Daniel Lapin appears to be in overdrive these days. "I gave him your message," says a spokesperson for the Mercer Island rabbi, the Seattle talk-radio host, and the field commander in the religious right's war to reunite church and state. "He's just a busy guy," too busy to come to the phone and chat about Jack Abramoff, the dethroned D.C. superlobbyist and board member of Lapin's Mercer Island Judeo Christian charity.
Abramoff continues to make headlines from D.C. The latest news involves his work for Seattle's Preston Gates Ellis law and lobbying firm, representing the government and sweatshops of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in the late 1990s and 2000. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., wants a congressional probe of possibly illegal payments and election interference involving Abramoff and Preston Gates. The spreading scandal puts more pressure on Abramoff's deal-maker buddy, Texan Tom DeLay, the GOP's embattled House majority leader. Years ago, Lapin introduced Abramoff to DeLay. "It was just, 'Jack? Meet Tom'—very informal at a D.C. dinner," says a Lapin follower. "Just people who see eye to eye." Abramoff and DeLay went on to form a cozy lobbyist/lawmaker relationship that is now a subject of investigations by the Senate, the House, the Justice Department, and a federal grand jury. Abramoff's attorney, Abbe Lowell, says defending his client against the onslaught of media and government accusations "has become like standing in the middle of a tsunami with an umbrella." Abramoff recently broke his silence to talk to The New York Times Magazine and Time—to profess astonishment at all the fuss. But our own Rabbi Lapin, the man who, ultimately, made all this possible by hooking up Abramoff with DeLay, and who might have something insightful to say about the character of these men, continues to be elusive.
Initially under fire for possible campaign finance violations, DeLay is increasingly tilting under the weight of alleged ethics lapses linked to Abramoff. They include questionable overseas trips that might have been funded, in part, improperly by Abramoff and Preston Gates—possibly in return for favorable legislation for their clients. One of the destinations was the Northern Marianas, a U.S. protectorate west of Hawaii. It is home to a sweatshop garment industry, for which Abramoff and Preston Gates helped stave off labor reforms threatened by the U.S. Congress. More than 85 legislators and aides were ferried by Preston Gates to the island state in the late 1990s to be wined and dined, many of whom—DeLay in particular—ultimately backed away from a planned crackdown on the garment workers' 84-hour workweeks, squalid living conditions, and $3-an-hour wages.
Abramoff's Marianas connection, of course, has been in the news for a long while. But recently his involvement there has circled back to Lapin—David Lapin, that is, Daniel's brother, a Los Angeles businessman. David Lapin had a $1.2 million no-bid Northern Marianas government contract that was arranged by Abramoff during his Preston Gates days, to conduct ethics-in-government programs there. But near as anyone in the Marianas can determine today, David Lapin failed to provide any services, The New York Times reported April 28.
If Lapin of Mercer Island is too busy to talk—"he's getting a lot of calls from reporters," says his spokesperson, "and he's got a business, a nonprofit, to run"—Lapin of Los Angeles, who also is a rabbi, would like to say a few words. One, the implications in the article about him not performing work in the Marianas aren't true, and two, he doesn't agree with brother Daniel's politics.
"I met Mr. Abramoff many years ago," David Lapin told Seattle Weekly by phone. "He was on a trip to South Africa and was a guest of mine." (David and his brother were born in South Africa, and both became rabbis and businessmen in the U.S.) David Lapin, now CEO of Strategic Business Ethics, once ran a Jewish academy established by Abramoff in the D.C. area. "Jack and I are good friends and there was nothing improper about this deal," David Lapin said.
The Marianas commonwealth paid Abramoff and Preston Gates' D.C. lobbying offices, where Abramoff worked from 1994 until 2001, $6.7 million, of which, an auditor later determined, $3.1 million was paid without a lawful contract. (See "Following the Money," April 6.) Last month, Miller, the California representative who is seeking the House probe, said: "In 1999, two men who formerly served as key staff to Congressman DeLay—Ed Buckham [ex–chief of staff] and Mike Scanlon [who became a Preston Gates lobbyist under Abramoff]—were involved in an effort to influence the election of the speaker of the [Marianas] legislature. The goal of this manipulation was to assure selection of a pro-garment-industry candidate." Miller, a longtime advocate for garment workers' rights, also wants an investigation into "interferences in contract procurement and the questionable payment of overseas trips for members of Congress and staff" allegedly arranged by Abramoff and Scanlon, who both deny any wrongdoing.
National journalists in recent days have intensified the scrutiny of Abramoff, DeLay, and Preston Gates. Reporters for the major papers are now following the money trail around the Marianas. The Los Angeles Times reported Friday, May 6, that two former DeLay aides, working for Abramoff, dangled U.S. tax dollars to pressure Marianas legislators to switch votes in favor of a new territorial House speaker supported by Abramoff and DeLay. The speaker then pressed for renewal of an expiring Abramoff/Preston Gates consulting contract for the Marianas worth $100,000 a month. Wrote one legislator, Benigno Fitial, in a June 2000 e-mail to a top aide of then-Gov. Pedro P. Tenorio: "Please urge Teno to execute the [lobbying] agreement as we will continue to encounter problems … if the contract is not executed. We need P&G [Preston Gates] to help save our economy …. Please help!!" One legislator told the Los Angeles Times he was offered U.S. benefits for his vote—including funds for a much-needed breakwater in his district. A few months later, Congress approved $150,000 in initial funding; DeLay was on the committee backing the allocation. In 2001, Fitial urged another extension of the Preston Gates contracts, supporting a resolution that invoked the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, saying the attacks "have created an urgent need for the continued services" of the Seattle law firm. Rep. Miller told the Los Angeles Times: "This is starting to smell more like criminal activity—trading congressional appropriations for votes."
The Associated Press reports, meanwhile, that in President Bush's first 10 months, Abramoff and his Preston Gates lobbying team logged nearly 200 contacts with the new administration, pressing for friendly hires at federal agencies and protecting the Marianas from hikes in the minimum wage. Abramoff's team met with Attorney General John Ashcroft and policy advisers in Vice President Dick Cheney's office, among others. Records, AP says, show Abramoff also charged the Marianas in 1997 for getting then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush to write a letter expressing support for legislation involving the Marianas.
In a statement, Preston Gates said it was unaware of some questionable Marianas billings by Abramoff—including documents obtained by The Associated Press that show Abramoff improperly paid travel costs for two DeLay aides. "We're looking into it," a firm spokesperson says. "Some things we're learning about just now."
On his consultancy's Web site, David Lapin says the Marianas' attorney general, Pam Brown, told him she was misquoted by The New York Times about not knowing what work Lapin did for the commonwealth. "SBE contacted Ms. Brown last night, who assured us that she had implied nothing of the sort," David Lapin says on the Web site. "What she said was that there have been two administration changes since the SBE projects and that, not having reviewed the files, she was unable to comment about the deliverables of SBE's work." Brown did not respond to phone and e-mail messages left by Seattle Weekly. David Lapin was never interviewed by The New York Times because he was away during Passover. He says the work he performed over two years included leading a governmental reorganization, establishing new labor laws, and providing "an improved work ethic."
Though Abramoff introduced him to Marianas officials, says David Lapin, he did not have a contract with Abramoff. "SBE has never, at any time, been involved in any financial transaction or business relationship with Mr. Abramoff," he says. He adds that he has "no involvement" in his brother's Mercer Island conservative nonprofit group, Toward Tradition, and doesn't share his brother's political views. "I'm apolitical, really," David Lapin said. "I have very little interest in American politics, and I've had no lengthy political discussions with my brother or with Jack Abramoff." He and Daniel "get along very well, otherwise," he said.
Rabbi Daniel Lapin's nonprofit, founded with Abramoff and film critic/radio talker Michael Medved, promotes faith-based conservative politics in tandem with the religious right. Through Abramoff's considerable GOP connections, Lapin has brokered alliances with congressional and Bush administration officials as well. They include tax-reform guru Grover Norquist and consultant Ralph Reed, both of whom have been subpoenaed to appear before Sen. John McCain's Senate Indian Affairs committee, which is looking into the extraordinary lobbying fees Abramoff charged tribes and casinos, work performed mostly after leaving Preston Gates. A radio host on KTTH-AM (770), Lapin is co-chair of the American Alliance of Jews and Christians, whose board includes Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Lapin is involved in other religious/political alliances that worked to get George W. Bush elected and re-elected. Last year, Newsweek reported, "When fundraising began for Bush's re-election effort, Rabbi Daniel Lapin . . . urged friends and colleagues to steer campaign checks to Bush via Abramoff." President Bush recently reappointed Lapin to the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, which helps preserve cemeteries, monuments, and historic buildings in Eastern and Central Europe. Donors to his charity, according to IRS tax filings, comprise the cream of the religious right, such as Lenore Broughton, the Carthage Foundation, and the Scaife Family Foundation. They have helped Lapin raise, on average, about $500,000 a year, based on filings from 1997 through 2003—money he uses to "educate the public through conventions, seminars, public speaking, and class studies on Judeo Christian values," he told the IRS. His religious beliefs include opposition to homosexuality. He speaks at the Eastside church of fellow KTTH talk-show host, the Rev. Ken Hutcherson, who recently waged an anti-gay-rights battle with Microsoft. But Daniel
Lapin supports school vouchers, which could aid the cause of school prayer by boosting private institutions. Having splintered off into a minority movement from historically liberal Jews, Lapin has said he intends to make "my priority rolling back the epidemic of secularism that was unleashed on this country."
In hard contrast, leftist Rabbi Michael Lerner of Berkeley, Calif., a onetime University of Washington instructor and "Seattle Seven" defendant who did a short prison stint for riotously opposing the Vietnam war, noted recently that "America was specifically set up to provide refuge for people escaping from regimes that tried to impose their variant of Christianity on everyone else." The current Republican attempt to depose so-called secular federal judges and erase constitutional divisions, Lerner says, "is the most dramatic assault on the separation of church and state we've seen in our lifetime." And it might well succeed, he adds. "The Democrats don't understand that there really is a spiritual crisis in this society, and that people are despairing about it, and that enables the right to manipulate those feelings in this totally illegitimate way."