As the Tom DeLay/Jack Abramoff scandals merge into a giant MegaScandal, I’ve been watching its tendrils creep into Virginia. A year ago, Charlottesville’s Questerra was indicted as one of the companies who illegally made contributions to DeLay’s TRMPAC. I’ve been curious how long it would take for elected officials in Virginia to be tied into the scandal. It looks like I can stop waiting.
It’s not clear to me whether Del. Bob McDonnell should be pitied or condemned. The Republican nominee for attorney general here in Virginia, he’s had the misfortune to have had his House of Delegates campaign managed by a pedophile, Robin Vanderwall, who is currently serving a seven-year jail sentence for attempting to lure a little boy to a park for sex. McDonnell has based a significant portion of his campaign on his ability to stop these child predators, so one would think he’d start by looking at his own campaign staff. But, for the sake of argument, let’s just chalk this up to an unfortunate oversight on the part of our intrepid crime fighter.
Unfortunately for McDonnell, he’s batting .000 with Mr. Vanderwall. It seems that this gentlemen isn’t just interested in having sex with children, but also laundering money for indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
It seems that Abramoff was hired by a gambling business to persuade rather a large number of conservative Republicans to vote against a bill that would prohibit internet gambling, Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s Internet Gambling Prohibition Act of 1999. He had the business — eLottery — write a check to Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist’s group then wrote a check to the Faith and Family Alliance, who turned around and wrote a check to Ralph Reed’s Century Strategies. In the Washington Post, Susan Schmidt and James Grimaldi described the transaction as follows:
According to the e-mails, Reed provided the name and address where Norquist was supposed to send the money: to Robin Vanderwall at a location in Virginia Beach.
Vanderwall was director of the Faith and Family Alliance, a political advocacy group that was founded by two of Reed’s colleagues and then turned over to Vanderwall, Vanderwall said and records show.
Vanderwall, a former Regent University Law School student and Republican operative, was later convicted of soliciting sex with minors via the Internet and is serving a seven-year term in Virginia state prison.
In a telephone interview, Vanderwall said that in July 2000 he was called by Reed’s firm, Century Strategies, alerting him that he would be receiving a package. When it came, it contained a check payable to Vanderwall’s group for $150,000 from Americans for Tax Reform, signed by Norquist. Vanderwall said he followed the instructions from Reed’s firm — depositing the money and then writing a check to Reed’s firm for an identical amount.
“I was operating as a shell,” Vanderwall said, adding that he was never told how the money was spent. He said: “I regret having had anything to do with it.”
Perhaps Vanderwall didn’t know that he was laundering money, perhaps his relationship with Reed was limited to this one interaction, and perhaps he really is regretful. Or perhaps he’s a convicted child molester.
When the story was just that McDonnell employed a guy who turned out to be a pedophile, the simplest explanation would have been that he’d hired some schlub to be his campaign manager — reasonable, on a House of Delegates level — after which they parted company, and, hey, it turns out Vanderwall likes little boys. But the discovery that Vanderwall was the head of the Faith and Family Alliance shows that he’s no low-level campaign monkey. Let’s look deeper, though.
The Faith and Family Alliance was a 527, established as a supposed non-partisan, tax-exempt organization. It was created by Tim Phillips. Phillips was the vice president of Ralph Reed’s Century Strategies. The official incorporator of the Faith and Family Alliance was James Bopp. Bopp was the attorney for Grover Norquist’s Americans Taxpayers Alliance. After the group was established, it was handed over to Robin Vanderwall, who was selected to operate it. Vanderwall’s implication that he was just a patsy starts to crumble when it become clear that his organization was an arm of both the organization from which it received the money, and the organization to which it delivered the money.
But wait, there’s more.
The Faith and Family Alliance got nailed for a dirty mailer in June of 2000. Now-Representative Eric Cantor was up against VA Sen. Stephen Martin for the Republican nomination in Central Virginia’s 7th congressional district (where I live, only I’ve since been redistricted into the the 5th). Republican Rep. Tom Bliley had retired, leaving Cantor and Martin to fight it out for his seat. Sen. Martin’s prospects didn’t look good, so he hired Tim Phillips (of Ralph Reed’s Century Strategies), who had the Faith and Family Alliance attack Cantor. Vanderwall sent out an attack mailer four days before the June 12 primary, accusing Cantor of being a a “millionaire lawyer” who “didn’t pay his own [taxes]. He got caught. He got fined. And he finally was forced to pay $31,527.17 in back taxes.”
The Daily Progress looked into the mailing, and Vanderwall would only say that it cost $15,000, went to 40,000 voters, and was paid for by an anonymous donor. He described himself as Tim Phillips’ friend, pointing out that they’d worked on campaigns together in the past. Phillips, on the other hand, claimed to have nothing to do with the attack mailing. The attacked candidate, by the way, went on to eke out a win, by 263 votes.
A curious thing emerges in the story of Robin Vanderwall. The recurring cast of characters are all Virginia Republicans. The gambling bill was introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte. The attack was on Rep. Eric Cantor. The attack was paid for by Stephen Martin. Vanderwall had worked for Del. Bob McDonnell immediately prior to his role in the Cantor attack and the DeLay/Abramoff money laundering.
Now, it’s not clear to me exactly when Vanderwall took over the reins of this organization, but given that attack mailer went out in June of 2000 it would have been, at the latest, just a few months after he ended his employment with Del. Bob McDonnell. So there are not years that separate McDonnell from Vanderwall — it’s months at most, perhaps mere days. Although it’s possible that Vanderwall had a rapid ascension in power, going from a nobody working on a HoD race to a major cog in the Republican power machine in a matter of a few weeks or months, it strikes me as vanishingly unlikely.
It’s also very clear that Vanderwall was a part of a powerful network of front organization created by the most famous, and most corrupt, of Republican leaders: Rep. Tom DeLay, Ralph Reed, and Jack Abramoff. His working for McDonnell seems, if anything, like a curious exception to the rest of his career as a top man in the Republican network.
Let’s add something new into the mix. As Bob Gibson wrote in the Daily Progress two days ago, McDonnell refuses to disclose the source of nearly half a million dollars in campaign contributions, money that was funneled into his campaign by first passing it through a 527, Republican State Leadership Committee — the same legal entity used in the whole DeLay/Abramoff/Vanderwall/Reed money-laundering scheme.
I’m left with more questions than answers. What was Vanderwall doing working for a small fish like McDonnell? Was McDonnell utterly unaware of the power and influence wielded by the man that he hired to manage his campaign? Or did McDonnell hire Vanderwall precisely because of Vanderwall’s connections? Is it possible that McDonnell was not aware that Vanderwall’s organization was nothing more than a front, used to launder money? Did McDonnell ever benefit from Vanderwall’s connections? Is McDonnell’s money coming to him via the same money-laundering scheme used by Vanderwall and his allies in order to fund other candidates?
I can’t answer these questions. But I do know that this looks extremely bad for Del. McDonnell. After all, his former campaign manager has been caught laundering money in the precise manner by which he’s now received a half million dollars for his campaign for not just any office, but attorney general.
Looks to me like Del. McDonnell has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. But it’ll require smarter people than I to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle.