Jack “Zelig” Abramoff at the Nonprofit/Political Corruption Nexus
If you look hard enough into any story or any picture of corruption lately, there seems to be a shadowy figure lurking in the background. Sometimes he's identifiable by his fedora, sometimes by his power-lobbyist pinstripes. It doesn't matter, but he's there. It's Jack Abramoff, the Zelig of contemporary nonprofit corruption.
We've written about Abramoff's misuse and abuse of charity and philanthropy under the guise of the Capital Athletic Foundation, whose children in need of athletic scholarships and support included Republican strategist Ralph Reed and now former Congressman Bob Ney, a recent topic of ours in the DMI Blog. Senator John McCain's Indian Affairs Committee made Abramoff's philanthropy one of the featured characters in the Committee's Gimme Five report.
Now comes a report in the Washington Post about corruption involving the Yeshiva of Greater Washington and the County Executive of Montgomery County,Maryland, Douglas Duncan, a Democrat who until recently was contemplating a run for Governor against the current occupant, Robert Ehrlich. Charges of political corruption involving a Yeshiva, one chaired by someone named Cohen (no relation to this blogger)?
Sad but true. It seems that a Duncan aide was assiduously cultivating Yeshiva-connected people for donations to Duncan at the same time as he was negotiating leases to give the Yeshiva vacant County school buildings. The Yeshiva did quite well, getting the buildings and getting the County to put up millions for repairs and renovations. It was just serendipity that Cohen and others connected to the Yeshiva happened to contribute $92,000 to Duncan's political campaigns through this County factotum, one Jerry Pasternak.
The Yeshiva's Cohen was somehow able to write checks totalling $200,000 to educational organizations in Israel and $220,000 to a limited partnership that he partially owned from accounts he was managing for the renovation of the schools--funded by the County. Cohen also happened to be the president of the firm selected to manage the construction work on the County buildings to be leased by the Yeshiva. Political contributions from Cohen and others seemed to flow to Duncan at times that were oddly appropriate to decisions the Yeshiva and Cohen needed, for example no-bid contracts and other decisions that causes misgivings among County attorneys and others.
Oh yes, Jack "Zelig" Abramoff, where does he fit in? Well, industrious Mr. Pasternak met Abramoff through the Orthodox Jewish community in Montgomery County (remember, Abramoff had his own religious school there, the Eshkol Academy where his own kids went to school, that he was funding through the Capital Athletic Foundation) and arranged for political contributions to Duncan from Abramoff and from Abramoff-associated companies in Saipan. The Yeshiva? Cohen's predecessor as president of the Yeshiva board was none other than Jack Abramoff. And the Capital Athletic Foundation was one of the Yeshiva's funders, in fact, the only grantee of Capital Athletic in 2000.
Abramoff exhibits some unique characteristics for a nonprofit Zelig. He was politically ecumenical about Republicans and Democrats in his attempts to use charity and philanthropy as camouflage for his personal benefit and his political lobbying interests. Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, or Doug Duncan, it made no difference to Abramoff. And no matter what nonprofit he had a relationship with, the Yeshiva, the Capital Athletic Foundation, Indian tribes, and others, they were all simply co-equal instruments for him to ply his influence-peddling wares.
Just keep looking at the next press report about political corruption with a nonprofit element in the story. You might, you just might spot a grainy picture of Jack "Zelig" Abramoff in the background.