Media reports wrongly conflated political contributions with illegal influence peddling in Abramoff case

Casting the Jack Abramoff scandal as bipartisan, the media have conflated two categories of conduct: 1) the legal receipt of campaign contributions; and 2) other possible illegal conduct including the receipt of campaign contributions in exchange for something.

Various media outlets reporting on Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff's January 3 plea bargain with federal prosecutors conflated two categories of conduct, one legal and the other illegal, in casting the scandal as bipartisan. The baseless suggestion that any lawmaker who received contributions from Abramoff or his clients -- conduct that is, in and of itself, legal and ethical -- might be implicated in an investigation that is, in fact, focused on possible illegal conduct -- including the receipt of contributions in exchange for something -- allows the media to then characterize the scandal as bipartisan, since both Democrats and Republicans did in fact receive money from Abramoff's clients.

In addition to misleadingly suggesting that recipients of legal campaign contributions from Abramoff are implicated in the scandal, news reports have also ignored the difference between legal and fully disclosed campaign contributions and the other ways in which Abramoff funneled money to lawmakers, which may have been neither legal nor properly disclosed. For example, Abramoff reportedly used a personal credit card to pay for plane tickets for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), and may also have paid for a golfing trip for Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) that was purportedly sponsored by a nonprofit organization. These payments for junkets for DeLay and Ney were apparent violations of House ethics rules and were apparently not accurately reported in their House ethics filings -- a far cry from the legal, and appropriately reported, campaign contributions news organizations have lumped them in with. As The Christian Science Monitor reported on January 4, “not everyone who ever took Abramoff-related money or perks is guilty of wrongdoing.”

And yet, several in the media have blurred this distinction. On the December 21 broadcast of CBS Evening News, CBS News contributor Gloria Borger reported that Abramoff had “entered into plea negotiations with federal prosecutors,” and that "[w]hat's making members really nervous is that Abramoff spread millions in campaign contributions to both parties on Capitol Hill." Borger's description of the issue suggests that the mere act of taking political contributions is suspect.

Similarly, a January 4 report suggested that Democrats as well as Republicans will be hurt by the scandal because members of both parties received Abramoff money. According to the report: “Even though Abramoff's political donations were not exclusive to Republicans, Democrats contend that he is a GOP lobbyist and this scandal will hurt Republicans in the midterm elections.” And on the January 3 broadcast of NPR's Morning Edition, national political correspondent Mara Liasson said that “more Republicans took money from Jack Abramoff than Democrats. That's almost logical, because they are in the majority.” Aside from the fact that Liasson's suggestion that Democrats took money from Abramoff at all appears to be false -- a search of the Center for Responsive Politics' database turned up no data showing any contributions from Abramoff himself to any Democrats -- “political donations” or who “took money from Jack Abramoff” per se are not the issue.

In fact, only one elected official, Ney, has been officially implicated in the scandal. The indictment against Abramoff specifically noted that Ney received from Abramoff “a stream of things of value,” including a golf junket to Scotland, tickets to sporting events, meals at Abramoff's restaurant, and campaign contributions. (The indictment referred to Ney as “Representative #1,” but The Washington Post reported January 4 that “Ney's spokesman confirmed that Ney is the 'Representative #1' repeatedly mentioned in court documents.” )The indictment further noted that Abramoff, in exchange for these gifts, “sought and received” Ney's “agreement to perform a series of official acts to benefit defendant Abramoff's businesses, clients and others.”