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Guilt by Association

A Liberal group accuses evangelist James Dobson of being "knee deep" in the Jack Abramoff scandal, but there's no evidence of a connection.

March 13, 2006

Modified: March 13, 2006

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Summary

 

An ad released by a liberal group calling themselves DefCon accuses three well-known Christian conservatives of being "knee deep" in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.  The ad is partly true: there is well-publicized evidence supporting the claims about political operative Ralph Reed and evangelist Lou Sheldon.  However, James Dobson denies ever having met Abramoff, saying "I probably couldn’t pick him out of a line-up." And one of DefCon's advisers concedes “There is no proof and I doubt there will ever be any proof that Dobson consciously colluded with Abramoff.” 

Their ad's claim about Dobson rests on Dobson taking anti-gambling positions that stood to benefit Abramoff clients. That's an attempt to prove guilt through mere association, a classic example of false logic.

Analysis

 

The Campaign to Defend the Constitution (DefCon), released a television and a print ad March 8. Both ads accuse Ralph Reed, Dr. James Dobson, and Rev. Lou Sheldon of being "knee deep" in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. The total ad 

 DefCon Ad: "The Religious Right Has A Gambling Problem"

(On Screen: People sitting in a church holding programs with the photos and names of Ralph Reed, James Dobson and Louis Sheldon. A collection plate with money in it is passed down the row.  Organ music plays in the background.)
Announcer: Ralph Reed.  Louis Sheldon. James Dobson.   Millions of Americans gave them their trust and their money.  And they turned that into political power and glory.
(On Screen: Four men sit around a casino table with Abramoff, Reed, Dobson, and Sheldon’s names on it.  Poker chips are tossed into the collection plate on the table.  Slot machines jingle in the background.)
Announcer: Now they’ve been exposed.  Caught supporting gambling interests and casinos.
(On Screen: The camera angle changes and the men sitting around the poker table are shown to be Abramoff, Reed, Dobson and Sheldon look-alikes)
Announcer: That’s right, they’re knee deep in the Jack Abramoff scandal.  Will decent people ever trust them again?  Don’t bet on it.
(On Screen: A close up of the collection plate with poker chips in it  The DefCon logo stamps itself onto the screen.)
Announcer: We’re DefCon.  Defending the Constitution from people like them.  Join us.
(Text: Paid for by the Campaign to Defend the Constitution.  A Project of the Tides Center .)

buy cost $200,000, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  DefCon's March 8 press release says the television ads are running for a week on CNN in Washington, DC, New York City and Colorado Springs, home to Dobson's social issues organization Focus on the Family.  DefCon's full-page print ad ran on page A-5 of the March 8 edition of the New York Times .

"There is no proof" against Dobson

The DefCon ad says Dobson, Reed and Sheldon were "caught supporting gambling interests and casinos." It's true that Reed was hired by Abramoff, and according to a Washington Post story  Sheldon doesn't deny receiving $25,000 to aid a lottery client of Abramoff. But Dobson strongly denies any connection to Abramoff, and we find no evidence to contradict him. In fact, a member of DefCon's advisory board, Max Blumenthal, concedes: “There is no proof and I doubt there will ever be any proof that Dobson consciously colluded with Abramoff.”

Dobson said, in a statement issued after the ad appeared: “We’ve never taken any money from anybody having to do with gambling. We have fought gambling in 43 states to this point and then of course nationally. But it has absolutely nothing to do with Jack Abramoff who I never knew existed.” Also, in an interview March 9 on The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News, Dobson said, "I have never met the man, I’ve never talked to him on the phone, I’ve never taken a cent from anybody having to do with the fight against gambling.  We fight gambling because it’s a curse – it’s a cancer on the family.  It has nothing to do with Abramoff and I probably couldn’t pick him out of a line-up."

DefCon is accusing Dobson based on two incidents in which Abramoff's clients benefited from Dobson's actions – which were in both cases anti -gambling efforts consistent with Dobson's long crusade against legalized gambling. In 2002, Dobson spoke against a new Indian casino in Louisiana during his widely syndicated radio program. And in 1999, Dobson produced radio ads opposing a proposed state lottery in Alabama.

In both cases, Abramoff's casino-operating clients took the same position as Dobson, hoping to hold down potential competition. But there's no evidence Dobson knew that he was indirectly helping those clients. There is no record of correspondence between Abramoff and Dobson, and no evidence of any payments by Abramoff to Dobson.

It is clear Abramoff was pleased. Email exchanges made public  by a recent Senate Investigation showed Abramoff was excited to learn that Dobson spoke out against his client’s potential rivals.  On February 20th of 2002, Abramoff wrote:

Abramoff:He [Reed] may have finally scored for us!  Dobson goes up on the radio on this next week! [sic]  He thinks he can get Dobson to cut a radio spot on this for Louisiana too.  I'll have more detail soon [sic].

And on another occasion, in 1999, Abramoff paid to get wider exposure for radio ads originally produced by Dobson's Focus on the Family, in which he spoke out against the Alabama state lottery.  The Denver Post was first to report  this on June 23, 2005. The newspaper also reported that Dobson assistant Ron Reno stated that Focus on the Family did not know their ads would be used by gambling interests and would not have supplied them if they had. DefCon produced no evidence to the contrary.

Dobson has a well established record as an anti-gambling advocate. His Focus on the Family website has a lengthy  section devoted to the adverse effects of gambling. The organization claims to have fought gambling expansion in 40 states over the years, including seven besides Louisiana in 2002 alone. That's supported by transcripts from their syndicated radio show that Focus on the Family sent FactCheck.org at our request. Separately, we also located news reports of Focus on the Family or an affiliated state group opposing gambling in three of these states.

Reed and Sheldon

There is evidence connecting Reed and Sheldon to Abramoff's gambling clients. An October 16, 2005  Washington Post story reported that Abramoff used Reed and Sheldon, two well-known religious conservatives, to lobby against legislation that threatened one of his clients.  Abramoff represented an online gambling company called eLottery, Inc in 2000.  He worked to kill a bill before Congress that would have made it easier for federal authorities to shut down gambling websites. 

The Post reported that checks and emails showed Abramoff kept in "close contact" with Reed and Sheldon on the lobbying effort, and even referred to Sheldon as "Lucky Louie." The Post described an exchange of emails in which Abramoff directed that a $25,000 check from eLottery be sent directly to Sheldon's group, the Traditional Values Coalition. Sheldon didn't deny receiving the money but said he couldn't remember the money coming from eLottery, according to the Post. The Post also quoted Sheldon as saying he had no idea that Abramoff was lobbying against the bill or that he was working for eLottery. "This is all tied to Jack?" Sheldon said. "I'm shocked out of my socks."

In this case, however, both Reed and Sheldon were opposing a bill favored by other Christian conservative groups, including Dobson's.  Reed and Sheldon characterized the bill as an expansion of gambling because it contained exceptions for Jai Alai and dog and horse racing. But they were out of step with the Christian Coalition, the Moral Majority and Dobson's Focus on the Family, which saw the bill as an anti-gambling measure.

Reed's involvement with Abramoff is well-documented. The two men exchanged a number of emails. Also, a fax sent by Abramoff to eLottery on Aug 18, 2000 said: 

Abramoff:I have chatted with Ralph and we need to get the funding moving on the effort in the 10 congressional districts. Please get me a check as soon as possible for $150,000 made payable to American Marketing Inc. This is the company Ralph is using.

Days later, Abramoff emailed Reed asking if the checks were received and if the campaign against the anti-gambling bill was proceeding.  Reed responded, "1. Yes they got it.  2. Yes, all systems go."

Reed also teamed up with Abramoff for the 2002 lobbying effort in Louisiana. On Feb 25 Abramoff sent an e-mail to Reed with the subject: “$160K FedEx to you today.”  He wrote, “…for the Jena [Choctaw]   campaign,” referring to the tribe that wanted to build a casino competing with Abramoff's client. 

What is DefCon?

DefCon describes itself as promoting separation of Church and State. Its website banners the motto: "Because the Religious Right is Wrong."  The group's mission statement, as it appears on their website, says that its members are dedicated to “combating the growing power of the religious right.”

 In this case, DefCon has grounds for stating that Reed and Sheldon are “knee deep” in the Abramoff affair and did support Abramoff’s gambling clients. But as their own adviser states, they have no proof against Dobson and no evidence that he did anything but take principled stands against gambling in Louisiana and Alabama, just as he had done in dozens of other states previously.

-- by Justin Bank and Emi Kolawole

Sources

“Reed, Dobson, & Sheldon Attacked for Supporting Gambling Interests: Print Ad Runs in New York Times Today (p. A5); TV Ads to Run in DC, NYC, Colorado Springs,”  Defending the Constitution.  News Release.  8 March 2006. 

“Reed's fees paid by casino,”  The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. 3 Nov 2005.

Adam, Helen Cowell.  "Gambling opponents fear quick roll of dice by state; The hot talk is that Republicans could rush their own plans into law before governor-elect Rendell can introduce his. Officials say it won't happen," Lancaster Sunday News .  10 Nov 2002.

Blumenthal, Max.  "Abramoff's Evangelical Soldiers,"  The Nation .  20 February 2006.

Galloway, Jim.  "Reed denies bid to oust gaming foes; Report: Funds from gambling interests used,"  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  17 Oct 2005.

Geewax, Marilyn.  "Bill a Net gain for gambling, foes charge;
Swiss cheese: Exempted from the ban on Internet wagering would be horse racing, dog racing, jai alai,"  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.   16 June 2000. pg 4A.

Kemper, Bob. “ Ad campaign chides Reed's gambling ties,”  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  9 March 2006. pg. 2C

Schmidt, Susan.  "Casino Bid Promoted High-Stakes Lobbying; Probe Scrutinizes Efforts Against Tribe,"  The Washington Post.  13 March 2005.  pg. A1.

Schmidt, Susan and James Grimaldi.  "How a Lobbyist Stacked the Deck: Abramoff Used DeLay Aide, Attacks On Allies to Defeat Anti-Gambling Bill,"  The Washington Post.  16 Oct 2005. pg A1

Soraghan, Mike.  "Tribe, Focus point fingers at lobbyist," The Denver Post.  23 June 2005. pg. A1.

 

  

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