Thursday, 10 January 2013

Casino Jack

I recently watched the Kevin Spacey film Casino Jack, Jack Abramoff that is, convicted and imprisoned for pushing the Lobbyist envelope beyond legal limits although from the perspective of the anarchism at the heart of white American little government, gun totting  Republicanism, he remains a hero. This was the second time I viewed.

At one level the film is an honest and therefore remarkable indictment of the Lobbying system in the United States, the corruption of some politicians and officials and the lack of ethical mindsets which led to the so called Banking crisis. I can also understand and have some sympathy for those who passionately believe that governments can achieve more harm than good despite the best of intentions and motives and that non profit independent bodies can be as affective if not more effective at helping the under classes in society as the state.

I also understand why I hesitated about writing this piece after seeing the film before as it covers some of the activities of some of the most powerful men on the planet.

The first thing to say is that from  the evidence  of the film and what I have read to date Mr Abramoff is no lightweight and in some respects I suspect his story has only just begun. I cannot believe he will be abandoned by his Republican colleagues and political friends, especially the two other members of the College Republican Triumvirate  of Ralph E Reed jnr  and the most powerful political individual in the USA to this day Grover Norquist.

Mr Abramoff was born in Atlantic City into a wealthy Republican family  whose father was President of the Diners Club franchise and who worked with Alfred S Bloomingdale, a personal friend of Ronald Regan, Mr Abramoff became an Orthodox Jew after seeing the film Fiddler on the Roof and his serious religious practice enable him to establish strong links with the born again Christian movement which has so dominated the Republican party over recent decades and elections.

He had a prolonged university experience over six years graduating in English and Law becoming Chairman of the Massachusetts Alliance of College Republicans, organising volunteers for the 1980 Ronald Regan Campaign. This was only a stepping stone to becoming Chairman of the College Republicans National Committee and  said to have moved the Committee to the right with the purpose of eliminating  those on the left. It was with the College Republicans that he became part of Abramoff, Reed-Norquist alliance,

In 1985  when  27 years of age  he joined Citizens for America and along with Grover Norquist helped Oliver North build support for the Nicaraguan Contras, and then helped organise as well as attend a conference in Africa with anti communist bodies such as the Mujadeen from Afghanistan and Unita from Angola as well as the Contras and opposition groups from Laos. He thus had long standing established  connections and credentials with the Republican Party and its Conservative right mainstream.

While his political links and interests continued especially his fund raising for the Republican party he  spent the next ten years in the film industry, notably producing with his brother the film Red Scorpion said to have been financed by the South African Apartheid led government via one of its front organisations to undermine international sympathy for the African National Congress.  Mr Abramoff rejects the racist implication and from what I have read he appears to have combined his right of centre American style belief in the free capitalism system with doing business with whoever was willing to pay his price.

It can be said that he created the pathway to his downfall when he was headhunted by the Seattle based Lobbying firm of Preston Gates Ellis, traditionally reported as Democrat leaning and therefore looking for someone with strong Republican connections after the Republican party gained control of the Congress. Presumably taking on someone at this level the firm would have done their homework about his creative style and methods. This was the era when organisations were advised to include creative intellects as backroom people or as shaper leaders but on the basis that they could be  quickly removed if individuals were caught crossing the line and the matter could not be effectively covered up.

Jack’s connections and style brought him amazing instant success and this appears to have fuelled personal ambitions creating two major restaurants as sidelines but it was his personal involvement in the Casino business when already under investigation by the Washington Post which  precipitated his  downfall, although there were other developments which contributed. He became financially over stretched and over confident.

What is also established that throughout his adult life he remained an important contributor to Republicanism Conservatism raising huge sums for the Party and individual politicians, as well as providing vast funds for charitable and social projects which interested him. He had good direct access to President Bush and his Administration and there is evidence of several meetings, including official photographs. He was an official member of the 2001 Bush Administration Transition Team and  became friendly with the Deputy Sectary at the Ministry of the Interior whose department had responsibilities in relation to the Mariana Islands. According to one report he had 345 meetings with members of the administration, 71 phone calls and 69 emails. He had ten meetings with Bush Aide Karl Rove.

In the film and from what I have read there were three main areas where the Justice Department and Federal authorities subsequently investigated. According to the film media interest was first aroused by his representation of the  commercial  interests of the Mariana Islands which enabled goods to be exported as made in the USA but where exemption was  gained from  restrictive labour and immigration laws as well as favourable taxation. Workers were forced to have abortions if pregnant and there was a sex industry involving  sexual and well as industrial slavery aspect to what went on the Islands he was representing and where he used his political influence to protect and further.

The second area involved providing representation  for Native American Tribes who had become economically dependent on Casinos for their education, health and other welfare services and where I have seen figures of fees  in the order of $80 million quoted but where the level of service no way reflected the fees charges.

The third and most serious of concerns arose over his decision with a partner to purchase for over $140 million a Casino group called SunCruz, ships which sailed off coast into International waters for gambling purposes although through friendly politicians in Florida one vessel remained moored in harbour. The owner of the  group remained  in management with a secret ten percent interest having been told by Federal authorities to sell his holdings within three years. The man was murdered shortly after a confrontation with the partner of Abramoff. A former  bookkeeper to the Gambino Crime Family and two others have been indicted for the murder and held in custody, still to be brought to trial  some  six years later. Jack and his partner pleaded guilty to a fraud charge where it appears  the $20 Million down payment for the purchase had little or no substance.

In addition to fraud he was convicted on charges of conspiracy and tax invasion together with trading expensive trips, meals and attendance at sporting events for political favours. Part of the problem appears to have been the cross over from the continuing political allegiance with organising fund raisers which is  a major part of the American political scene and where he used his four Skyboxes at major sporting events costing it is said $1 million dollars a year to run but to which he also invited politicians he wanted to influence including those opposed to the development of gambling. It was not illegal for politicians to participate in a fund raiser at a Skybox for example and not to declare any proceeds directly.

While Jack’s interests involved the gambling industry his professional interests were much wider earning over $3 million from a Russian Energy Company and he also, represented the  interests of the governments of Malaysia and the Sudan for a time.

According to the film he failed by one hour to provide prosecution evidence against a partner in the Indian Tribe Casino Scandal to reduce his sentence. The partner had got in first. Jack served four years of his six year sentences. After completing his coterminous sentences he is re-establishing himself with a book, a TV Show and providing official advice on the nature of the system which brought him into the White House as well as substantial wealth. It would be surprising if he does not do well on the lecture circuit and as I say I believe his story has only just begun.

I now turn to those who were  charged and most cased convicted with him. Adam Kidan was  the business partner the Lauderdale based SunCruz Casino group and was sentenced to nearly six years in prison for conspiracy and fraud.

Bob Ney then US Congress Representative sentenced to  two and half years pleaded guilty to bribes from Abramoff

Tom DeLay Republican Congressional House majority Leader convicted of two counts of money laundering and conspiracy.

(His former staff officer Michael Scanlon working for Abramoff pleaded guilty to bribery and sentenced to prison and community service; his former staff officer Tony Rudy pleased guilty to conspiracy; his executive Director Political Action Committee James W Ellis indicted for money laundering; and James Colyandro another executive director also indicted for money laundering)

Kevin A Ring staff to John Doolittle convicted of five charges of corruption and 20 months prison

(His former chief of staff Neil Voltz pleaded guilty to conspiring to corrupt Ney; former chief  of staff William Heaton pleased guilty to a Federal Conspiracy Charge., and another former Chief of Staff  Thomas Hart also pleaded guilty to the same charge. (Ney’s gifts included expensive golfing trips to Scotland)

David Safavian former White House official sentenced to 18 months guilty of covering up dealings with Abramoff.

Stephen Grilles former Deputy Interior Secretary pleaded guilty to obstruction of Justice and lying about the relationship with Abramoff.

Roger Stillwell Staff at Ministry of Interior given two-year suspended sentence for accepting hundreds of dollars of gift of sports and concert tickets from Abramoff.

Special Presidential Assistant Susan B Ralston resigned after admitting accepting gifts and passing information to Abramoff.

Italia Federici co founder Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy guilty of tax evasion and obstruction of Senate investigation.

Mark Zacheres former aide to Congressman Den Young guilty of conspiracy and accepting thousands of dollars of gifts.

James Hirni staff to Tim Hutchinson charged with fraud. Others who pleaded guilty were John Albaugh a cheif  of staff to Ernest Istook, Jared Carpenter Vice President Council of Republicans for the Environment, Robert E Goglin Deputy Chief of Staff Criminal Diviison Justice Department and  Horace Cooper former Labor Dept official.

The most significant political figure indicted in the story of Casino Jack  was  the Republican Congressional Leader from 2003 to 2005 Tom DeLay representing a Texas District. He is presently on bail appealing a three year  prison conviction in relation to a felonious campaign money laundering charge. He was  a strong and some would say ruthless enforcer of Party discipline on behalf of the president George W Bush and like Casino Jack was ultra Conservative pro the gun lobby, pro Life, a born again Christian which his book No Retreat, No Surrender indicates his perspective. He has also diversified since resigning  his political positions appearing in the American version of Strictly Come Dancing, It was passionate against Clinton’s involvement with Monica Lewinsky pointing out that he had given up his adulterous ways by that time.  Seen smoking a Cuban Cigar, on a trip to Israel,  the purchase and consumption being illegal in the States he was known as a passionate and important anti Castro politician. He once used Federal law enforcement agencies for purely party political purposes and was admonished by the House Ethics Committee. A more pertinent  involvement was his pressure on Lobbying firms to retain Republican officials in top positions  suggesting that those with Democrat principals would not gain access. An interesting totalitarian concept in the land of the free!!!

Although associates of Mr Delay Tony Rudy and Michael Scanlon pleased guilty along with Casino Jack, implicating Delay was not part of the  plea bargaining that went on in the case, although it is believed he was a  major target of the investigating authorities.  On one hand it is known that DeLay accepted significant gifts from Abramoff including paid golfing holidays to Scotland. He is also known to have been instrumental in blocking legislation which would have banned sex shops and sweat shops and forced employees to have abortions in the Marianna Island which Casino Jack represented. Wikipedia lists a number  of areas which were part of the Justice Department and media investigations. He now spends a considerable part of his time on speaking engagements promoting Conservative Republican Values.

A feature of the film and a significant  event which helped to bring down Casino Jack was his decision buy SunCruz a company which provided Casino Gambling ships, either off coast in International waters to avoid USA Controls but with one vessel harboured in Florida with local political support. Jack and his partner in the enterprise Adam Kidan purchased the business for $147.5 million from the  Konstantine Gus Boulis who had been successfully investigated by the Federal authorities and required to sell his holding within 3 years. However under his agreement with Abramoff and Kidan he retained a 10% interest and  ran the business. He accepted a $20 million promissory note in lieu of the initial $23 purchase down payment. The two men were subsequently indicted and pleaded guilty to charges relating to this transaction in 2005 and 2006.

After the original deal there was a fight between Boulis and Kidan  and according to the film over several issues and it was following this incident that Boulis was murdered. The film alleges that Kidan was a  factor in causing the death although it is  my understanding that no evidence to substantiate this has been brought forward. Three men, one a former bookkeeper with the Gambino crime family have been charged with first degree murder and other offences and remained in prison for a number of years without the matter coming to court.

Adam Kidan, a layer, like Abramoff and Ney held positions in the organisation of College Republicans remains a prosecution witness in the Gus Boulis murder trial . He is known to presently act as advisor on mergers and acquisitions. He served 35 months in prison.

A second major political figure to be brought down by the Abramoff investigations was Bob Ney one time chairman of the House of Representatives Administration Committee which led to  him being known as the Mayor of Capitol Hill. He also accepted lavish gift from Abramoff who stated  in his evidence along with that of DeLays former deputy chief of staff Tom Rudy, his former press secretary Michael Scanlon and his own  chief of staff Neil Voltz were given for political favours, and primarily associated with the Indian Lobby Scandal. Ney resigned after pleading guilty to charges of conspiracy and making false statements. He was sentenced to 30 months and released after serving 17.  Ney also admitted entering two statements into the Congressional record regarding the Santa Cruz Scandal for a $10000 contribution.

Ney was and may still be the only Congressman to speak fluent Persian having lived in Iran teaching English. He is reported to be working in Radio.

Michael Scanlon former Communications Director for Ney was sentenced on Feb 2011 to 20 months and 300 hours community service after pleading guilty to bribing a member of Congress and other public officials relating to defrauding of American Indian tribes. He plays a major role in the film where it is alleged he was turned in to the federal authorities and  the media by his then fiancĂ©e who found evidence of involvement with another woman

He was involved in the SunCruz scandal. Scanlon operated his own public relations firm gaining work from the Indian Tribes which he only partly undertook, pocketing the rest of the money split with Abramoff. He is reported to have referred to his Indian clients as “troglodytes and monkeys“ while Christian Conservatives were called Wackos and is alleged to have said that “The wackos get their information through the Christian right, Christian radio, mail, the internet and telephone trees... 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.”  He also emailed  a colleague saying “The whole thing about not kicking someone when they are down is BS  -Not only do you kick him- You kick him till he passes out then bat him over the head with a baseball bat- then roll him over in an old rug- and throw him off a cliff into the pounding surf below. Under investigation he agreed to testify against Abramoff and in the film Abramoff admits this was one hour before he was proposing to do likewise as part of plea bargaining.

Given Scanlon’s views  I wonder how he regarded Ralph E Reed Junior former College Republican, the Conservative Republican political activist, born again  Christian and first Executive Director of the Christian Coalition during the early 1990’s. It was with Jack Abramoff and  Grover Norquist that Reed formed the what was known as the Abramoff- Norquist-Reed triumvirate. He helped form the Conservative organisation Students for America and this brought him into contact with Ed Buckham and Jim Backlin, the latter Legislative Director of the Christian Coalition and through him a relationship with Tom DeLay was established.

Reed then established Century Strategies a political consultancy firm and, public relations and lobbying. The organisation became involved in the effort to protect the way commercial interests operating in the Mariana Islands. Reed then successfully mounted a campaign to become Chairman of the Georgia Republican party, a voluntary position, with funds provided by an American Indian group represented by Abramoff. Reed them  moved to become the Lieutenant Governor with some success until revelations about his links and financial interests with Abramoff. The US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs commented in its final report  on  the Indian Affairs Scandal that under the guidance of the Mississippi Choctaw tribe’s planner, Neil Rogers, the Tribe agreed to launder money because “Ralph Reed did not want to be paid directly by a Tribe with gaming interests. It also states that” Reed used non profits, like Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, as pass-throughs to disguise the origin of the funds, and that the structure was recommended by Jack Abramoff to accommodate Mr Reed’s political concerns.

I had intended to leave the last words to mentioning that Susan Schmidt an investigative reporter with Wall Street Journal who when working for the Washington Post was awarded the Pulitzer prize for her work exposing the  activities of Casino Jack but it must go to Grover Norquist  a member of the College Republican Triumvirate who not  only survived the Abramoff investigations but has continued to prove himself the most powerful individual in American Politics to this day, more  powerful in fact than Presidents who he can make or break in terms of limiting what they can and cannot do.

He, like I suspect Cameron at heart wants to reduce the role of government “ to where it can drown in a  bathtub.“ With this in mind he created the Americans for Tax reform organisation determined to reduce the amount of taxation in real terms contributed by citizens and therefore is opposed to any taxation rises unless offset by greater reductions elsewhere, the philosophy of the Coalition here in the UK and which the Labour Party appears to struggle to reject from fear of electoral losses and failure, having digested some of the main tenets of uncontrolled capitalism swallowed under Blair and Brown. In order to ensure that the Republican party remained committed to his view of state involvement his organisation presses politicians to give pledges with 238 of the 242 Republicans in Congress and 41 of the 47 Republican Senators committed prior to the 2012 elections. His power has been slightly weakened with the number of Congressmen committed down to 218 and in the Senate to 39  development which may have helped President to prevent  having to take his nation over the so called fiscal cliff.

Norquist was of the Pro Barry Goldwater movement supporters and was  at the start of the Bush for President Campaign.. He is a co founder of the Islamic Free Markey Institute ( his wife was born  into an Islamic family, He is involved with the Christian Coalition and Toward Tradition movement. He is involved in a centre right coalition to withdraw from Afghanistan. He is an activist in Tea Party politics. He is on the board of Directors of the National Riffleman Association, The American Conservative Union, the Hispanic Leadership Fund, the Indian American Republican caucus and the Parents Right Organisation which is seeking to add a Parental Rights amendment to the constitution. He is one six people who advise
on theme Magazine Person of the Year award. He is also a Member of the Council on Foreign  Affairs.

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