THE BLOG

The NRA Knows Corruption. Just Ask Jack Abramoff.

10/04/2011 07:21 am ET | Updated Dec 04, 2011
  • Josh Horwitz Executive Director, Coalition to Stop Gun Violence

Earlier this month, the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence launched www.MeetTheNRA.org, a website that shines a light on the unsavory conduct of the 76 members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) Board of Directors. The site allows them to comment on the issues of the day in their own words, and opens a virtual Pandora's box of racism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-immigrant animus, religious bigotry, anti-environmentalism, insurrectionism, and other troubling ideology. It also untangles the political ties/connections of the gun lobby's leaders. Previously, I wrote about the link between NRA board members and some of the most brutal human rights abusers on the planet. But one doesn't have to leave the United States -- or even our nation's capital -- to encounter their unscrupulous associations.

On September 23, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre appeared at the Florida Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to discuss his organization's opposition to the presidency of Barack Obama. In his remarks, LaPierre said, "The president will offer the Second Amendment lip service and hit the campaign trail saying he's actually been good for the Second Amendment, but it's a big, fat, stinkin' lie, just like all the other lies that have come out of this corrupt administration. It's all part of a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment in our country."

In fairness, when LaPierre speaks of corruption and conspiracy, he knows what he's talking about. After all, two high-profile and powerful members of the NRA Board of Directors -- U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-AK) and Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist -- were involved in the biggest American political corruption scandal of the last decade: the criminal schemes of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

In 2006, Abramoff was convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy charges for his role in a pay-to-play lobbying scheme that involved the illegal trading of gifts to politicians in exchange for votes that favored his clients' interests. Abramoff also defrauded his clients by overcharging them millions of dollars in lobbying fees. By the time the entire house of cards had fallen, 12 others were convicted of crimes for their involvement with Abramoff's schemes, including U.S. Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH), who took bribes.

Ney wasn't the only Member of Congress who benefited from Abramoff's largesse. U.S. Representative and NRA board member Don Young (R-AK) -- who is frequently featured on the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) list of the most corrupt politicians in Washington -- received donations for his Midnight Sun Political Action Committee from Abramoff clients. He also used Abramoff's lavish MCI Center Skybox in 2000 to host fundraisers on two separate occasions. The use of the Skybox was not reported to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) until after Abramoff was investigated and indicted for wire fraud.

It makes perfect sense that Abramoff would favor Young. The congressman was a cheerleader for the government of the Northern Mariana Islands -- a U.S. commonwealth -- during a period when that government was one of Abramoff's biggest clients (paying him over $9 million total). Abramoff and Young were apparently unconcerned about a 1998 Department of Interior report that documented widespread human rights abuses associated with a booming sweatshop industry on the islands (clothing made on the islands carries a "Made in USA" label). The report found that women and children immigrant workers were subjected to forced abortions, sex slavery, and substandard pay and working conditions.

Nonetheless, Young repeatedly used his position as chair of the House Resources Committee to oppose applying U.S. labor and immigration laws to the islands. In 1995 and again in 2000, Young allowed bills that would have improved working conditions on the Mariana Islands (which were unanimously passed by the U.S. Senate) to die in committee. Abramoff took credit for the failure of the 2000 reform bill, saying "We then stopped it cold in the House." During one 25-month period, Abramoff employees had over 120 contacts with Young or his staff concerning the Northern Mariana Islands. When term limits forced Young to step down as chair of the House Resources Committee, Abramoff wrote the Northern Mariana Island's anti-reform governor to say, "The loss of Chairman Young's authority cannot easily be measured -- or replaced ... We have lost major institutional memory and friendship."

Mark Zachares, who worked as an aide for Young before pleading guilty to conspiracy as part of the Abramoff scandal, served as the Mariana Islands' Secretary of Labor and Immigration from 1998 to 2002 -- the same time that Young was blocking reform on the islands. And Zachares was not the only Young aide to be convicted of a crime for involvement in the Abramoff scandal. Fraser Verrusio, hired by Young to work on the House Transportation Committee, was convicted of accepting an illegal gratuity and other crimes in February 2011.

Then there is NRA board member Grover Norquist, who MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell described as "the most powerful man in America who does not sleep in the White House." According to Mark Salter, a top aide to U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), "By his own admission, Grover [Norquist] couldn't be any closer to [Jack] Abramoff if they moved to Massachusetts and got married." While Norquist is best known today for taking political hostages to promote a radical anti-tax agenda, his relationship with Abramoff dates way back to 1981, when he served as campaign manager for the corrupt lobbyist's successful campaign to become chairman of the National College Republicans.

In 1995, Norquist and then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX) -- who has since been convicted of money laundering -- founded the "K Street Project." The goal of the project was to facilitate the hiring of Republican staffers at top lobbying firms and then reward the firms by offering access to influential GOP officials (the explicit "pay-to-play" nature of the project is now illegal under federal law). The K Street Project has also been linked to Abramoff, who followed its model of hiring former Republican staffers to improve his access on Capitol Hill. As Fox News political analyst Juan Williams commented, "Abramoff is in some ways the face of how lobbying and Congress became intertwined. He played by the GOP leadership rules."

The quid pro quo was that Norquist used his tax-exempt ATR to help Abramoff funnel money from his clients to conservative causes (ATR kept a small cut of the funds). In 2006, the Senate Finance Committee concluded that, in doing so, ATR "appear[ed] to have perpetrated a fraud on...taxpayers" by "profit-seeking and private benefit behavior inconsistent with their tax-exempt status. And by virtue of the tax benefits, other taxpayers implicitly subsidized this behavior."

And curiously, like Don Young, Norquist was also involved in the Northern Mariana Islands. During the 1990s, Norquist promoted the islands as a positive example of free enterprise. In return, Abramoff charged the islands' government (his client) thousands of dollars for "discussions" with Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform staffers.

Corruption? Conspiracy? You have to wonder why Wayne LaPierre is spending so much time making up cockamamie tales about the Obama administration. The stories that can be told around the table at one of his NRA board meetings are infinitely more interesting...and real.

This is the second in a series of articles I have written profiling the rogues gallery that makes up the leadership of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Learn more at www.MeetTheNRA.org.