U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook’s recent explanation about his controversial, multi-year financial connection with indicted Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff is disingenuous and shows he is either lying or is a simpleton out of touch with political reality.
Istook (R-Warr Acres) recently became the second member of Congress to return or give away campaign money Abramoff donated to politicians on behalf of gambling interests in past years. Abramoff and his associates, representing the casino interests of Indian tribes, donated $29,000 to Istook's campaign chest between 2001 and 2004, according to the Associated Press.
According to the Associated Press, Istook now says he is donating $1,000 that directly came from Abramoff to the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation for Indian health research. In addition, he is giving the organization another $5,000 that Abramoff donated to a political action committee he was associated with, the First Freedom Fund.
I guess the other money does not count to Istook because Abramoff did not personally sign the check, though the Associated Press reports the $29,000 money was tied to the lobbyist. Istook has not disputed this in his public comments about the issue.
Essentially, Abramoff’s money has “sleaze” and “corruption” written all over it. Abramoff is the main target in a political corruption investigation that many people predict will lead to several indictments in the coming weeks. His partner, Michael Scanlon, has already enter a guilty plea in exchange for testimony in the investigation, and some expect Abramoff will soon do the same.
(Check out the recent Oklahoma Gazette story on Istook and Abramoff.)
Abramoff, who has given money to several members of Congress, is already under indictment involving another corruption scandal in Florida. He has also been connected to indicted U.S. Rep. Tom Delay (R-Texas)and U.S. Rep. Robert Ney (R-Ohio). DeLay is the former House majority leader forced to resign his position after his indictment on other political corruption charges.
One can understand in today’s overall corrupt, money-is-everything political climate that most politicians receive money from sleazy people with sleazy political interests and that is difficult to keep track of all the money and its corresponding sleaze ratio.
Yet Istook’s acceptance of the money deserves special consideration here in Oklahoma because he signed a letter that would have benefited one of Abramoff’s Indian casino interests. Thus, the sanctimonious Istook, a Mormon who consistently sponsors legislation that would bring religious practices into government institutions, is right in the middle of helping gambling interests, well, promote gambling.
And, though Istook never does a damn thing of significance for Oklahoma, we do know he claims to be an extremely religious man who is against gambling.
But wait. Let us be fair and balanced. Istook has his “story” to tell. Istook said the letter he signed in 2002 that went to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, at the request of then Rep. David Vitter, (R-LA.), explained specifically that the undersigned were oppose to the spread of gambling, though it also mentioned it was against a specific casino proposed by the Jena band of the Choctaw tribe near the Louisiana-Texas border. There is no doubt now that stopping this casino would have directly helped one of Abramoff’s clients with a competing casino.
But Istook told the Associated Press, “I signed the letter as part of my long-standing opposition to the spread of gambling, and for no other reason.”
Vitter is currently a U.S. Senator who has even more connections with Abramoff than Istook. He is denying and qualifying everything about his Abramoff connection, too.
So one has to assume that if Istook is not lying—and this is a really really big “if” in my view—then he is so clueless he will sign any type of right-wing, ideological letter or document without understanding its overall ramifications. And, come on, he failed to ask why the specific casino was mentioned? Why not just a write a letter or a manifesto opposing gambling if he was so morally outraged? Maybe he could have sent it to all those people who eventually voted for the lottery last year in Oklahoma.
“Hey, David,” Istook could have asked,” how come we are against just this one casino and not all casinos including Bill’s [former Education Secretary William Bennett] favorite places in Las Vegas.”
So Istook, who is running for governor here, is either a liar or a dupe in this ugly yet typical political episode. Take your pick. The local, corporate conservative media—such as The Daily Oklahoman—will not fully cover this important story because it is as much part of the lies and corruption as those politicians it supports these days. It is reminiscent of how the newspaper gave former Governor Frank Keating, another Republican, a pass on his major corruption scandal involving the $250,000 he accepted from New York financier Jack Dreyfus.
It is disgusting and tragic. But that is our political reality in Oklahoma these days.
So I wonder what $29,000 buys you from U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Warr Acres)? A vote or two? Access? A signature on a letter or petition? Maybe. Is it enough to get Istook to place his sanctimonious, ultra-conservative “moral” principles in question?
The $29,000 is the amount of money given to him by indicted Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his associates, according to the Associated Press. Abramoff is also under more grand jury investigation for a variety of other alleged corrupt activities. Abramoff is a close friend of indicted, former House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas), who may face even more legal problems as the Abramoff scandal grows. In the past, Abramoff represented the gambling interests of Indian tribes. His lobbying actions for the tribes have drawn the scrutiny of prosecutors.
The plot thickened Monday. Michael Scanlon, a former DeLay aide and Abramoff associate, pleaded guilty to a political corruption charge and has apparently negotiated a plea agreement with prosecutors involved in the Abramoff investigation. Some believe Scanlon’s testimony could ultimately lead to the implication of DeLay and Ohio Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Ney who received trips and other gifts from Abramoff’s lobbying firm. Scanlon has been accused of conspiring with Abramoff to defraud the Indian tribes they represented.
But let’s stick with Istook. (I know. I know. There are now so many influential and high-ranking Republicans either under indictment or under investigation that is it difficult to keep track of it all. )
Here are the streamlined facts as reported by the Associated Press:
Fact 1: From 2001 to 2004, Istook took $29,000 in contributions from Abramoff and his associates.
Fact 2: Istook signed a 2002 letter sent to the Bush administration that would have helped lobbyist Abramoff with his Indian casino interests.
Fact 3: Istook denies the letter had anything to do with Abramoff but was in fact some type of personal manifesto against gambling in general.
Only a rube would believe Istook’s lame excuse. Okies know how the real world works, and they know Washington politicians listen to money, not ordinary people who have to work hard to make ends meet and do not have enough money to buy political influence. The only real excuse Istook might offer is that everyone else in Washington sells their influence, “so why can’t I?” At least it would be honest.
(Listen here to an interview with two top Oklahoma progressives. Dr. Brendan Lalor, head of the UCO Progressive Coalition and Bob Lee, editor of The Progressive Voice. It may take a minute for the mp3 file to upload.)
But what is particularly disturbing about Istook’s acceptance of the Abramoff money is that Istook poses as a self-righteous zealot with a pandering flair for meaningless but symbolic religious legislation. Istook, a Mormon, sponsors the ironically titled Religious Freedom amendment, for example, that would turn our nation into a theocratic fundamentalist state. But then he turns around and accepts money from an allegedly corrupt lobbyist representing gambling interests and then tries to make it all work together in some senseless narrative about how he represents ultra-conservative, religious values.
To paraphrase, it goes something like this: “I, Ernest Istook, took money from a lobbyist promoting gambling. I, Ernest Istook, am against gambling. Don’t you get it?”
Of course, hypocrisy is a birthright and maybe even a duty here on the prairie. It is all just the same ole tumbleweeds to me and you, right? It would be laughable if so much were not at stake in terms of the country’s basic democratic foundations because of the corruption and lies of the Republicans in power in Washington right now.
Here is a telling quote from a now public Scanlon memo that surely reflects Istook’s and the Republicans’ political strategies in red states like Oklahoma:
"The wackos get their information through the Christian right, Christian radio, mail, the internet and telephone trees. Simply put, we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them."
Istook has announced he is running for governor against popular Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry next year. Expect Istook to run on cultural wedge issues, trying to get the state’s rubes and “wackos to vote against something” even as he accepts money from lobbyists whose interests directly contradict his sanctimonious posturing.
Democrats need to expose this sitting turkey of hypocrisy and hubris and hatemongering. If Istook is so opposed to gambling, like Oklahoma’s education lottery, then why does he accept money from people who lobby for gambling interests? It is an honest question.
But do not expect the corporate media here to press him on it because he is a Republican who supports the vested interest of the ultra-rich over ordinary, hard-working Oklahomans.
It might be tempting to believe immoral “Bush World” is coming to an end because of recent Democratic victories throughout the country and the president’s declining approval ratings, but much work remains for Oklahoma progressives.
Consider that one year from now—no matter what is going on in the rest of the country—here is what it could be like in Oklahoma:
(1) Theocrat Ernest Istook could be governor. His first acts as governor would almost certainly pertain to cultural wedge and religious issues because playing into people’s ingrained ignorance and advancing theocracy is his only chance of victory against popular Governor Brad Henry in the gubernatorial race. Istook could try to stop the education lottery, mandate religious symbols in school, and whip up hate against Oklahoma’s gay community through more discriminatory legislation. Meanwhile, he would no doubt work to cut educational funding and social programs and give the state away to big corporate interests through unneeded tax breaks.
(2) The state could have a TABOR constitutional amendment. TABOR, or the ironically named Taxpayers’ Bill of Right movement, would limit the growth of the state government’s budget to a formula tied to the inflation rate and population growth. It is another right-wing “tax-relief” program that rewards the ultra rich as it increases living expenses for the middle class. It decimated the educational systems in Colorado, and that is why voters there recently rescinded it. Still, it has a good chance of passing in Oklahoma because the corporate media in the state will not cover the issue fairly by allowing extended dissenting views. TABOR supporters are now circulating an initiative petition to get the constitutional amendment on the ballot next year. If passed, it will destroy Oklahoma education. That is not hyperbole.
(3) Oklahoma science teachers could be forced to teach Christian creationism in the classroom next fall as an alternative to the scientific theory of evolution, which has directly and indirectly led to great advances in medical science. Oklahoma House Representative Thad Balkman (R-Norman), a right-wing theocrat in the mold of Istook, has announced he will propose some type of legislation related to intelligent design this coming legislative session. Intelligent design argues that the natural world is so complicated it has to be the work of an intelligent designer, i.e., a god. This has never been proven. Since it is virtually only right-wing Christian fundamentalists who support intelligent design, you know they perceive the intelligent designer as their Christian God. If intelligent design makes it into Oklahoma classrooms, our students will be taught Christian dogma instead of scientific experimentation and evidence gathering.
So Istook, TABOR, and intelligent design, the forthcoming triad of the continuing Oklahoma conservative juggernaut, loom large over the state’s politics this coming year.
This is not to mention other important political races and legislation.
Huddled in our cold houses with our gargantuan heating bills and Orwellian Victory Gin this winter, it might seem logical that Oklahoma voters will begin to reject the ongoing right-wing dysfunction that privileges the ultra rich over hard working people. There is nothing wrong with being cautiously hopeful as you put on an extra sweater this winter to try to keep the gas bill halfway reasonable. It is true Oklahomans are sick of paying high gasoline prices and increasing health-care costs, and they will certainly grow weary quickly of the high heating costs this winter. These higher costs are because of immoral Republican policies. Okies know that.
I also sense Oklahomans are sick of the divisiveness brought about by the Republicans over the last five years. Families here have been torn apart by Bush’s lies and policies. Is it right, for example, that American soldiers and CIA operatives under Bush policy torture people? Attack dogs, water boarding, stress positions, and sexual humiliation, complete with photographs and video for your viewing pleasure? Topics like this and, of course, Bush's previous and ongoing lies will be the Thanksgiving Day dinner conversation at some tables in Oklahoma next week. What fun for the family. Come on. Really. Everyone is sick of it. Let's stop torturing people. Let's get out of Iraq right now, not later.
Meanwhile, the news from Iraq is bad, terribly bad. Simply put, Bush has lost the war, and thousands of our soldiers and innocent Iraqi civilians are dead because of his hubris and lies. The slogan “Bush Lied, Thousands Died” will live forever in historical infamy alongside the 1960s chant, “Hey, hey, L.B.J., how many kids did you kill today?”
What type of massive, narcissistic ego must it take to send American soldiers off to a meaningless war for political gain?
The right-wing, psychological dysfunction is now increasingly rejected throughout the country. Democrat governors were recently elected in Virginia, a red state, and New Jersey. Voters in California turned down Republican Governor Arnold Shwarzenegger’s four conservative ballot propositions, one of which was a TABOR-like measure. Voters in Colorado, as I mentioned, rescinded their TABOR amendment.
In addition, Bush’s poll numbers continue to plummet as a majority of people now recognize he lied or misled the country into a botched, meaningless war, the most grievous act a president can commit. High-ranking Republicans, U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, are under indictment. People have grown tired over how our moral reputation around the world has been destroyed because this presidential administration sanctions the torture of prisoners. America will perhaps never be able to claim the high moral ground again in geopolitics.
Again, it is tempting to think the recent votes and poll numbers bode well for progressives and the country. That may be true.
But this is Oklahoma. We have a biased corporate media, which overwhelmingly privileges conservative viewpoints. The Daily Oklahoman, for example, recently published an unsigned editorial arguing that Bush did not lie the country into war. It failed to mention, of course, how many people throughout the country disagree with its assessment. It failed to mention a lot of things . . . like facts, previous Bush statements, the Downing Street memos, reputable left and right critics who say Bush lied, and it goes on and on.
And so, as usual, Oklahoma progressives will have to fight Istook, TABOR, and intelligent design without a real voice in the state’s corporate media.
That means we will have to work harder here even as the country finally recognizes the lies of right-wing ideologues and how these lies have hurt the opportunities of the middle class and damaged our country’s democratic foundations and ruined our world reputation as a moral beacon for years and years to come.