by Rabbi Daniel Lapin
In recent news reports Toward Tradition has been drawn into the whirlpool of the Abramoff lobbying scandal. Because news media are notoriously inaccurate I would like our friends and supporters to hear directly all the facts about the relationship between Jack Abramoff and the organization I have the privilege of serving.
Initially my name began appearing in connection with one of the stories circulating about how Jack Abramoff met Tom DeLay. Some articles claimed that I introduced them while others, including one in the Washington Post, have the two meeting at a DeLay fundraiser, introduced by Edwin A. Buckham, then DeLay’s chief of staff. Although I have no clear recollection of having formally introduced them, it is certainly possible. I was at several Republican Party events at which both Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff were present, including one at the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego at which I spoke.
Abramoff was not among the group of twenty two Jews and Christians who originally conceived of and founded Toward Tradition in 1991. However, he became a supporter and joined the board of directors a little later and eventually served a few terms as chairman of the board. He resigned his chairmanship at the end of 2000 and from the board in 2004. In total, on account of his time pressures, Jack Abramoff attended only five board meetings of Toward Tradition. He contributed to the organization at a level typical of the level of other board members. His giving to Toward Tradition was slightly lower than some board members and slightly higher than others. We now know that on one occasion, a contribution came in the form of a check from his Capital Athletic Foundation. It is not unusual for donors to submit contributions from foundations or organizations they are involved with. At no time have I personally ever received funds from Jack directly or from his various organizations.
During that period, Jack’s access to the White House was being eagerly courted by many organizations both Christian and Jewish, usually in the hope of obtaining the President as a speaker for an upcoming event. I heard one of the leaders of a prominent pro-Israel lobbying organization boast that Jack Abramoff took his phone calls.
In June 2003 I wrote to a number of Toward Tradition supporters saying that if they intended contributing substantially to the Bush Cheney ’04 campaign they may wish to direct their support via Jack Abramoff.
Then came his fall which has almost Shakespearean overtones. Sometimes the most poignant tragedies are those in which the victim is complicit in his own destruction. But of course, that is true for most of us—we are often our own worst enemies.
On June 25, 2005, The Washington Post ran a profile of me with the heading “The Republicans’ Rabbi-in-Arms.” Alluding to Abramoff, the piece referred to me as “the Man Who Stands by His Scandal-Ridden Friends.” Later the writer claimed about my frequent visits to Washington DC, “Usually on these trips Lapin stays with Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist who is an old friend of the Lapin family.” The travel information is not true. Anyone familiar with my travel habits knows that I never impose on households and always much prefer to stay at hotels. However Jack was a long time friend of the Lapin family. He first met my brother, David, while he was shooting Red Scorpion in South Africa during the late 80s. In the early 90s, Jack Abramoff arrived in California with an introduction from David and became friendly with my father and me.
I did not serve as Jack’s rabbi or mentor and our friendship revolved around our families, children’s educational challenges and the difficulties of being a political conservative in the larger Jewish community. We shared occasional social and family events. I can recall no discussions about Jack’s business and never heard anything from him that caused me to think he was doing anything unscrupulous. I never met or heard mention of names like Scanlon, Kidan, and others involved in Abramoff’s business dealings. We did share an enthusiasm for Jewish Christian cooperation, for ancient Hebrew texts, and for the role of religion in politics.
The press located an email from Abramoff asking me to supply him with an award that he said he needed to gain admittance to an elite Washington DC club. Anyone familiar with Abramoff’s jocular and often fatally irreverent email style won’t be surprised that I assumed the question to be a joke. The very notion that an exclusive social club would regard a meaningless award from Toward Tradition to be adequate credentials for admittance was ludicrous. I responded in similar style offering to “wallpaper his office with awards.” I regret the exchange. I should have candidly explained that Toward Tradition is not an academic institution and does not issue the kind of awards he described. Like most organizations, our awards only acknowledge the support provided the organization by the recipient. Whenever Toward Tradition has issued an award it has always taken place at a public event after considerable board discussion and a resolution. As a board member, Abramoff would have known this which is what assured me that he was joking.
Let me be clear. On no occasion did I, Toward Tradition, or any organization with which I was affiliated ever create an award for, or present one to Jack Abramoff. The affairs of a non-profit are documented by minutes and at no point did Abramoff’s award request ever get treated in a serious manner by being brought before the board.
The scandal swirling around Jack deepened and then came the plea agreement on January 3rd. That was what was responsible for the current spate of negative publicity. Headlines such as “Abramoff Used Foundation as Conduit for Money” began to appear.
The Plea Agreement is 14 pages long, with another 15 pages of attachments, for a total of 29 pages. On page 13 of the attachments in item 35 out of a total of 41, appears a reference to “a non profit entity”. Although it doesn’t mention any name, the non profit entity alluded to is in fact Toward Tradition.
Toward Tradition staff members were extensively interviewed last August by the Justice Department about the events. Here is what happened.
Toward Tradition ran large conferences in Washington DC in the fall of 1994, 1997, and 2000. For a Seattle-based organization to hold a large national event across the country in Washington DC requires considerable work and someone on the ground in DC to act as a local representative and organizer. This person negotiates with hotels and caterers, stays in touch with the aides and schedulers for Capitol Hill speakers, arranges logistics such as transport and recording, and sees to the post conference wrap up, public relations, etc. A DC conference succeeds or fails upon the caliber of its roster of prominent speakers from Capitol Hill. A conference needs to confirm the speaker list as early as possible while legislators prefer to confirm as late as possible. Having a local organizer who knows the lay of the land and who can obtain confirmations from the schedulers of congressmen and senators is vital.
In both 1994 and 1997 Toward Tradition had succeeded in securing the services of such organizers. For the 1994 conference, Toward Tradition hired a politically experienced DC-based organizer to help put the conference together. In 1997, our conference coordinating was done by a DC-based organizer we hired who had previously worked in a congressman’s office. In addition, two of our staff members flew out to DC to base themselves there in the period leading up to the 1997 conference. The point is that there is an incredibly long list of to-dos in arranging a multi-day conference in the nation’s capital.
Sometime before the summer of 2000 Jack Abramoff asked Toward Tradition whether we had already hired the DC-based organizer for that fall’s conference. Upon hearing that we had nobody appointed yet, he offered to provide someone. He mentioned that he knew an individual who had the experience and connections that we were seeking and that she was currently looking for work. This was Lisa Rudy. He added that he might know a donor willing to donate a gift to Toward Tradition to be used to hire a DC based coordinator who would help us with our forthcoming conference.
It is not uncommon for donors to make specific gifts for specific purposes so we suspected nothing amiss and our board approved hiring Lisa Rudy especially since her salary was to be covered by a donor. It is also not uncommon for donors to enlist the support of their friends and business contacts for their cause. Thus we were not surprised when a check arrived from Jack Abramoff for $25,000 made out by a firm called ELottery, with directions to pay Lisa Rudy $5,000/month for her services as our local conference coordinator. We received a couple more checks from other Abramoff clients allowing us to continue paying Lisa Rudy until the post-conference work was complete which was January of 2001. Toward Tradition paid her the total of what we received from Jack Abramoff for that purpose. Nothing of those gifts was retained for Toward Tradition’s general use; they were only used to hire a professional organizer in what we thought was a completely legitimate arrangement.
As I understand it, Abramoff pled guilty to intending to influence Lisa Rudy’s husband who worked for Tom DeLay by “providing ten equal monthly payments totaling $50,000 through a non-profit entity to the wife of Staffer A.” The Justice Department questioned whether Lisa Rudy had actually done work for Toward Tradition. Toward Tradition documentation clearly demonstrated that, in all innocence, we had thoroughly employed her services and that she had in fact done for us all that the local coordinator was supposed to do at a fee within the range of what we expected to pay for the services provided.
To clarify, the $25,000 check to Toward Tradition was NOT for lobbying purposes in favor of gambling. Not only has Toward Tradition or myself never engaged in lobbying but I have never written or spoken in favor of gambling. In fact we have radio shows and articles, as well as excerpts from my books in which my negative views of gambling, especially government sanctioned gambling are no secret. At the time, back in 2000, Toward Tradition assumed that Jack, still a member of the board, was doing what many non-profit board members do for the non-profit organization they serve, which was solicit a gift from a business associate for our benefit.
That supporters and friends of Toward Tradition have been embarrassed by the press linking us to Jack Abramoff disappoints me terribly. However, Toward Tradition and I interact with thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations every year. It is just unrealistic to suppose that none of these relationships are ever going to become problematic. There was no reason for Toward Tradition to spurn Jack Abramoff’s support.
For many years Toward Tradition was admired and envied for having someone like Jack Abramoff on our board of directors. In any typical week I would field several calls from prominent business or political leaders, even from a sprinkling of celebrities, all seeking my help in gaining access to Jack Abramoff. As recently as April 3rd, 2002, The New York Times published a flattering front page profile of Jack Abramoff with nary a word of criticism. He was widely viewed in glowing terms both socially and politically.
The insinuations of wrongdoing on the part of Toward Tradition are untrue and unfair. This is to be expected. As a prominent conservative spokesman heading a conservative organization, we present a juicy target for a left-leaning press. But very few people get a fair shake in the press. The news media are not in the business of “being fair.” They are in the business of selling. They sell subscriptions, advertising, and publicity. That is how they get paid. Obviously, the first rule of selling is—get the prospect’s attention. This is what is happening when a used car salesman strolls up and asks you if you like the vehicle you’re gazing at. It is also exactly what a journalist does when he attracts your attention with a sensationalistic headline. Despite high-minded and self-serving rhetoric about journalistic responsibility, the media is in business like just about everyone else and being in business means selling. But selling means attracting attention and good news simply doesn’t attract attention. Sensational stories do attract attention. Wild accusations do attract attention. And when these wild accusations tar someone, it is notoriously difficult for a public person to obtain redress for libelous statements in the press. Years back, Ray Donovan, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Labor who was acquitted of corruption charges in a court of law after being tried and condemned by media, plaintively asked “Where do I go to get my reputation back?” No, the press doesn’t care about fairness. It is the nature of the beast.
On a personal level, this affair reminds me that human beings are far too complex creations to be evaluated with a simple balance sheet. Imagine a man who saved someone’s life, raised money for the homeless and hungry, and did seven other wonderful deeds. However, during the same time period he also was cruel to a cat, had an affair and divorced his wife, and did eleven other horrible things.
We are tempted to do some simple arithmetic on this human being. A total of nine good deeds versus thirteen bad deeds results in a minus four rating. We then conclude that he is a moderately terrible human being. He is much worse than someone with a plus seven rating and not quite as bad as someone with a negative nine rating.
The truth is that this doesn’t work. God created us as infinitely complex creatures. We are capable of both evil actions and good ones—very often on the same day. Even a moral reprobate like Schindler made a list that saved many innocent lives. Someone who does some terrible things but also does some good things is better for the world than someone who only does terrible things. Someone who atones for his evil is better than someone who feels no remorse. It is a mistake to label a person as ‘evil’ because of his evil actions. We are better off evaluating only people’s many varied actions, leaving God to evaluate people in their totality.
Jack Abramoff is a practicing Jew who has admitted doing things that his faith despises. This embarrasses other observant Jews as well it should. Heaven knows, religious people are just as imperfect as secular people. Being religious doesn’t mean one is perfect and never sins. It does mean that when a religious person sins, he is tormented by pangs of remorse. He agonizes in knowing every day that he has let down, not only himself, his family and his friends, but also his God. Many of us are lured into the trap of sounding self-righteous and sanctimonious when we condemn the behavior of religious wrongdoers. While it is true that we are entitled to expect a higher standard of conduct from those who fear God, it is not true that God-fearing people who sin are irredeemable hypocrites. They are religious people who are not perfect. They are not proof of the general hypocrisy of faith neither are they a vindication of secularism. It would be admirably consistent were the press to identify most of the murderers, muggers, robbers, and rapists of society as miscreants who never had any exposure to religion.
I am terribly saddened by the tragic turn of events in Jack Abramoff’s life and by the impact his actions have had and will have on the lives of many people including his own wife and children. Could I have foreseen the calamity and its peripheral but distracting impact on Toward Tradition? I don’t really think so. Many shrewd lawyers and business professionals as well as experienced politicians in Jack Abramoff’s orbit failed to sense any peril.
Had Abramoff’s lifestyle been dissolute; replete with women, drugs, yachts, and fast cars, I along with many others would certainly have recognized the unwholesome warning signs and been uncomfortable. However, from what I observed, Jack’s life revolved around his work, his family, and his faith. He spent money on subsidizing a kosher restaurant, a religious high school, Israeli causes, and helping poor relatives. These don’t excuse illegal acts but neither were they warning signs to his friends and associates.
There are many who hate what Toward Tradition stands for and who will exploit this unpleasant association by hurling mud. They never had any interest in the truth and the truth won’t change their actions.
Abraham Lincoln was reputed to have said, “If I were to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how, the very best I can, and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, then angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”
To those of you who always assumed that Toward Tradition conducted itself with integrity and propriety, I appreciate you giving us the benefit of the doubt and I hope this account of a tragic episode confirms your assessment.
Rabbi Daniel Lapin.
Mercer Island, Washington.
Rabbi Daniel Lapin, an Orthodox Rabbi in Seattle, Washington, is author of Thou Shall Prosper, America’s Real War and Buried Treasure ,is President of Toward Tradition and hosts his own television and radio shows.