Friday, December 16, 2005

Washington journalism for sale

A syndicated columnist and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, Doug Bandow, resigned earlier this week from the libertarian think tank after it was learned that he had accepted payments from disgraced and indicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff for writing “op-ed articles favorable to positions of some of Abramoffs clients”, Business Week Online reported tonight.

Here is something that I know beyond what was reported in the Business Week story tonight: It is not going to stop with Bandow. Abramoff spread money around not just to Bandow but to other think tankers and Washington pundits, according to what some co-operating witnesses in the Abramoff investigation have told federal investigators.

And some other elements of this story that should be followed up on: What disclosure rules do Cato, the American Enterprise Institute, and other think tanks have for op-ed columnists that cite their affiliation when they send out columns to newspapers? Do newspapers and newspaper syndicates require their columnists to disclose potential financial conflict of interests before they publish? Obviously there should be systems in place. Otherwise, it is only a matter of time before we learn of the next Doug Bandow or Armstrong Williams, and the public rightfully distrusts everything they learn from their media.

In the meantime, here are some relevant excerpts from the Business Week story:

After receiving Business Week Online’s inquiries about the possibility of payments, Cato Communications Director James Dettmer and the think-tank determined that Bandow “engaged in what we consider to be inappropriate behavior”… and accepted his resignation.

Bandow has written more than 150 editorials and columns over the past five years each identifying his Cato affiliation. His syndicated column for Copley New Services is featured in several hundred newspapers around the country. Bandow’s biography on the Cato Institute Web site says he also appeared as a commentator on all the major television broadcast networks and the cable news channels.

A former Abramoff associate says Bandow and at least one other think-tank expert were typically paid $2,000 per column to address specific topics of interest to Abramoff's clients. Bandow's standing as a columnist and think-tank analyst provided a seemingly independent validation of the arguments the Abramoff teamwere using to try to sway Congressional action.

Bandow confirms that he received $2,000 for some pieces, but says it was "usually less than that amount." He says he wrote all the pieces himself, though with topics and information provided by Abramoff. He adds that he wouldn't write about subjects that didn't interest him.

Abramoff was indicted in Florida in August on wire-fraud charges in relation to hispurchase of a Florida casino-boat company. He faces trial in January in that case.

Separately, a Senate committee and a Justice Dept. task force are investigating allegations that Abramoff defrauded some of his clients -- a handful of American Indian tribes that had gotten wealth from running casino-gaming operations on
their reservations. Abramoff's business partner, Michael Scanlon, pleaded guilty in November to conspiring to corrupt public officials with gifts, including political contributions, and defrauding clients, and is cooperating with the ongoing probe.

A review of Bandow's columns and other written work shows that he wrote favorably about Abramoff's Indian tribal clients -- as well as another Abramoff client, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands -- as far back as 1997. One column, syndicated by the Copley News Service, saluted one Abramoff client tribe, the Mississippi Choctaws, for their entrepreneurial spirit, hard work, and commitment to free enterprise. "The Choctaws offer a model for other tribes," Bandow wrote. It only gets worse from there.

Read the Business Week story here. The New York Times also follows up.

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