How many conservative columnists did Jack Abramoff rent for his clients?
Research ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER
A review of columns about the Northern Mariana Islands by conservative columnists Doug Bandow and Peter Ferrara, both of whom have admitted to taking money from Jack Abramoff in exchange for op-eds, and of other news reports and columns about the Marianas suggests that Bandow and Ferrara may not have been the only media figures Abramoff paid in exchange for writing about the topic.
Last week, BusinessWeek Online reported that conservative columnists Doug Bandow and Peter Ferrara have taken payments from lobbyist Jack Abramoff in exchange for writing op-ed columns that aided Abramoff's clients -- without disclosing the payments. Though BusinessWeek Online did not identify any specific columns for which Abramoff paid Bandow and Ferrara, it did note that both wrote about the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, an Abramoff client. A review of the columns written by Bandow and Ferrara about the Northern Mariana Islands, of other news reports and columns about the commonwealth, and of Abramoff's efforts on behalf of his clients, suggests that Bandow and Ferrara may not have been the only media figures Abramoff paid in exchange for writing about the topic.
Media Matters has found that Bandow and Ferrara both wrote columns that praised the commonwealth and discussed allegations against Department of the Interior officials who were pushing for federal intervention in the commonwealth that Abramoff opposed. Media Matters found only one other opinion column in the Nexis database that contained similar praise for the commonwealth and criticism of the Interior officials -- an op-ed by Michael Catanzaro that ran in The Washington Times.
In the wake of revelations earlier this year that conservative columnists have taken payments from the Bush administration, from Jack Abramoff, and from interest groups, it is natural for readers to wonder whether the opinion columns they read have been bought and paid for by undisclosed interests. Those involved -- Abramoff, Bandow, Ferrara, Copley News Service, and others -- should fully reveal everything they know about who was paid how much for which columns and by whom. News consumers would be the most obvious beneficiaries of such disclosure, but not the only ones. Conservative columnists who have written columns similar to those for which Abramoff paid Bandow and Ferrara would also benefit. Catanzaro may be one such columnist. Shortly after publication of Catanzaro's column in 2001, it was the subject of public speculation that it was "spoon fed from a lobbyist." The column may have been "spoon fed." It may have been paid for. It may also have had nothing at all to do with any lobbyist. We do not know at this point. And that is precisely why full, immediate disclosure -- by those who were paid for writing columns as well as those who paid for them -- is necessary: to help ensure that readers know what interests are behind the opinions they read and to help ensure that honest columnists have their readers' trust. Neither readers nor columnists are well-served by continued secrecy.
A March 25, 1998, article in The Hill revealed a four-page January 31, 1998, email memo sent by Abramoff that described "in unusual and potentially embarrassing detail the strategies" his lobbying firm, Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, "crafted to counteract possible action by Congress affecting its client, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI)." A March 31, 1998, Washington Post article revealed that the memo outlined a plan to publicly attack Allen Stayman, the director of the Interior Department's Office of Insular Affairs (OIA) and an advocate of federal government intervention in the commonwealth:
The lobbying plan, according to the e-mail, was aimed primarily at using congressional hearings, scheduled to begin in the Senate today, to "impeach Stayman and his campaign against the CNMI, enabling us to then go to the appropriations process and either defund or severely restrict his activities."
Other planned activities included "preparing the Stayman attack" and "preparing legislation to be introduced into the appropriations process. ..." It said that "thanks to past trips" to the tropical islands, the CNMI has "many friends on the Appropriations Committees in the Congress."
The e-mail, which said that Stayman's office "has been the main source of difficulty" for the CNMI, suggested that it would be better to enact funding restrictions to stop Stayman from attacking the commonwealth rather than to close his office, which could generate "hostile" news coverage and allow the Clinton administration to move Stayman and his duties to another office.
Conservative news outlets promote otherwise-ignored Stayman story
On August 3, 1999, a Washington Times article by Audrey Hudson raised questions about whether Stayman and a subordinate, OIA policy director David North, improperly used government resources for political purposes:
An Interior Department official told his boss in a secret memo about his covert on-the-job political campaign aimed at unseating House Republican leaders in the 1998 election, according to a document obtained by The Washington Times.
In a 1997 memo, David North, policy director for the Office of Insular Affairs, asked the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for information on how to assist Democratic candidates, and sent a copy of the memo to his boss, Allen P. Stayman, then director of Insular Affairs.
Mr. North and other federal employees are under investigation by the House Resources Committee for using official equipment and time in an unsuccessful attempt to unseat at least four House Republicans and one GOP senator.
Mr. North drafted press releases for Democratic candidates, provided derogatory information about Republican members to campaigns and reporters, and wrote letters to the editor for constituents to submit to local newspapers, investigators say.
Hudson -- who went on to write six more articles for The Washington Times about Stayman and North from August 1999 to July 2000 -- joined the Times in 1999 after serving as spokeswoman for Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) and Rep. Scott McInnis (R-CO).
The day after the first Washington Times article, the National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR) called for an investigation into the allegations against Stayman and North, based on the Washington Times article. In its press release, NCPPR also referred to "labor union attacks on the garment industry of the CNMI." NCPPR's release closed with the disclaimer:
The National Center for Public Policy Research is a non-partisan Capitol Hill think-tank established in 1982. It has received no cash contributions from the government of the CNMI nor any business operating in the CNMI.
Abramoff previously served on NCPPR's board of directors. NCPPR has been tied to the federal investigations into Abramoff's dealings with Republican lawmakers; Abramoff reportedly used NCPPR as a conduit to pay for junkets for members of Congress.
The House Resources Committee, under chairman Rep. Don Young (R-AK), continued to investigate Stayman and North through July 2000, but neither was prosecuted.
Though investigations of Clinton administration officials rarely lacked for media coverage, the Allen Stayman-Northern Mariana Islands matter received scant attention. Other than Hudson's seven articles, only nine news reports available on Nexis mention the Northern Mariana Islands and the Stayman investigation. Five of them were:
- Knight Ridder, August 15, 1999
- The Hill, September 8, 1999
- Environment and Energy Daily, July 10, 2000
- Agence France-Presse, July 6, 2001
- The Hill, July 8, 2003
The other four are more interesting: one is an editorial in The Washington Times; three are columns, written by Bandow, Ferrara, and Michael Catanzaro. Two of the three columns ran in The Washington Times.
On August 20, 1999, Ferrara -- who is now known to have taken money from Abramoff for columns helpful to Abramoff's clients -- wrote an op-ed for The Washington Times that attacked Stayman and North and argued against federal government intervention in the Commonwealth:
The Interior department's vendetta against the U.S.-owned Northern Marianas Islands now has crossed over into illegality. But instead of sanctioning the lawbreakers, corrupt Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has begun granting them awards.
The Marianas are located in the far Western Pacific near Guam. They are a commonwealth of the United States, which means they are official U.S. territory, with a democratically elected local government. Notoriously protectionist U.S. garment manufacturers and unions back in the states are carrying on a vicious smear campaign against the islands to shut down competition from them. As a result, we hear fantastic tales of prison labor camps and indentured servants slaving away on the islands for virtually no pay.
While the islands have been rightly granted broad local control, federal laws in general, including all constitutional rights, apply there. Indeed, the Labor Department, FBI, Justice Department, and other federal agencies all have jurisdiction and agents on the islands. If the law is being broken by outrageous human rights abuses, why doesn't the Clinton administration enforce the law?
Instead, Interior, which handles federal administration of the islands, has joined the smear campaign and sought legislation to shut down the islands. It proposes to apply on the islands the same minimum wage as in the states, even though imposing such a requirement in a lower-wage, lower-cost structure environment is the economic equivalent of carpet bombing.
Interior also proposes that the highly ineffective INS take over local administration of immigration. The aim here is to shut down the extensive temporary guest worker program that provides the necessary labor supply for the booming garment and tourism industries, and the rest of the islands' highly prosperous free market economy.
David North, until just recently policy director for Interior's Office of Insular Affairs actually wrote to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1997 offering assistance to Democratic candidates running against key Republicans who had opposed Interior's Marianas legislation. He then followed up in 1998 with a shockingly blatant campaign against the targeted Republicans, on government time and using government office resources. He wrote press releases for the Democratic candidates attacking the Republicans, and sample letters to the editor for local newspapers. He cooked up dirt and smears for the campaigns as well.
Mr. North's documents show that his boss, Allen Stayman, then director of the Office of Insular Affairs, was informed of these illegal activities, which he apparently supported. Indeed, Mr. Stayman has personally pursued this vendetta as well.
Mr. Stayman actually used taxpayer funds to hire a private investigator and "human rights activists" to cook up charges of forced abortions, religious persecution, and forced prostitution on the islands. He openly bragged to the media that this was a strategy to split Republican opposition by developing "hot button" issues to appeal to them.
Ferrara's op-ed identified him as "general counsel and chief economist at Americans for Tax Reform."
Three days later, The Washington Times ran its own editorial, echoing Ferrara's praise for the commonwealth and his attacks on Stayman and North.
On June 27, 2001, The Washington Times ran an op-ed by Catanzaro, who was described in a note at the end of the piece as a "reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report." (The version of the op-ed available on Nexis spells Catanzaro's name as "Cantanzaro.") Catanzaro, like Ferrara, argued against the need for federal government involvement in the commonwealth and criticized Stayman and North. The Northern Mariana column is the only thing Catanzaro ever wrote for The Washington Times and one of only eight items he has written that appear in the Nexis database. Catanzaro, an alumnus of the conservative National Journalism Center, later worked as communications director for the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works under chairman James Inhofe (R-ID) and as deputy policy director for energy and environment for the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign.
On October 9, 2001, Copley News Service ran an op-ed by Bandow that praised the commonwealth, criticizing Stayman and arguing against federal intervention. The BusinessWeek Online report about Bandow taking money from Abramoff in exchange for writing columns beneficial to Abramoff's clients noted that Bandow had written in praise of the Northern Mariana Islands; the October 9, 2001, column is the only Bandow column available on Nexis that mentions the islands.
According to a July 12, 1996, NCPPR press release, Bandow visited the Northern Mariana Islands on a "fact-finding tour sponsored by" NCPPR -- the "independent" group reportedly used by Abramoff as a conduit to fund excursions on behalf of his clients without revealing the true source of funding.
Questions about Abramoff and the Stayman stories
The BusinessWeek Online report strongly suggests that Bandow and Ferrara were paid by Abramoff for writing their columns promoting the commonwealth and attacking Stayman. Given that Abramoff paid Bandow and Ferrara for writing columns in general and that these columns directly mirrored the interests of Abramoff's clients and his strategy to attack Stayman, it seems unlikely that Bandow and Ferrara did not take money from Abramoff for these columns.
But what of the few other news reports about the Northern Mariana Islands and the Stayman investigation? Were they, too, a result of Abramoff's anti-Stayman strategy? Or were they a result of his generosity toward those who helped his clients?
Catanzaro's column raised suspicions when it ran, long before the recent revelations that numerous conservative columnists took undisclosed payments from interested parties in exchange for writing columns. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz was asked about Catanzaro's column during a July 2, 2001, online chat:
Annapolis, Md.: Are columnists often just lobbyists in journalist's clothing? I saw an editorial piece last week in the Washington Times by Michael Cantanzaro, a Novak reporter. Because I know a little about the subject of that piece, it read like it had been spoon fed from a lobbyist involved on the other side of the issue. Do columnists represent lobbyists, and if so, do they take money for it?
Howard Kurtz: If you hear of any reporters taking money from lobbyists, please let me know. I might be able to get that into the paper. Look, the truth is journalists get "lobbied" by all sides -- corporations, the White House, the Hill, political consultants, ax-grinders, kibitzers and other loudmouths. Good journalists sift through the spin and reach their own conclusions. Others become known basically as mouthpieces for a particular point of view. Sometimes you can smell the talking points. A few days ago, Bush administration officials were peddling the line that his drop to 50 percent in the polls was not really a drop because he had been at 50 percent back in January (kind of like buying a stock at 50, it soars to 150, then plunges back to 50 -- you're supposed to feel good, right?) It took only several nanoseconds for the Bush line on polls to show up in some commentaries. But I hardly think these people were lining their pockets.