By E.J. Kessler

Published May 06, 2005, issue of May 06, 2005.
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Donation Demand: The chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean, demanded last week that President Bush return the $2,000 campaign donation he received in 2004 from Jack Abramoff, the disgraced GOP lobbyist. Abramoff is being investigated by the FBI, a federal grand jury and a Senate committee over allegations that he defrauded and overcharged Indian gaming interests. An Orthodox Jewish philanthropist, Abramoff is also at the center of the ethics brouhaha over House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s overseas travel.

“If President Bush is truly sincere about pursuing a reform agenda, he should immediately return the questionable funds he’s received from Jack Abramoff,” Dean said in a statement on the eve of Bush’s April 28 televised press conference. “He should also sever all ties and make it clear that he is no longer just a phone call away from Mr. Abramoff as news reports have suggested.”

Judging from the past, Dean’s wish is unlikely to be honored. A Campaign Confidential perusal suggests that a donor’s money is good until he gets indicted.

For example, when Rabbi Milton Balkany of Brooklyn was indicted in 2003 for allegedly defrauding the government, a Bush campaign spokeswoman told the Forward, “The rabbi’s $4,000 check was returned to him last week.” (The charges subsequently were dropped.) By contrast, in April 2004, when the Abramoff scandal first broke, the same spokeswoman had this to say when the Forward asked whether the campaign would return Abramoff’s check: “The president believes in full disclosure and our finance department takes aggressive measures to make sure that all contributions to the campaign are legal and appropriate. In the past, if and when we have discovered problems, we have returned those contributions. That continues to be our standard operating procedure.” In other words, no action would be taken without an indictment.

Republican National Committee spokesman Danny Diaz, when asked this week for a response to Dean’s demand, called it “another indication the Democratic Party is looking backward while the Republicans are looking forward” on such issues as Social Security, energy independence and “keeping America safe and secure.”

* * *

Cantor Caper: In other Abramoff-related news, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House’s chief deputy majority whip and one of DeLay’s top defenders, is catching grief for having signed, with other House leaders, a 2003 letter “that was favorable to an Indian tribe in Louisiana represented” by Abramoff, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported May 1.

The letter has ignited the suspicion of government watchdogs because it “supported a legal view favorable to the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, an Abramoff client engaged in gaming,” and “opposed” another Indian tribe against which Abramoff was working, according to the Times-Dispatch. The watchdogs wondered why Cantor suddenly had sprouted an opinion on Indian casinos, not normally an interest of his.

Questions of influence peddling arose apropos of a fund raiser that Abramoff held for Cantor in January 2003 at an Abramoff-owned Washington kosher deli, Stacks. (Cantor, an observant Jew, keeps kosher.) The Times-Dispatch story noted that the Forward reported in June 2003 that Cantor’s campaign had failed to pay for the event or to report the debt to the Federal Election Commission, a possible violation of campaign finance law. The campaign then got an invoice and paid the $1,732 debt.

Cantor distanced himself from Abramoff.

“I have never really had anything to do with Jack Abramoff, other than I knew him on a very casual, but infrequent basis,” the Times-Dispatch quotes Cantor as saying. He added, “I never even knew he was in any way involved with that letter, whatsoever.”

Abramoff spokesman Andrew Blum said in an e-mail message, “Jack Abramoff has become the Beltway version of a human punching bag in this latest series of attempts to malign him for doing his job and doing it well.”

* * *

Cigar Controversy: Add this to the hellfire being rained on DeLay: If it weren’t enough that the majority leader is under a cloud for allegedly allowing Abramoff to pay for a couple of his overseas trips, the Texas Republican was burned by Time magazine, which noticed that a photo it ran of DeLay drawing on a cigar showed enough of its distinctive label to indicate that the stogie originated in Cuba. American law forbids the importation of cigars from Cuba, which is, as Time noted, “a brutal totalitarian regime” often blasted by DeLay himself. The magazine managed to dredge up DeLay quotes such as this one from last year, supporting the Cuba trade embargo: “Every dime that finds its way into Cuba first finds its way into Fidel Castro’s blood-thirsty hands…. American consumers will get their fine cigars and their cheap sugar, but at the cost of our national honor.”

The photo, Time reported, was taken in Jerusalem on July 28, 2003, during a meeting between DeLay and the Republican Jewish Coalition at the King David Hotel. Cuban cigars are legal in Israel.

The unidentified man standing next to DeLay in the photo was Florida investor Tony Gelbart. Time apparently misidentified Gelbart as Abramoff in an April 25 dispatch when it ran a caption under the same photo that said, “Dynamic Duo: House majority leader Tom DeLay called lobbyist Jack Abramoff one of his ‘dearest’ friends.” Gelbart did not return a call seeking comment. Fred Zeidman, a board member of the RJC who shared the smoke at the Jerusalem event, blew off the Time item as so much puff and nonsense. “What’s a little peace pipe between friends?” he said.

* * *

Jerusalem Jaunt: In other Israel-related news, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist put his nuclear plans for the Democrats’ judicial debates on hold this week and flew off for a three-day visit to Israel, which has not seen him in a number of years. It’s just the latest sign that the Tennessee Republican, a heart transplant surgeon, is running for president in 2008.

Frist toured Hadassah Medical Center at Ein Kerem on Monday and had nice things to say about its trauma center. According to Hadassah, he also praised its Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center as “pioneering and very promising.” At home the senator supports Bush’s restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research.

The stem-cell center performs research that right-wing Republican conservatives and their Christian Right allies — the folks Frist needs to impress between now and 2008 — would like to outlaw if not criminalize. They have legislation pending in a number of statehouses toward that end, which Hadassah is fighting.

Frist’s religious-right allies, whose positions on federal judges he has been championing, gave him a pass on his kind words for the embryonic stem-cell center.

“We appreciate Senator Frist’s continued support of ethical adult stem-cell and cord blood stem-cell research, which has already been successful both in the laboratory and in human patients,” said David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, in a statement to the Forward. “His praise for the facility in Israel seems directed toward their outstanding trauma center, which is quite understandable given his career as a surgeon and his concern for patient care, which we value.”

Frist echoed Bush administration Middle East policy while in Israel, saying the United States must help ensure that the planned Israeli disengagement from Gaza “does not prejudice the outcome of a two-state solution” to the conflict, Ha’aretz reported.

* * *

Pelosi’s Pick: House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has tapped Reva Price to head up Jewish outreach for the Democratic leader’s office. Price, the outgoing Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, also has served as associate director of the Center for Public Policy at B’nai B’rith International and administrator of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Democrats said the pick was further evidence of the strong ties between the organized Jewish community and its party, but RJC Executive Director Matthew Brooks said in a release that the hire showed that Democrats “know their base is eroding.”

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