Former DeLay aide paid thinktank to advance Washington lobbying efforts
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Wednesday April 12, 2006
Policy nonprofit where Abramoff was director funded DeLay's overseas junkets
The following report was written by John Byrne and researched by Ron Brynaert and Muriel Kane.
The former deputy chief of staff to onetime House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) advised the manufacturer of Stoli Vodka to make a $20,000 contribution to the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative thinktank, which wrote an editorial supporting Stoli shortly thereafter, RAW STORY has found.
Former DeLay deputy Tony Rudy got an $8,000 kickback on the deal, according to his plea agreement. In apparent exchange for the tax-deductible donation, the nonprofit's president wrote an article aiding the company's lobbying effort.
The article, written by NCPPR director Amy Ridenour, argued that Russia “undermined Democratic capitalism” by voiding SPI Spirit’s trademark on Stoli Vodka. At the time, according to Abramoff and Rudy’s lobbying filings, SPI Spirits was lobbying Congress on “trade with Russia and intellectual property rights.”
To this day, the article written by the National Center's president Amy Ridenour is featured on the Stoli website.
Laura Miller, Rudy’s attorney, and Amy Ridenour, director of the National Center, did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
Rudy was a lobbyist on the Stoli account, working for fallen conservative lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was recently sentenced for committing fraud in a Florida gambling boat deal. In the first half of 2002 – during the period Ridenour wrote her editorial – Abramoff's Greenberg Traurig lawfirm received $200,000 from Stoli. Abramoff was on the National Center's board of directors at the time.
The revelation that Rudy and Abramoff used the nonprofit – which they also funneled money through to pay for junkets for former GOP chief DeLay – casts a new light on another major aspect of the Abramoff scandal: that Abramoff and his aides used political nonprofits to shield the movement of large sums of money and advance their lobbying goals. Previous reports have also indicated that Abramoff worked with GOP heavyweight Grover Norquist, who took $25,000 in payments to arrange meetings with President George W. Bush. Nonprofits are not required by law to release information on their contributors.
Moreover, Rudy’s plea agreement states that he “solicited and caused” $55,000 in other contributions to a “nonprofit public policy organization” on behalf of three other clients. His agreement states Rudy got a $27,000 kickback from the organization "with Abramoff's assistance." RAW STORY cannot confirm this is the National Center.
The agreement, however, may be an indication that the conservative thinktank received contributions in exchange for supporting other Abramoff clients. A RAW STORY analysis found that the group's senior officers penned at least a dozen editorials supporting the positions of at least seven Abramoff clients.
Both Rudy and Abramoff have pled guilty to bribing members of Congress and defrauding clients. Rudy is expected to be sentenced to two years in prison; Abramoff has not yet been sentenced in the Washington lobbying case.
The plea agreement by DeLay's former senior aide is the first formal acknowledgement that the National Center received contributions in apparent exchange for supporting Abramoff's clients. Abramoff, who pled guilty in January to bribing members of Congress, also paid some columnists in exchange for assisting clients.
“Vodka production is Russia's second biggest industry,” Ridenour wrote. “After the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991 the government sold the assets of the Russian vodka industry to private industry. SPI International, now based in the Netherlands, bought the rights to Stoli Vodka and has run the company successfully for over a decade.”
“But last October, the Russian state trademark industry turned SPI's vodka trademarks over to the Russian Ministry of Agriculture, which subsequently declared the trademarks void,” Ridenour continued. “A Russian court intervened on behalf of SPI but, to the chagrin of independent observers, the Russian government is ignoring the court's findings and orders.”
The National Center took to the national stage when it emerged that Abramoff – who was a member of the nonprofit’s board from 1997 to 2004 – had laundered $2.5 million through the group to increase personal holdings and pay for congressional trips. The money underwrote overseas trips taken by House Administration Committee Chairman Robert Ney (R-OH) and former House Majority Leader DeLay.
Ridenour has asserted she knew nothing of Abramoff’s nefarious lobbying activity. But her record of supporting Abramoff’s and Rudy’s clients is manifold.
The Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, Economic Council
In a series of editorials between 1999 and 2001, National Center for Public Policy Research president Amy Ridenour went to bat for the Commonwealth of the Marianas Islands, a small U.S. territory in the Pacific. Her releases bemoaned efforts to expand federal immigration laws to the island, defended the islands' meager wages and attacked Clinton Administration attempts to tighten labor laws.
Ridenour also lent her support to the Western Pacific Economic Council, a trade group composed of Marianas garment manufacturers. Her group’s name appeared in a Saipan newspaper backing the Council in 1999.
Both the Marianas and the Economic Council were clients of Jack Abramoff at the time. The Marianas paid Abramoff’s firm Preston Gates $2.9 million in 1999 and 2000 and his second firm, Greenberg Traurig, $2.1 million in 2001. The Western Pacific Economic Council paid Preston Gates $2.3 million in 1999 and 2000.
Ridenour’s lobbying on the Marianas began in April 1999, when her group issued a release decrying bipartisan efforts to ban goods manufactured on the islands from carrying the “Made in the USA” label. Legislators proposed the measure after numerous labor complaints were filed against Saipan manufacturers, who were repeatedly accused of flouting labor laws.
“The National Center for Public Policy Research believes that any concerns about employment conditions in the CNMI should be handled as they are on the mainland: by U.S. and local government inspectors who have the authority to enforce government employment regulations,” the group’s release said. “These inspectors are on the job in the CNMI.”
The following day, The Saipan Tribune, the Commonwealth’s leading newspaper, reprinted the release in full.
Three other nonprofits lent name to Marianas effort
Several months later, the National Center’s name appeared in another Saipan Tribune article. This time, Ridenour’s group was supporting a coalition of Marianas garment manufacturers who bemoaned U.S. efforts to impose tighter labor laws.
Ron Sablan, chairman of the Western Pacific Economic Council trade group, lauded Ridenour’s group. RAW STORY has discovered that Sablan also praised three other nonprofits, two of which would later work with Abramoff on Indian gaming issues.
"Fortunately with the help of our public affairs firm others have joined to argue against this intrusion into our economic sustenance. The Americans for Tax Reform, the Council with Citizens Against Government Waste, the Traditional Values Coalition, and the National Center for Public Policy Research supported the WPEC's stance,” Sablan said.
Americans for Tax Reform, led by conservative maven Grover Norquist, is already under scrutiny in the Abramoff scandal. ATR got $25,000 at Abramoff's direction from an Indian tribe to set up a meeting with Bush. The Traditional Values Coalition, meanwhile, was paid $25,000 at Abramoff's instruction to lobby on Indian gaming in 2000.
In August 1999, Ridenour attacked the Clinton Administration’s Interior Department for using federal resources to aid Democratic efforts to impose federal labor standards on the islands. The islands are a haven for sweatshops, as they enjoy the privileges of a U.S. territory but do not have to follow laws enforced on U.S. states.
Abramoff took a hiatus from representing the Marianas for much of 2000. RAW STORY can find no articles from the Center on the islands during that time.
The lobbying heavyweight re-signed the Marianas with his new firm, Greenberg Traurig, in March 2001. In April, the center issued a release blasting a bill from a Republican senator which aimed to federalize immigration laws in the islands.
“Legislation providing for a federal takeover of the immigration authority of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI), a U.S. possession near Guam, is designed to shut down the Islands' garment industry and should be understood as such,” the group said in a release.
The release appeared again in the National Center’s newsletter, “The Relief Report.” It was credited to Amy Ridenour.
In 2001, Ridenour penned an editorial in the Washington Times which attacked the rival of Abramoff’s then-client, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamed. Abramoff was paid $2.2 million to arrange a meeting between the Prime Minister and President Bush.
Her article, titled "The U.S. Must Tread Carefully to Avoid Creating More Fundamentalist Islamic Governments," touted Malaysia as a "prosperous, stable and democratic state" and smeared Mahathir opponent Anwar Ibrahim as an Islamic radical.
Ridenour described Ibrahim as “a former government official with close links to radical Islamic fundamentalist groups [who] has begun an international public relations effort to destabilize the government in Kuala Lumpur.”
Lim Kit Siang, a member of the Malaysian parliament, all but accused Ridenour of being paid to write the article in 2001.
Ridenour has denied being paid by the Malaysian government.
Click here for Part II: Ridenour wrote editorials supporting Abramoff clients Magazine Publishers of America, Pitney Bowes and Channel One