Now that Doug Bandow has become the latest conservative pundit caught with his hand in the cookie jar, we’re starting to learn just how many other conservative writers and think tank staffers are on the take from special interests.


With the release of more documents related to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s many-headed — and very corrupt — beast, we’re also beginning to learn just how close some lobbyists are with members of the conservative intellectual establishment.


This was brought in to focus yesterday at The New Republic’s blog, “The Plank,” when Franklin Foer posted a few documents from the Abramoff operation, showing how deep the relationship goes.


First up were the billing records that Abramoff sent a client, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, in May 1996 that make reference to a “conference with a Heritage Foundation staffer” and “phone conversations and fax” sent to Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute. In a new twist, we also see the conservative/libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute is mentioned in the document. The billing records state that at some point in early 1996, there was a “Conference with J. Abramoff regarding CEI involvement with a trip of economists to CNMI [Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands].”


Since no one yet knows how deep Abramoff’s relationship goes with the conservative intelligencia, I called the CEI and spoke with its Vice President for Communications, Jody Clarke. I asked if she knows of any other dealings CEI staffers might have had with Abramoff other than the 1996 junket.


She said that there hasn’t much talk about the subject in the office, and that as far as she knows, “there haven’t been any dealings with [Abramoff].” But she admits that no one has asked.


“Industry has a right to defend itself,” she said, “and we’re not going to change our point of view,” though she’s “very confident” that no one has taken money from Abramoff to write piece promoting his clients.


“We get a lot of support from business, and individual funders, and we don’t want this [scandal] to taint that … We get support because of what we’re doing, not the other way around.”


“We have a policy,” she told me, “[that] when an analyst writes an op-ed for an outside organization, the paper pays them. I don’t know of anyone here who has been paid by any other party.”


Still, it’s worth noting that CEI hasn’t asked its staffers if they’ve had dealings with Abramoff — or at least it won’t admit it has — and we know for sure that one of its people went on a junket to the South Pacific funded by him in 1996. Granted, Bandow’s crime was taking money from Abramoff to write favorable columns for Copley News Service, and not so much for Cato, but as other documents show, Abramoff has had an eye on think tankers for some time.


For example, in a document posted on TNR’s blog, a proposal Abramoff sent to the Malaysians brags about the journalists he had in his back pocket. “These trips,” Abramoff wrote of junkets to Malaysia, “should include Members and key staff of the United States Congress, think tank leaders, public policy leaders, political activists and positive journalists.” (Emphasis ours.) He notes that “A certain outcome” of these visits “will include timely and powerful editorials and articles,” and that “our firm has facilitated hundreds of such articles and editorials as well as speeches and floor statements in the Congress and other effective communications on behalf of our clients.”


Hundreds, eh? To our ears, that sounds as if Abramoff had more than just Bandow on his payroll. And given this, CEI, despite its claims of innocence, is still very much under suspicion. After all, one of its people took a trip which, Abramoff assured his client, would result in “timely and powerful editorials and articles.”


As we noted on Friday, it seems likely that as more information on Abramoff’s operations becomes public, more journalists and think tankers will be found to have been secretly taking money from him to give his clients’ pet projects more ink and the veneer of objectivity. Think tanks can, of course, take money from whomever offers it, but once their writers start secretly taking favors and/or money from interested parties to write fawning op-eds, it’s a different ballgame.


And one that doesn’t pass the smell test.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.