excavator/bartender had the gallery in stitches, and he wasn't finished. "I asked him what I had to do, and he said 'Nothing.' So that sounded pretty good to me."

McCain asked if the think tank had any board meetings. "I recall one," the witness replied.

"And how long did that last?"

"Fifteen minutes," Grosh estimated.

"Do you recall any business that was discussed . . .?"

"Off the top of my head, no."

The hapless Grosh said he received no more than $2,500 for his troubles, and tickets to a hockey game. "I got out of it when I found out it involved the federal government, Indian tribes and gambling," he said. "I knew that it was headed down the wrong way."

The honest lifeguard declined a lifeline from the chairman, who said he was clearly "used" by Scanlon and didn't do anything wrong himself. "I'm an adult," the lawyerless Grosh insisted. "He didn't use me."

There were weightier witnesses: the leaders of the Choctaw tribe who were Abramoff's alleged victims, the pair of former Abramoff associates who sheepishly took the Fifth, and the accountant and nonprofit leader who were portrayed as naive about Abramoff, or worse.

There were also the ghosts in the room: Republican activists Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist (who appeared often in Abramoff's correspondence but who weren't the focus of yesterday's inquiry) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), a friend of Abramoff's referred to elliptically as an unnamed "member of Congress."

But Grosh, dressed in shirtsleeves and black jeans, was the star. When the hearing ended, reporters swarmed around him, asking why he did it. "It was wintertime in Rehoboth," he explained. "You need to make rent money."

Lately, Grosh has been occupied with calls from the FBI and reporters, and then the call to testify -- an experience he described as surreal.

"It's gonna get worse," cautioned one of his interviewers.

"Oh, great," he muttered.

"Speaking of that," a television producer called out, "want to come and talk to our cameras?"

Grosh warily agreed, blinking into the stage lights and telling his story again. Then he went downstairs and, finally alone, pulled off his necktie and stuffed it into his back pocket.

At 8:35 PM, Blogger jewishwhistleblower said...


The New Republic
Torah Cover
by Franklin Foer
Post date 06.09.05 | Issue date 06.20.05

Daniel Lapin is an unlikely business guru. He doesn't have an MBA or a distinguished record of financial wizardry. His largest venture into the world of commerce, running a firm that traded in second mortgages, ended in bankruptcy court, with Lapin owing nearly $3 million. Yet this history hasn't stopped Lapin from dispensing business wisdom, and it hasn't stopped corporations from paying him thousands of dollars to give motivational speeches. That's because Lapin draws on another source of authority when making his presentations to executives: his yarmulke.

In addition to his career as a speaker, Lapin is an orthodox rabbi descended from a long line of Talmudic scholars. So it is doubly startling when he begins presentations with remarks that you might expect from a devoted watcher of Al Jazeera: "I don't need to tell you that, historically, Jews have been pretty good with money." He then proceeds to tell his audience how they can earn money just like a Jew. "You don't have to be Jewish to have access to the lessons of wealth that have been part of traditional Jewish culture for centuries," he wrote in his 2002 book, Thou Shall Prosper: Ten Commandments for Making Money.

While the Lapin family has long specialized in churning out rabbis, it has only recently expanded into the production of rabbinic business advisers. Daniel's brother and fellow rabbi, David, has a company called Strategic Business Ethics (SBE). (His firm cleverly bucks millennia of Judeo-Christian theology, which has viewed ethics as an end to itself, not as strategy.) On its website, SBE trumpets: "Rabbi Lapin holds audiences spellbound as he shares his knowledge and experience of life at the intersection of clashing worlds: ancient Kabalistic wisdom and modern business solutions." Indeed, over the years, Daniel and David Lapin have shared their knowledge and experience with quite an impressive set of audiences, including Nordstrom, Amway, Boeing--and, most notably, the Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The Lapin brothers are the Dr. Frasier Cranes of the Abramoff scandal--bit actors who appear so often that they deserve their own series. It was Daniel who first introduced Abramoff to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, making a match that went on to transgress congressional ethics codes and now stands at the center of Senate inquiries. When Abramoff opened the Eshkol Academy, a Maryland yeshiva funded by his unwitting Indian tribe clients, David served as the school's dean. And, thanks to Abramoff--hardly the man, it turns out, that you would want vouching for your ethics consulting firm--David brought ancient Kabalistic wisdom to bear in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (cnmi), one of the lobbyist's benefactors. The Marianas' government paid the rabbi's firm $1.2 million.

While the Lapins might not loom as large in the narrative of the scandal as Ralph Reed or Grover Norquist, they help resolve one of its essential mysteries. How could Abramoff, an ostensibly pious man who opened kosher restaurants and donated vast sums to charities, justify bilking naïve clients and trampling lobbying laws? What kind of rabbis, in other words, would provide guidance to a man like that? The Lapin brothers, that's who.

arly this spring, I met Daniel Lapin at a Washington hotel, where he was addressing a meeting of the Family Research Council, a Christian conservative group. Lapin is a bearded man with a South African accent, which distinguished him from the preachers milling about the lobby. To obtain an interview, I had pledged not to ask him about Abramoff, and, in our conversation, he volunteered only a few indirect comments on the scandal. "Everyone--you, me, and Jack--are a complex mix of strengths and flaws," he said solemnly. But Lapin was less reticent when the subject turned to himself. Placing his gray fedora on a table, he began to describe the windy route that led him to that day's evangelical gathering.

After growing up in Johannesburg and studying at a Jerusalem yeshiva, Lapin, in his twenties, followed a wave of white emigration from South Africa and landed in Los Angeles. He quickly grasped the opportunities for spiritual entrepreneurship in his new country. With the film critic Michael Medved, Lapin restored a superannuated synagogue on the Venice Beach boardwalk, and the congregation soon acquired cachet. Barbra Streisand's son celebrated his bar mitzvah there. (Lapin later served as a technical adviser on Yentl.) And, although his death indefinitely postponed the occasion, the nonagenarian billionaire Armand Hammer had planned to hold his own belated bar mitzvah at Lapin's synagogue. As a profile of Lapin in Eastside Week put it, the synagogue "grew quickly into a glamorous and intense place."

But, after a decade, the community began to fray. Congregants complained about Lapin's authoritarian style. "[S]ome unorthodox practices generally associated with cults turn up in account after account of life at [the synagogue]," the Jerusalem Report alleged in 1991. There were also financial problems. Lapin had declined a salary for his rabbinic duties, preferring to make a living from real estate deals. But his investments, some of which included congregants' capital, performed poorly. A month before his firm filed for bankruptcy, he resigned his pulpit and relocated to Mercer Island, Washington.

Grasping for a new mission, Lapin thought back to his rationale for moving stateside. On a previous road trip across the United States, he had noticed 19 towns named Salem. "I also started seeing all these Jerichos, Hebrons, and Zions, and a slew of other Hebrew names. I called home--in those days, a transatlantic call wasn't what it is now-- and I said, 'It's amazing.'" He couldn't believe the philo-Semitism of Middle America--evangelicals who didn't just tolerate Jews, but actually adored them. ("The Bible Belt is the Jewish safety belt" is one of his mantras.) So why, he wondered, did Jews ungratefully persist in complaining about prayer in schools and crèches in public squares?

Around the time he left Los Angeles, he started a group called Toward Tradition--turning the title of Michael J. Fox's Back to the Future on its head. Although he says it promotes "practical Torah solutions to modern American problems," it really intends to broker an alliance between Jews and evangelical Christians over social issues. (Lapin, who considers Israel to be founded by "secular Bolsheviks," has mostly steered Toward Tradition clear of foreign policy.) Toward Tradition emerged at a propitious moment, just as evangelicals carried the Republicans to their 1994 victory. And the group soon had as much cachet as his Venice Beach temple. Its inaugural conference drew Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and other luminaries. Many of them lent their names to an ad Lapin placed in The New York Times, offering Newt Gingrich a hearty "Mazel Tov" and saying of the Contract with America, "We know all about ten point contracts."

Fulsome praise wasn't all Lapin offered conservatives. Some on the right have an unfortunate tendency to blurt out the occasional anti-Semitic remark, creating firestorms that require defusing. So Lapin made it his business to defuse. When Pat Robertson came under attack in 1995 for his ravings about Jewish financiers, Lapin leapt to the minister's defense. "[Robertson]'s foolishness-per-volume rate is, for example, far, far lower than that of Vice President Al Gore," he told the Forward. After Pat Buchanan questioned the magnitude of the Holocaust, Lapin retorted in the Jewish Week, "Is it really worthwhile getting all of Jewish America in a dither over the question of whether 5.9 million or six million Jews died?" More recently, Lapin waxed lyrical about the virtues of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ.

Conservatives have rewarded Lapin for taking on these thankless assignments by turning him into a minor icon. He headlines the Christian Coalition's Road to Victory gatherings. In April, he deployed his silky oratory at Justice Sunday, a telecast where preachers lined up to lambaste Democrats for filibustering George W. Bush's judicial nominees. And, when Bush gathered clergy for discussions of his faith-based initiative in December 2000, Lapin was the only rabbi invited. Earlier this year, Lapin achieved an even greater distinction--providing a blessing at the wedding of (the unmistakably gentile) libertarian impresario Grover Norquist, who was marrying a Muslim. Judaism, though, was beside the point. Lapin was there in his role as rabbi to the right.

aniel Lapin's allegiance to conservatism extends to economics. He'll hurl a verse from Leviticus to justify estate tax abolition. His financial self-help book is an Andrew Carnegie-style gospel of wealth delivered in a hamische accent: "Don't be embarrassed to admit that you want more money." He excoriates the press for "denigrat[ing] business" and suggesting that "business professionals need to be restrained from committing crimes in their single-minded pursuit of profit." No wonder Jack Abramoff fell into his arms.

Abramoff's relationship with the Lapins dates to Johannesburg in the 1980s, when he met David while making the movie Red Scorpion. Over the years, the lobbyist and the Lapins helped one another with their various ventures. Abramoff, for instance, served as Toward Tradition's chair--writing checks to the group and helping solicit others. And, when Abramoff needed the brothers, they would lend him a hand. Abramoff liked to masquerade his lobbying efforts as ideological crusades, portraying parochial issues like Indian gambling as bedrock conservative concerns. To this end, he could count on Daniel to present clients, like Microsoft and Channel One, as avatars of Mosaic values. In a Washington Times op-ed, Daniel wrote that the government will "undermine our economy by destroying excellent companies like Microsoft."

David, meanwhile, struck up a closer business relationship with Abramoff: The rabbi appears throughout the billing records Abramoff sent to his client, the Northern Mariana Islands--a chain of U.S. territories in the Pacific that wanted to retain its special legal status, which permitted sweatshops to set up there, pay far lower than minimum wage, and still stamp garments made in the usa. According to the documents, Abramoff billed for near-daily calls to David. This wouldn't be such a big deal--except that Lapin was an unlikely comrade in Abramoff's struggle to stave off changes in the cnmi labor law, given that he was, at the time, a Johannesburg rabbi.

That's not to say that Abramoff exploited the Lapins like an Indian tribe. They benefited plenty from his patronage. The lobbyist paid David more than $60,000 to serve as the dean of his Maryland yeshiva, even though the rabbi had taken up residence in Los Angeles and only visited the school every month or so. "He was an absentee dean," says Robert Whitehill, who taught at the school. "I can't say that I saw much of him." Abramoff also tossed business in the direction of David's SBE. According to its website, the rabbi's firm consulted for the Pearl River Resort, owned by Abramoff's client, the Choctaw Indians.

Abramoff brokered another contract for David Lapin with the cnmi. Beginning in 1996, Lapin would fly from Johannesburg to hold seminars with the cnmi civil service. Lapin claims his work resulted in proposed legislation that would have increased the island's minimum wage. But, according to cnmi officials, that bill never passed. Pam Brown, the islands' former attorney general, wrote in an e-mail to me: "I have spoken with no one familiar with the 'services' provided by Mr. Lapin that can point to any benefit to the cnmi. One did report that he did travel often but that such travel was in first class accommodations on the government's dime." For this work, he earned a $1.2 million paycheck.

David Lapin is now suffering for this success. Ever since the Times exposed the windfall the rabbi reaped from his cnmi work, he has been furiously distancing himself from Abramoff in an attempt to salvage his business from the taint of the connection. "Our contact has been sporadic," David says of Abramoff. He insists that he merited his Marianas million. Indeed, David now even seems to view his brother as a liability. "David Lapin has no relationship to Mr. Tom DeLay, nor is he in any way involved in his brother Daniel's organization, Toward Tradition," reads a statement on SBE's website.

But, if David Lapin is sweating over the Abramoff scandal, Daniel Lapin is positively sanguine. It's true that, over the years, Daniel has alienated a broad swath of the Jewish community with his flip dismissals of anti-Semitism and his frequent proclamations that make it sound as if American Jews, with their "anti-Christian" bigotry and "secular fundamentalism," are almost asking for a pogrom. ("You'd have to be a recent immigrant from Outer Mongolia not to know of the role that people with Jewish names play in the coarsening of our culture," he recently wrote on "The sad fact is that through Jewish actors, playwrights, and producers, the Berlin stage of Weimar Germany linked Jews and deviant sexuality in all its sordid manifestations just as surely as Broadway does today.") The Progressive Policy Institute's Marshall Wittmann says, "I'm not sure that he has a Jewish following anymore."

But Daniel Lapin doesn't need one, because his evangelical following--won over, in part, with help from Abramoff--has more than compensated. And not even the Abramoff scandal, it seems, could lessen evangelicals' devotion to him. In Washington, at the Family Research Council, Lapin provided pastors with a crackling exegesis of Genesis. The Bible's opening book, he argued, presented competing visions of social organizations. There was the Tower of Babel, a "vision of centralized control and atheism." By contrast, the Abrahamic model represents "freedom, independence, and restrained government."

As we spoke in the hotel lobby after this presentation, the Family Research Council's president, Tony Perkins, interrupted. "I hope you felt comfortable," he said hesitantly. Lapin responded in mock horror, "Yes, in a room filled with so many avowed anti-Semites." He chuckled. Other pastors kept approaching him and pumping his hand. "That was awesome," a Texas preacher crowed. One of his South Carolina colleagues followed. "Do you speak at churches?" he asked. "All the time," Lapin replied. "Would you come to my congregation in Columbia? They need to hear what you have to say." The rabbi extended his hand forward so that his jacket rode up his sleeve. He smiled broadly. "Twist my arm," he said.

Franklin Foer is a senior editor at TNR.


Post a Comment

<< Home