By Carrie Sheffield - 07/05/06 12:00 AM EDT
Conservative activist Grover Norquist says a Senate report connecting him with convicted felon Jack Abramoff is a personal attack from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that could hurt the senator’s recent efforts to woo the right for a presidential bid.
Norquist says a Senate Indian Affairs Committee report last month outlining his efforts to funnel money from Abramoff’s tribal clients to former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed is riddled with half-truths and falsely implicates his nonprofit group, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), in wrongdoing.
The activist says McCain, chairman of the committee, issued the report in retaliation for Norquist’s efforts to thwart McCain’s 2000 presidential bid.
“He has exhibited personal animus toward me,” Norquist said. “McCain, who’s running for president and is ostensibly the front-runner, takes time and effort to throw a punch at me and Ralph Reed. Why? He has told people we stopped him in the presidential election last time, and he thinks we might do it again. He is delusional. George W. Bush Beat him in South Carolina. But that’s high praise of the taxpayer movement that he has told so many people this.”
McCain staffers said the 373-page report, the culmination of a two-year investigation, is a neutral, factual account of Abramoff’s movements. E-mails from Abramoff cited in the report indicate that the disgraced lobbyist used ATR — for a fee — as a conduit for moving money from the Mississippi Choctaw American Indian tribe to anti-gambling grassroots activists who would have been uncomfortable receiving money from gambling profits.
The tribe was working to squelch competitors in neighboring Alabama by tapping conservatives in that state hoping to curtail video-poker and gambling operations, the report says.
“If that was a personal attack they would have stuck more in there,” one McCain adviser said. “Grover’s fingerprints where all over this stuff. You would have to work hard to keep him out of it. …
“McCain does what he thinks is right. He’s not going to shift his position for Grover or anyone else. I have no evidence that McCain takes any of this personally.”
While the report does not conclude that Norquist or ATR did anything illegal, it recommends investigation by the Senate Finance Committee into whether nonprofit groups evaded tax codes and served as an appendage of for-profit lobbyists.
“It’s simply ‘How did this scheme unfold?’” McCain’s chief of staff, Mark Salter, said of the report. “We didn’t invent this stuff. Grover’s got a hell of a lot more to rebut than what may or may not have been in the committee report.”
A staffer for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said the report would be considered as part of the committee’s three-year investigation into tax abuses by nonprofit organizations such as the Red Cross, American University and the United Way.
Norquist said the report does not disclose a long-term relationship that ATR had with the Choctaws independent of a funding pipeline. He also said the committee wrongfully subpoenaed a list of ATR donors, a charge the committee denies.
“The McCain committee reluctantly found that ATR did absolutely nothing wrong,” Norquist said. “If Grassley’s Senate Finance Committee looks at all the same facts, they will also find that there is nothing improper. … Grassley doesn’t think I kept him out of the White House, so we wouldn’t have a problem with his committee.”
McCain and Norquist have had a contentious relationship since 2000, when Norquist banded with conservative groups like National Right to Life, the National Rifle Association and the National Right to Work Committee to criticize McCain on campaign-finance reform. McCain’s campaign faltered after he lost to George W. Bush in South Carolina’s primary.
Norquist said that within the past year, four high-level lobbyists sent by McCain’s operations have contacted him, seeking to mend fences, including one lobbyist who sent him a $10,000 check. McCain’s staff vigorously denies that and points to Norquist’s refusal to name the lobbyists.
“No one associated with the senator closely is authorized or can speak on behalf of our organizations with Mr. Norquist,” Weaver said. “He certainly has our permission to release the names.”
McCain has recently courted conservatives, speaking at conservative Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and voting for cloture on a bill to abolish the estate tax.
“McCain needs the taxpayer movement to get elected in a Republican primary and in a presidential election,” said Norquist, who holds strategy meetings each Wednesday with conservative lawmakers, grassroots activists and representatives from the White House. “If he fought for abolishing the capital-gains tax or dramatically cutting the income tax, I would be out there, applauding, saying, ‘That’s great.’”
McCain advisers downplayed Norquist’s influence on the 2000 race.
“He didn’t hurt anything, and nobody paid any attention to him then,” said strategist John Weaver, who directed McCain’s 2000 campaign. “I’ve never run across one voter who’s said, ‘I’m waiting to see what Grover Norquist is going to do.’ …
“The one thing I admire about Grover is how hard he works to make himself relevant. But he’s not relevant. He never has been and never will be. He should go pick on some fourth-graders.”
Conservative and Republican politicos disagree with Weaver.
“The taxpayer movement is incredibly strong,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jonathan Collegio, pointing to ATR’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” which 223 House members and 47 senators have signed, promising to oppose tax increases. “Grover’s power and influence does not go up and down not because of the people he knows but because of the structure he’s put in place.
“Ninety nine and a half percent of the American people have no idea who Jack Abramoff is, and just because George Clooney brings him up at a Hollywood gala doesn’t mean that he’s going to be an issue in any congressional race.”
Republican National Committee spokesman Josh Holmes said Norquist’s clout influences party strategy.
“Norquist has [been] and continues to be a very influential and important figure among fiscal conservatives and [on] Republican fiscal policy,” Holmes said.
“He’s performed a very valuable service to the movement and is very well-liked because of it,” said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a Hill columnist. “Whether you like him or not, he plays a crucial role in the movement.”
Keene said that Norquist and Abramoff’s long-term friendship was well-documented and that, barring new revelations, the Senate report would not cause long-term damage.
“It’d be better if it didn’t happen, but I don’t think it will have significant effect on him or his organization,” Keene said. “Assuming that he hasn’t done anything illegal, it really doesn’t have any major impact.”
On Capitol Hill, conservative Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said Norquist’s anti-tax pledge is useful. “ATR has played a big role in electing people who want to cut taxes,” Flake said.
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), a centrist who has not signed ATR’s pledge, said, “I think he’s a very interesting guy. I think he has influence in certain districts. I would never allow an interest group to restrict my vote.”
House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) refused to weigh in on Norquist, saying, “I think I’ll stay out of this one.”
Democratic Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.) denounced Norquist’s labeling of the committee report a personal attack, saying, “That is simply not true. It’s a classical way of avoiding talking about the substance. For him to accuse McCain of personal attacks is like accusing the Three Stooges of being silly.”