Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Norquist group faces challenge for Abramoff ties

Norquist group faces challenge for Abramoff ties
By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An ethics watchdog asked the U.S. Internal Revenue Service on Tuesday to revoke the tax-exempt status of a conservative group for helping disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff secretly fund an anti-casino campaign that benefited his clients.

Americans for Tax Reform also violated its nonprofit status by taking a cut of the money it handled, said Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW.

"This thing that they did where they basically took in money from tribes, laundered it and skimmed some off the top had nothing to do with their purpose" as an anti-tax organization, CREW executive director Melanie Sloan said.

A spokesman for Americans for Tax Reform declined to comment but said he would have an official reaction later.

Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist has had a close relationship with Abramoff since the early 1980s, when they were active in the College Republicans.

Abramoff went on to a lucrative lobbying career before pleading in January to fraud charges and admitting that he showered gifts on lawmakers in return for official favors. He is now cooperating in a corruption probe that has implicated several top Republicans, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Norquist built his nonprofit group into an influential conservative organization that advocates tax cuts and limited government.

E-mail messages released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee last year show that Abramoff and anti-gambling activist Ralph Reed discussed passing checks through Americans for Tax Reform. Those documents indicate that Norquist's group kept some of the money it handled.

Norquist told the Boston Globe last year that he passed along $1.15 million from an Indian tribe that runs a casino in Mississippi to anti-gambling groups trying to block a casino in Alabama.

Because the contributions were routed through Norquist's group, the anti-gambling activists would not know that they were bankrolled by gambling money.

A Republican political group said it might file an IRS complaint challenging CREW's nonprofit status on the grounds that it behaves in a partisan manner.

"If you look at CREW you see nothing more than a shill for the Democratic Party," said Dan Ronayne, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

CREW has filed complaints against at least 15 Republicans and one Democrat since 2003. The group's report on "The 13 Most Corrupt Members of Congress" features 11 Republicans and two Democrats.

That's because Republicans are in power, Sloan said.

"Nobody's going to pay off a Democrat, because they can't deliver anything," she said.

An IRS spokesman was not available for comment.