Report questions D.C. watchdogs

A Senate committee says that tax-exempt groups are getting a little too cozy in taking up the causes of lobbyists.

Published October 12, 2006

WASHINGTON — A new congressional report says Citizens Against Government Waste and other tax-exempt groups wrote opinion articles and issued press releases on behalf of clients of Jack Abramoff in return for money and concert tickets from the lobbyist.

The report from the Democratic staff of the Senate Finance Committee said the groups — Citizens Against Government Waste, Americans for Tax Reform, the National Center for Public Policy Research, Toward Tradition and the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy — “appear to have perpetrated a fraud” on taxpayers by taking payments for their advocacy work.

Tax-exempt groups are not allowed to engage in that kind of paid advocacy, the report said.

Americans for Tax Reform, run by Grover Norquist, an influential Republican with close ties to the Bush administration, wrote newspaper columns on behalf of Abramoff’s clients, the report says.

It says Norquist and others in his group “appear to have accepted payments to the organization in exchange for taking up the causes of Mr. Abramoff’s clients.”

In the case of Citizens Against Government Waste, or CAGW, which bills itself as “America’s #1 taxpayer watchdog,” the report documents how Abramoff’s firm allocated $10,000 to the group to promote the goals of the Magazine Publishers of America, an Abramoff client frequently at odds with the U.S. Postal Service.

CAGW then published a commentary in one of its publications called “Mail Monopoly” that followed the advice of Abramoff’s firm and criticized an electronic commerce initiative of the Postal Service.

The group also named the Postal Service its “Porker of the Month,” an award given for egregious waste.

Last spring, stories in the St. Petersburg Times called “Lobbying Under Disguise” revealed how CAGW lobbied on issues that have nothing to do with government spending, such as avocado importation, after quietly receiving money from groups involved in the issues.

Abramoff, once considered one of Washington’s most influential lobbyists, pled guilty to charges of fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials. He has been sentenced to more than five years in prison and ordered to pay more than $20-million restitution.

The Senate report shows how Abramoff and his associates sought help from CAGW and other tax-exempt groups on behalf of their client Channel One, which provided TVs to schools in exchange for the right to show commercial programs.

E-mails obtained by the Senate committee indicate that CAGW president Tom Schatz planned to praise Channel One when he was interviewed on C-SPAN but was unable to do so because the interview was cut short. However, the taxpayer group praised Channel One in its 2000 Pig Book, the group’s signature annual report on waste in government.

The Senate report does not document any money from Channel One to CAGW, but it shows that Schatz received tickets to a rock concert from Abramoff.

In an e-mail to Abramoff on July 28, 1999, Schatz confirmed that he was coming to Abramoff’s meeting about Channel One and asked the lobbyist for a favor.

“Would you happen to have two or three tickets in your box to see Bruce Springsteen at the MCI Center, either Aug. 31 or Sept. 3? That would be greatly appreciated!!”

Abramoff replied, “We are oversubscribed at the box at this time for all the concerts, but let me see what I can do.

Since we are definitely tight, would two work, or do you need three?”

The report does not indicate if Schatz got the Springsteen tickets. But it says he and his wife did get tickets from Abramoff valued at $211 each   to see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

Schatz declined to comment on the report Thursday evening and said he did not recall if he attended any concerts.

In his letter to the committee, Schatz said his group’s work on issues involving Channel One and the magazine publishers was consistent with CAGW’s longtime philosophy against government waste.

John Kartch, director of communications at Americans for Tax Reform, called the report “political nonsense put out by the Democrats in an inappropriate attempt to influence the election.”

Times Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at adair@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0575.