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The Dorgan Smear

There will be a lot of elephant dust being kicked up to obscure the one-party corruption machine revealed by the Abramoff investigation. A good example of it is this ABC story, unfortunately picked up on the DailyKos, implying that Senator Byron Dorgan is somehow caught up in the Abramoff mess:

New evidence is emerging that the top Democrat on the Senate committee currently investigating Jack Abramoff got political money arranged by the lobbyist back in 2002 shortly after the lawmaker took action favorable to Abramoff"s tribal clients.

A lawyer for the Louisiana Coushatta Indians told The Associated Press that Abramoff instructed the tribe to send $5,000 to Sen. Byron Dorgan"s political group just three weeks after the North Dakota Democrat urged fellow senators to fund a tribal school program Abramoff"s clients wanted to use.

Dorgan represents a state with a lot of Indians. They are also extremely poor, and have few gaming revenues because they don"t live near population centers. (Unlike, say, the Lousiana Coushattas.) Dorgan is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. It"s his job -- both as a Senator from North Dakota and as chair of the Indian Affairs committee -- to send a letter to the appropriations committee asking for funding for the Indian programs he thinks are important. If he didn"t send a letter requesting funding for the tribal school program, that would be significant.

ABC tries to connect Dorgan to Abramoff in the following way:

Dorgan"s letter noted that the Mississippi Choctaw, one of Abramoff"s clients, had successfully used the program and requested lawmakers consider long-term funding for it. It made no mention of Abramoff or any of his other tribes that were interested in the program.

Hmm, you might wonder: Why would Dorgan mention an Abramoff client, the Mississippi Choctaw, if he wasn"t somehow in bed with Abramoff. Why wouldn"t he mention a tribe in his own state? Very suspicious, if not the smoking gun.

Yet there"s a perfectly obvious reason: A letter requesting appropriations goes to the chair of the Appropriations Committee. The chair of the Appropriations Committee is one Senator Thad Cochran -- of Mississippi. First rule of appropriations letters is always show how the funds might benefit the appropriator"s own state.

This is business as usual and its not even mildly corrupt business as usual. Senators should advocate for programs that help their constituents.

But why would Abramoff instruct a tribe to make a donation to Dorgan (one-fifth the size of the donation to Conrad Burns), in return for a letter that Dorgan surely would have signed anyway? One possibility is that this was a long-planned setup, and Abramoff wanted to make sure that some Democrats were implicated when it all came to late. But I think the answer is more banal. There"s a dirty secret about Washington lobbying, which is that half of what lobbyists do is not persuade legislators what to do, but persuade their own clients that they -- the lobbyists -- are indispensable. And that means claiming credit for things that would happen anyway. So one way Abramoff could persuade the Coushatta"s that he was earning his keep was to point to letters like Dorgan"s, take credit for them, and then tell them to send money to Dorgan. It"s a small price to pay to maintain the illusion.

It"s no surprise that a lot of Washington reporters don"t seem to recognize how extraordinary Abramoff"s scam was, because they can"t seem to recognize how ordinary Dorgan"s actions were. If people can"t recognize that distinction, the "everyone does it" defense of Abramoff might be more effective than one would imagine.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 29, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

This makes perfect sense to me. Political donations don't always stem from corrupt deals. Sometimes people give money to a politician because they know that politician will do the right thing regardless of lobbyists' blandishments, and they want to help ensure that someone who does the right thing will stay in office. What looks deeply suspicious is when politicians start advocating - esp. out of the limelight - for things they wouldn't normally support anyway. This tribal school program, however, sounds like precisely the sort of thing that a Democrat with Indian constituents would naturally think was good policy.

This does raise the question, though, whether there are any Republicans in a similar situation. I confess I haven't been following the Abramoff scandal closely, so I can't say, but I've long sensed a habit on the part of certain partisan progressives, much like the Kossacks, of assuming that every donation to or meal with or meeting with a GOP politician is proof of corruption, and I wonder if some of that is going on here. (Not on Mark's part, let me hasten to clarify, but on the more rabid attack-dog lefty sites.)

I don't doubt, for a second, that several GOP Congressmen are every bit as guilty in this as the Duke was in his own scandal. I'm just thinking out loud, really, wondering whether one or two of the names being gleefully batted around are people who, like Dorgan, behaved in a a fairly normal, noncorrupt way. I don't have anyone in mind - it's just a possibility that fair-minded progressives ought to consider.

Posted by: The Navigator | Nov 29, 2005 4:37:08 PM

Markos may have gotten it wrong on the front-page, but Kagro X picks him up at the top of the rec' list.

Posted by: Thomas Allen | Nov 29, 2005 4:48:05 PM

You say it's an ABC News story, but what you're linking to is actually an AP story picked up by ABCNews.com.

Posted by: PD | Nov 29, 2005 5:33:41 PM

While it's only more of the same, $66,000 may be sufficiently distinctive from $5,000 to constitute an difference. Perhaps, an update in further explanation is called for.

From Joshua Frank:

"Sen. Reid sent a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton on March 5, 2002, which was also signed by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. "The next day, the Coushattas issued a $5,000 check to Reid's tax-exempt political group, the Searchlight Leadership Fund. A second Abramoff tribe sent another $5,000 to Reid's group. Reid ultimately received more than $66,000 in Abramoff-related donations between 2001 and 2004," the AP reported.

It was a political tit-for-tat. Reid opposed the construction of the casino and was paid handsomely for his choice. Another Democrat caught up in the legal chaos is former Senator John Breaux of Louisiana, who, according to tribal records, wrote Norton on March 1, 2002 about the same matter. Coushattas wrote a $1,000 check to his Senate campaign five days later and handed over $10,000 to his library fund."

Posted by: Ellen1910 | Dec 1, 2005 1:27:15 AM

Not only are the Choctaws in Mississippi and Cochran's constituents, but the tribe is one of the biggest employers in Mississippi. Thousands of people come each day to work at tribal enterprises.

Posted by: MLinVA | Dec 2, 2005 3:14:15 PM

What is truly sad is that there are only a few of you who watch and discern what is going on in these news stories.

More effort should be made in "getting out this disparity of information" than talking amongst yourselves.

Love the Blog,

Ed

You will never plough a field if you only turn it over in your mind

Posted by: Ed | Dec 3, 2005 5:31:27 PM

Both Republicans and Democrats are dirty in this unfolding scandal. What is also at issue is how balanced and fairly the lamestream media is going to report this scandal to the American people.

My guess is the liberal media will trumpet how this is a GOP scandal. It's the standard media MO. I will be the first to say that any Republican congressperson who has knowingly engaged in quid pro quo influence peddling should be shamed, run out of office and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

But what will probably be under-reported the next few months is the emerging reality influential Democrats may also be involved in Abramoff's dirty money. The Washington Post recently let slip that Democrats Byron Dorgan, Tom Harkin, Tom Daschle, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Richard Gephardt, Patrick Kennedy and Patty Murray may have had financial connections with Abramoff's dirty money.

What is at issue here is this: Will liberal Democrats merely play partisan politics by making up excuses and rationalizations for those on their side of the aisle so implicated or will liberals simply engage in more partisan politics? What say ye?

Posted by: libmeister | Jan 3, 2006 11:42:13 PM