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Grover Norquist

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The Ballad of Casino Jack.

The festival was over and the boys were all planning for a fall.
The cabaret was quiet except for the drilling in the wall.
The curfew had been lifted and the gambling wheel shut down.
Anyone with any sense had already left town.
He was standing in the doorway looking like the Jack of Hearts.

Thanks, Bob, I got it from here. As the links above attest, the sordid dealings of “Casino Jack” Abramoff and his GOP associates — most notably Tom DeLay and Bob Ney — made for solid blog fodder here at GitM for several years. So, between that and my current place of work, I probably had more interest than most in Alex Gibney’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a documentary recounting Abramoff’s rise-and-fall. And…well, it’s not bad. But, unfortunately, it’s not great either. And in terms of making the points he wants to make, I don’t get the sense Gibney really stuck the landing.

Part of the problem is Casino Jack is a maddeningly mercurial sort — and unlike the recently-released Ney, the soon to trial DeLay, chastened aide Neil Volz, and others, he and “Gimme Five” kickback co-conspirator Michael Scanlon choose not to go on the record here. So, right away, there is a cipher at the center of this ostensibly biographical story. And even more problematic for the film’s narrative and structure: Casino Jack had his fingers in a lot of pies, and if there was any way to game the political system somehow to make money, he was on the case. In short, this is one long, twisted, and convoluted story.

And thus, Gibney is left with the ungainly task of trying to explain how Abramoff turned Northern Marianas sweatshops into a bribe farm for GOP congressmen, and how his shady, playing-both-sides kickback operation gamed Native American casinos. Not to mention how his phantom think-tank on the Delaware coast was in fact a money-laundering outfit. Or how the seemingly Mob-connected takeover of a fleet of Suncruz casino ships — and the murder of its former owner — went down. And, amidst all this, how Abramoff managed to move up the GOP food chain by throwing his money around, and was depressingly successful at it. This is all not even withstanding weird tangents like Red Scorpion. So, while Gibney does an admirable job explaining the details of these various operations, he has to jump through so many hoops to get it all down that the Big Picture often gets lost.

I’m probably being a little too hard on this doc, if only because I went in with very high expectations. I was hoping Casino Jack would be more of a concise and devastating prosecutorial brief about the plague of unfettered money in politics, but it’s more broad and meandering than that. (And, to be fair, whenever you take a subject this broad, there will be some meandering — See also Why We Fight.) Still, as I said, even if the high-level connections aren’t quite nailed down, Gibney does a good job of nailing the specifics of each particular grift — the sweatshops and casinos and whatnot. And, coming across with the nerdy charm of a more buttoned-down, politically-minded version of R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, author and ex-Republican Thomas Frank (The Wrecking Crew, What’s the Matter with Kansas) is an appealing interviewee throughout, and he enlivens the discussion considerably.

Speaking of Frank’s ex-GOP years: If you already knew the contours of this Abramoff story (and I suspect most of the people who bother to see this film will), perhaps the most interesting part of Casino Jack is the first half-hour, which chronicles the old College Republican days of friends Abramoff, Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed. And from Reed’s penchant for outlandish stunts at campus protests, to Norquist’s unabashed admiration for Leninist tactics, to Abramoff et al’s abortive attempt to engage the Third World in their free-market fundie ways, it’s seem as if the young Reagan Right of the ’80s were mainly just a cracked-funhouse-mirror version of the ’60’s New Left they so despise. (This is also in keeping with what you might expect from books like Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm, about the ’64 Goldwater campaign.)

Still, as we move into the present day and these young conservatives fan out into the political system, Casino Jack and the United States of Money unfortunately gets its overarching message muddled. Is this movie about the former (Abramoff) or the latter (the U.S.M.)? Is Casino Jack a uniquely well-connected criminal mastermind, or, worse, the clearest expression of a political system overwhelmed by cold, hard cash? It’s true the answer to this question may just be “yes,” but the documentary can’t seem to decide at times if it wants to skewer Abramoff (and, by extension, his “unindicted co-conspirators”) or catch bigger game — the whole rotten system — and as a result, both sorta end up writhing off the hook.

At one point, Casino Jack gets caught up recounting the exceptionally douchey e-mail traffic between Abramoff and Scanlon, which is fun and all. (The best laugh in the movie is when the beach bum lifeguard running their Delaware front operation turns out to be savvier than these two would-be Masters of the Universe: “Uh, you’ve been putting this all in e-mails?”) But, even as we delve into these sordid details, the scarier implications of the Abramoff story feel shortchanged — that not only does this pay-to-play stuff seem business as usual for the Dubya White House and DeLay ring, but worse, that this monied corruption festering at the heart of our republic is both legal and even institutionalized.

And so, when the Citizens United fiasco comes up at the end, it unfortunately feels like a bit of a non-sequitur, rather than the sad culmination of the story we’ve been told for two hours. Casino Jack and the United States of Money is an able attempt at muckraking, but, to my mind, it fails to capture the true horror unfolding here: Jack Abramoff may be languishing in prison right now, and for many, many good reasons. But the mess of a system he thrived in is still right here with us — and if anything, after Citizens United, it might soon be getting worse.

Not-so-Super-Grover | Ney Day.

A new minority staff report by the Senate Finance Committee concludes that “[f]ive conservative nonprofit organizations, including one run by prominent Republican Grover Norquist, ‘appear to have perpetrated a fraud’ on taxpayers by selling their clout to lobbyist Jack Abramoff.” Among the organizations called out are Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform and the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (sheah), an outfit created by Norquist and former Dubya Interior Secretary Gail Norton, whose office was already waist-deep in ill-gotten Casino Jack loot. (In fact, Abramoff’s point person in Norton’s office was CREA’s president, Italia Federici.)

Update: In related news, Abramoff flunky Bob Ney pleaded guilty today to conspiracy and making false statements (without, mind you, resigning his seat in Congress.) While he didn’t speak with reporters, Ney’s written statement noted that the “treatment and counseling I have started have been very helpful, but I know that I am not done yet and that I have more work to do to deal with my alcohol dependency.” Ok, one more time, people. Alcoholism means you drink too much. It does not mean that you bilk the public, indulge in bribes, or send teenagers dirty IMs.

Dubya’s Revolving Door.

Missed this last week: Recently released visitor logs show Abramoff allies held court at the White House over 100 times. The most frequent visitors were disgraced strategists Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, but Neil Volz and Tony Rudy, both of whom have pled guilty in the Casino Jack case, also racked up more than a dozen visits each.

The 527 Scramble.

By a virtual party-line vote, the House Republicans pass a campaign finance reform bill that caps “527” contributions while raising the limit on coordinated party spending — both measures that greatly advantage the GOP over the Dems in the current campaign finance climate. “Organizations such as Common Cause, Democracy 21 and Public Citizen, past legislative adversaries of the GOP, were allied with Republicans in yesterday’s floor fight. Democrats had the backing of a long list of conservative leaders opposed to regulation, including Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and Paul M. Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation.” Well, they may have been right for the wrong reasons…still, I gotta say, the party spending aside, I’m actually with the GOP on this one. 527 organizations represent a blatant loophole in the McCain-Feingold act, and some 527 reform is clearly necessary if we’re going to be serious about restricting the influence of money on the electoral system. That so few House Dems voted for principle over their party pocketbooks is, to my mind, deeply troubling (but, so, for that matter, is McCain’s possible side deal to buttress his 2008 war chest.)

The widening cesspool.

“‘The wackos get their information through the Christian right, Christian radio, mail, the internet and telephone trees,’ Scanlon wrote in the memo, which was read into the public record at a hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. ‘Simply put, we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them.‘” Senate hearings delve further into the exploits of “Casino Jack” Abramoff and former Boss DeLay aide Michael Scanlon, as well as the cynicism and hypocrisy driving the GOP machine.

Meanwhile, more DeLay flunkies are found to be greasing the wheels for Abramoff, and the stench of corruption spreads to Interior Secretary Gail Norton’s office. There, it seems an aide, Italia Federici, received a $250,000 bribe from Abramoff clients (in the form of a payment to an environmental group she co-founded with, natch, Grover Norquist), in return for White House access. Says Senate panel chairman John McCain, it’s “a complex and tangled web…a story alarming in its depth and breadth of potential wrongdoing. It is breathtaking in its reach.

Ralph, Grover, & the Jack of Hearts.

Kickbacks, bribes, forgery, money-laundering…it’s all in a day’s work for Casino Jack and his band of conservative cronies. In a must-read piece of reporting, the Washington Post tells the sordid tale of Jack Abramoff’s shilling for eLottery Inc in full. Along with paying off both Boss DeLay and a senior aide on his payroll to spike an anti-gambling bill, “Abramoff quietly arranged for eLottery to pay conservative, anti-gambling activists to help in the firm’s $2 million pro-gambling campaign, including Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, and the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition. Both kept in close contact with Abramoff about the arrangement, e-mails show. Abramoff also turned to prominent anti-tax conservative Grover Norquist, arranging to route some of eLottery’s money for Reed through Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform.

Making Hay while the Cities Drown.

Looka points the way to a truly horrifying breakdown of Operation Offset, the House Republicans’ disgusting, abhorrent proposal to pay for Katrina reconstruction (without, of course, touching a red cent of Dubya’s millionaire tax breaks) So, guess who foots the bill?

“The Republicans would freeze funding for the Peace Corps, the Global AIDS Initiative, U.N. peacekeeping operations and a wide variety of third-world development programs; eliminate the EnergyStar program, eliminate grants to states and local communities for energy conservation, reduce federal subsidies for Amtrak, eliminate funding for new light-rail programs and cancel the president’s hydrogen fuel initiative; eliminate state grants for safe and drug-free schools because ‘studies show that schools are among the safest places in the country and relatively drug free’; and eliminate the teen funding portion of Title X, which provides ‘free and reduced-price contraceptives, including the IUD, the injection drug Depo-Provera, and the morning-after pill’ to poor teenagers.

Along the way, they’d find a way to punish — or simply eliminate — some of their enemies, real and imagined. They’d cut funding for the District of Columbia, eliminate funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, eliminate subsidized student loans for graduate students, terminate the Legal Services Corporation, eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and kill the National Endowment for the Humanities…

[T]he Republican plan also calls for ‘rational reforms to Defense and Homeland Security.’ Does this mean cutting weapons systems at the expense of big defense corporations? Well, no. But it does mean closing schools for the children of soldiers, cutting grants for local responders and offering National Guard members the ‘option’ to purchase a less comprehensive healthcare plan.”

So, just to clarify: Rather than roll back the Dubya tax breaks for the wealthiest 1% of Americans, which almost alone would raise the necessary funds, Boss DeLay and the House GOP want to cut a Grover Norquist-style swath of destruction through our government and foist the clean-up bill on everyone but their fatcat cronies. I must say, I am consistently surprised by the current GOP leadership’s ability to plumb new depths of repugnance.

Up the Bagman Food Chain.

Curiouser and curiouser…Already inexorably tied to Boss DeLay and Grover Norquist, “Casino Jack” Abramoff also boasted of a direct connection to Karl Rove two years ago, while helping Tyco and other corporate conglomerates try to avoid tax penalties for moving their operations overseas. Boy, pull at one brick in this rotten edifice of right-wing cronyism and the whole darned structure threatens to topple.

Dubya (and Grover’s) Crooked suit.

So apparently it was Follow-the-Money-Monday in Washington yesterday, which nine times out of ten will mean trouble for the GOP. On the same day that the FEC filed suit against the pro-Republican political group Club for Growth (in what may well be the first of many actions taken against soft money groups in both parties), David Safavian, the top federal procurement official at the White House, is arrested for lying about his involvement with — and obstructing the investigation into — “Casino Jack” Abramoff. Safavian, who as of last week was not only “setting purchasing policy for the entire government” but active in Katrina relief efforts, has a history of crooked behavior — he was earlier a bagman for Utah Rep. Chris Cannon. So, naturally, Dubya put the guy in charge of the nation’s pursestrings in 2004.

And here’s an interesting triangle for you. Safavian is also “a former lobbying partner of anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, he of the “drowning goverment” and “bipartisanship is date rape” quips, at a firm they co-founded called Janus Merritt (It was acquired in 2002.) As it turns out, Norquist was also — and I can’t believe I hadn’t heard this before — none other than Casino Jack‘s college roommate. Hmmm…you think maybe the shredder was working overtime this weekend at Americans for Tax Reform? Update: Upon further review, the article calling Norquist and Abramoff college roommates was probably wrong. However, their close college connection as leading Reagan Youth in Massachusetts (along with Christian Coalition guru Ralph Reed) is without question — more in the comments.

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