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Abramoff's grand aims came early

Made powerhouse of GOP group

WASHINGTON -- In 1981, a newly elected president was about to shift the nation rightward, and a 22-year-old Brandeis graduate named Jack Abramoff -- savoring his own victory as the newly elected chairman of the College Republicans -- was hatching plans to transform the nation's young people into stalwart Reaganites.

It was the start of a career that would roil Washington 25 years later, and a phase of Abramoff's life that provided signposts toward his later demise.

''Our job," Abramoff wrote, ''is to remove liberals ''from power permanently -- [from] student newspaper and radio stations, student governments, and academia.

''We are replacing these leftists with committed conservatives."

As Abramoff saw it, the only hitch to his Napoleonic-scale ambition was the pea-sized budget that his sponsors at the Republican National Committee were willing to commit.

''With $250,000 it is impossible for us to run even a skeletal field effort," Abramoff complained in a memorandum.

The memo was sent to the committee chairman, Richard Richards, after a ride in Richards's limousine back from the White House.

His money pleas unheeded, Abramoff spent the next four years, from 1981 to 1985, bypassing the RNC chain of command -- the organization legally responsible for the College Republicans -- to build his own financial juggernaut to advance the group's hard-right agenda, according to memos from College Republican files and interviews with GOP officials involved.

Unbeknownst to the RNC, he launched an expensive direct-mail campaign that left the group in debt, and vendors complaining about unpaid bills. He set up at least two tax-exempt groups to raise money -- over the objections of an RNC lawyer who warned that such groups could not legally engage in political activities. He borrowed money for his cause, even from his father.

''Jack was a freebooting pirate as far as I was concerned," said a Washington attorney, Mark Braden, then the RNC's house counsel. ''He had a strong belief in his own correctness. It was damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."

More than two decades later, in early January, Abramoff became a symbol of Washington corruption when he pleaded guilty to a range of crimes committed as a lobbyist. The scandal, which has touched off a legislative scramble for reform, could also snare members of Congress.

Looking back, Abramoff's critics inside the Republican Party say his tenure at the College Republicans should have provided a crystal ball into the turns his life might take. ''Look how the seeds of his current destruction are so evident," said Richard Bond, who as RNC deputy chairman repeatedly confronted Abramoff over spending issues.

Ronald Kaufman, then the RNC's political director, described Abramoff's management as ''living on the edge. . . . I don't think any of us thought he was an evil person. But we were really worried about the group and the direction they were taking."

''I remember them being in debt and constantly having financial issues," said William I. Greener III, a former RNC communications director. ''You had the sense of grabbing at air to try to get specifics and details" about where the money had gone.

Yet Abramoff also transformed the once-sleepy College Republican campus clubs into a vibrant political force, enjoying access to members of Congress, especially Newt Gingrich, the little-known backbencher who would later become House speaker.

''This is really a tragedy in the literal sense," said James Higgins, who succeeded Abramoff as College Republicans chairman. ''Jack could have accomplished great things with his unusual ability to lead and inspire people."

Paul Erickson, who served as the College Republicans treasurer under Abramoff, dismissed the accusations of RNC officials as untrue and ideologically-based, saying Abramoff's critics were moderates allied with Vice President George H. W. Bush, who ''didn't want conservatism promoted in any sense."

Abramoff's top lieutenants were two figures who would achieve their own prominence: Grover Norquist, the Harvard MBA who would become Washington's leading antitax activist, and Ralph Reed, who would build the Christian Coalition into a powerful GOP player in the 1990s. Both remained close to Abramoff, and both have been linked to his work on behalf of Indian tribes.

An Abramoff spokesman, Andrew Blum, issued a ''no comment" in response to questions for this article. Norquist and Reed did not return telephone calls.

Neither Norquist nor Reed has been charged with wrongdoing. But the fallout from the Abramoff scandal has hurt their reputations, and ethical questions now cloud Reed's race for Georgia's lieutenant governor.

The Reagan pilgrimage
In the summer of 1981, Abramoff, Norquist, and Reed joined thousands of young conservatives flocking to the nation's capital, following a 70-year-old former movie actor who offered sustenance for their patriotic hunger.

Under Reagan, there would be no more talk of ''peaceful coexistence" with America's Cold War enemies. ''The time is now," Reagan proclaimed, ''to recapture our destiny."

Young conservatives were enthralled, after years of feeling alienated on liberal college campuses. In Washington, they continued to view themselves as underdogs battling the dominant liberal political and media culture. But they brought to their cause the same question-authority irreverence that had been the hallmark of leftist baby boomers.

While the College Republicans had been a one-time homeground for strategists such as Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, the organization by 1980 suffered from sagging membership and political clout.

Abramoff's election as chairman -- after a campaign that cost him $10,000 -- changed all that. He and Norquist brought to Washington the same energy they had applied to organizing Massachusetts campuses for Reagan. They could, and did, take credit for helping orchestrate Reagan's victory in Massachusetts -- a state so liberal it stood alone in George McGovern's 1972 column.

Under Abramoff, the College Republicans office quickly became a nesting ground for hard-right believers. The new team, allies recalled, berated Republican moderates as ''Bushyites" -- a reference to the vice president -- and ''squishes" who were too eager to cut deals with Democrats on Capitol Hill, or with the Russians at superpower summits.

After purging the moderates in the College Republican hierarchy, Abramoff and his team launched a series of events to build public support for Reagan's foreign policy. The first was its ''Poland Will Be Free" campaign to support the democracy movement then under siege by the Polish communist government.

But in the eyes of the College Republicans, the Polish regime wasn't the only Moscow puppet -- so, too, were liberal student groups, the American media, leftist professors, and nuclear-freeze activists. Abramoff distributed on campuses 900 copies of a book called ''Target America," which posited that the Soviets had planted 4,000 journalist-agents in the American media to pursue a ''massive secret propaganda campaign," according to memos.

A training manual from the period, which Reed helped to write, described Ralph Nader's network of Public Interest Research Groups on campus as ''tyrannical" and ''radical." Abramoff's team accused the United States Student Association -- a 350-chapter liberal campus group that in 1982 protested Reagan's student aid cuts -- of being a ''pro-Soviet, pro-terrorist, Marxist-Leninist organization." The manual advised boycotting ''Marxist" professors, and soliciting support from alumni college donors to oust them.

That kind of charged rhetoric repeatedly landed Abramoff in ''hot water" with RNC officials, as RNC communications director Greener noted in a 1983 memo. ''Bad use of words!" Greener scribbled on an Abramoff memo that described efforts to ''smash" PIRGs and United States Student Association chapters, and ''drive the final nail into their coffin sometime within the next year."

Abramoff was admonished by RNC official Bond after a letter to the Palestine Liberation Organization went out over RNC stationery, according to a memo.

''It got to the point where the CR's played it like a war and Republican leaders rolled their eyes," Kaufman said. ''You couldn't trust them not to get in trouble."

That lack of trust extended to finances. Memos from the period revealed Abramoff's intense focus on fund-raising and his readiness to use the connections of his Beverly Hills based-father, a Diners Club executive with connections to Reagan's kitchen cabinet.

''Alfred Bloomingdale, a close personal friend of my family, told me to contact you immediately," Abramoff wrote to Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy's one-time counsel, on July 8, 1981. ''Although we are an arm of the RNC, we must become financially self-sufficient."

Abramoff added that ''because of his close association with the President, Mr. Bloomingdale was able to free up the RNC contributor list for our use. Within the next couple of weeks, we must raise $50,000 in order to mail and phone bank these lists. I have no doubt that we will pyramid that $50,000, to over $1 million within the first year."

Bond, now a former RNC official, characterized Abramoff's assertion that he had gained access to the RNC contributor list as ''outside the realm of reality. That list is like the Holy Grail . . . You can see his early prevarication."

Bloomingdale died in 1982.

Champing at the RNC bit
Like other RNC affiliates -- groups that represent GOP women, African-Americans, and the like -- the College Republicans were allocated an annual budget. Abramoff's defenders say he was trying to build a far more potent political force than other affiliates, with a national program to train conservative activists.

''We fought, begged, and pleaded" for more funding, recalled Erickson. ''We were sick to death of being on the RNC leash."

In October, Abramoff sent a letter to state College Republican chairs urging them to raise money through direct mail. By the early 1980s, direct mail had become a popular fund-raising tool for political groups, particularly on the right. But it was also costly, and would lead to the demise of a number of New Right groups.

A year later, the College Republicans had accumulated ''rather large debt" as Abramoff wrote in a November 1982 memo to a second direct-mail vendor. Memos indicate that three months earlier, in the summer of 1982, bills were going unpaid. ''Dear Sirs," Abramoff wrote to a printer. ''I would just like to inform you of a thirty-day hold we are having on all of our billing due to an interruption in our steady cash flow situation."

The precise amount of the debt was unclear from memos, as well as the memories of RNC officials. But, Bond said, ''speculative direct mail" by the College Republicans was ''completely unauthorized."

So were loans to the College Republicans, but a July 1982 memo from Abramoff to his father, Frank, shows that he borrowed $5,000 for the group. ''If I had known the CRs were out getting loans from people that they potentially couldn't pay back, I would have stopped them dead in their tracks," said Bond.

Determined to find financial footing independent of the RNC, Abramoff proposed setting up a separate group, the College Republican National Fund, whose income would be tax-exempt. But in a March 1982 memo, Braden, the RNC counsel, told Abramoff such a group would skirt tax laws.

''Such organizations may not engage directly or indirectly in political activities," Braden wrote. ''I received last week a print order for stationery for the College Republican National Fund. This activity cannot be funded through College Republicans, nor will the RNC permit the use of its facilities for these purposes."

Memos show that Abramoff set up the fund anyway. As one solicitation suggests, the fund had clear political intent.

''Thank you so much for your contribution to the College Republican National Fund," Abramoff wrote to a Florida donor. ''Because of your generous donation we were able to fight Teddy Kennedy in Massachusetts. Due to our efforts and other circumstances, Kennedy will not plague us in 1984."

The College Republican tactics and unpaid bills led the RNC to demand that Abramoff leave the building and move the group elsewhere, former RNC officials said.

''Jack was a difficult person to work with from a lawyer's point of view," Braden said. Disturbed by the College Republican operation, ''we threw him out. I don't remember what precipitated it, but I remember [the incident]. It was painful. He was a very difficult personality. There were all types of management problems and a lack of trust between us and them."

Bond and Kaufman also recalled asking Abramoff to move out.

Erickson, then a student who was elected College Republican treasurer under Abramoff in 1983, disputed this version of events, saying the RNC was reclaiming prime office space from the College Republicans and other affiliates. Former RNC officials, he said, have an ax to grind.

''It was open warfare in the halls of the RNC between the Reaganites and the Bushyites," said Erickson. ''Bond and Kaufman were fiercely loyal to Bush and loathed Ronald Reagan."

''It had zero to do with ideology," Kaufman countered.

Greener, an early Reagan supporter who says he was ''not a Bushie in any way, shape or form," also recalled that the disputes centered on the College Republicans' financial troubles and unanswered questions about where the money had gone. ''You could never get a straight answer," he said.

Dissent within the ranks
Questions about Abramoff's financial management prompted rumors to circulate within the organization. One competitor in Abramoff's 1983 race for reelection accused Abramoff not only of generating a debt but of embezzling money that he had deposited into a Swiss bank account.

Nothing came of the claims, but they prompted one Abramoff supporter to issue a letter to College Republican convention delegates rebutting these ''personal attacks and character smears."

A short time after leaving the RNC building, Abramoff set up another nonprofit, the USA Foundation, soliciting money from such New Right donors as the Olin Foundation. Although he organized it as a nonpartisan, tax-exempt group, Abramoff served as chairman of both the foundation and the College Republicans.

In 1984, the foundation helped organize ''Student Liberation Day" in support of Reagan's invasion of Grenada. On College Republican stationery, Abramoff wrote: ''While the Student Liberation Day Coalition is nonpartisan and intended only for educational purposes, I don't need to tell you how important this project is to our efforts as CRs. I am confident that an impartial study of the contrasts between the Carter/Mondale failure in Iran and the Reagan victory in Grenada will be most enlightening to voters 12 days before the general election."

By then, the College Republicans had been banished not only from the RNC premises but also from the Reagan White House. At the close of the Student Liberation Day celebration, Abramoff, Erickson, and others traveled to the White House to attend a reception for the American medical students who had been rescued in the invasion. They were blocked.

''Deaver had crossed us off the list," Erickson recalled in a reference to the Reagan adviser, Michael Deaver.

A year later, Abramoff left the College Republicans to pursue other ventures. By then, his four-year tenure had made him a divisive figure.

Erickson defended Abramoff, saying he was promoting the cause of Reagan conservatism, not getting rich. ''Jack governed by sheer force of will," Erickson said. ''Things happened because Jack willed them to happen."

His detractors at the RNC took a different view. Greener said: ''I have found in life that individuals who believe what they are doing is so right and so good and so important are also the individuals that have a high-frequency level of rationalizing away unacceptable behavior."

Nina J. Easton is the author of the 2002 book ''Gang of Five." Some descriptions were drawn from the book, but all interviews took place this year.

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