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The Minus 5, Plus Plenty

The Minus 5 is the newest album by singer-songwriter Scott McCaughey.

05:32

Other segments from the episode on February 2, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 1, 2006: Interview with Susan Schmidt and Jeffrey Smith; Review of Minus 5's "The Minus 5."

Transcript

DATE February 1, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Susan Schmidt and Jeffrey Smith of The Washington Post
discuss the relationship between Tom DeLay and lobbyist Jack
Abramoff
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Susan Schmidt, is The Washington Post reporter who broke the story
two years ago that lobbyist Jack Abramoff had collected a remarkable amount of
money in fees from four Indian tribes that he represented. Her reporting led
to larger investigations by a congressional committee and the Justice
Department. Abramoff has since pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy and is
cooperating with the federal investigation into political corruption. Susan
Schmidt is still covering his story.

Also with us is her colleague at The Washington Post, Jeffrey Smith, who has
covered some of the Abramoff story and is now focusing on former House
Majority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay is being formally charged in the state of
Texas with improprieties in the collecting and spending of money for the 2002
state election. Prosecutors in Washington are looking into DeLay's ties to
lobbyist Jack Abramoff. We're going to talk about the connection between
Abramoff and DeLay in a few minutes, but let's start with Susan Smith's
reporting on Jack Abramoff.

How did you first get onto the Jack Abramoff story?

Ms. SUSAN SCHMIDT (The Washington Post): I first started hearing about him
in the fall of 2003 when I was covering other things. And I got a call from a
lobbyist who said, `You know, you really should look into what Jack Abramoff
is doing. He's somehow managed to win over Indian tribes as clients.' These
are wealthy tribes, most of them, who have casinos. And he's stealing other
people's clients and charging them 10 or 20 times what they've been paying
their regular lobbyists. And, in addition, he teamed up with a guy who left
Tom DeLay's staff, a young press aide, and the two of them seem to be just
rolling in money and were really shaking up K Street.

GROSS: And the young press aide was Michael Scanlon.

Ms. SCHMIDT: That's right. So that's where I started, and it sounded very
intriguing. And I began to follow the trail. It took, probably, three or
four months for me to get the first story in the paper.

GROSS: What did you first start doing to follow the trail of money?

Ms. SCHMIDT: I first started looking at what they call lobby disclosure
reports, which are required. Congress requires lobbyists file reports saying
who they are lobbying and how much they are getting paid and on what issue. I
could tell that Abramoff was making much more money than the lobbyists that
have previously represented the tribes. And it didn't look like there were
any big issues. So I started doing that and then contacting some of the
lobbyists who'd been sort of jilted and then going to tribal members. One of
the things Abramoff did was he and Scanlon got involved in tribal elections
which no outsider's supposed to do. And they helped people get elected to
tribal councils, and those people then hired them, gave them big contracts.
So there were plenty of people to talk to in the tribes who'd been pushed out
of their positions on tribal councils. I shouldn't say plenty. There were a
few people who were able to help me a little bit with how much money they'd
paid Scanlon. That was not public, and the money that Scanlon received was
enormous, much more than Abramoff received, and so I pretty much knew then
that there must be some arrangements between the two of them.

GROSS: So what did you reveal in your first big story about Jack Abramoff and
Michael Scanlon?

Ms. SCHMIDT: Well, the first story we published was in February 2004. And
what we said was that the two of these guys had burned about $45 million from
four tribes that we looked at over a three-year period for lobby on issues
that don't seem to be any big issues affecting Indian country, and we talked
about how much money Jack Abramoff was directing these tribes to give to
political parties and political candidates. He really ramped up their giving
to members of Congress, and instead of just giving to Democrats, he had the
tribes give a lot of money to Republicans. So by 2002 or so, a couple years
into this, they were giving, well, all-told, they'd given about $5 million to
political candidates.

GROSS: So were you able to talk to Jack Abramoff himself or to Michael
Scanlon?

Ms. SCHMIDT: Yes, I was able to talk to Jack Abramoff. I sat down with him
for about an hour before that story ran. And, basically, he defended his
actions, and he said that he, you know, was helping the tribes. He really
didn't want to get into great detail as to what legislative successes he'd had
for the tribes, and that's because the things he did for the tribes were
earmarks, which everybody's talking now about earmarks. And those are little
things tucked into various appropriations bills and other bills, sort of in
the dead of night. And he didn't want to talk much either about his
relationship with Mike Scanlon and their financial dealings between the two of
them. And I pressed him on whether he was essentially taking money from
Scanlon or had an ownership interest in Scanlon's companies, and he denied
that.

GROSS: Did he give you any clue?

Ms. SCHMIDT: Well, he was pretty nervous, and the people in his firm were
pretty nervous, and right after our story appeared, they initiated an internal
investigation and forced him out of the firm. They essentially fired him, so
this was within two weeks or so. So it was, you know, pretty obvious there
were big problems there. Their internal investigation, they hired a law firm
to do it. It was expected to take, like, two weeks, but ended up taking more
than a year.

GROSS: You have one story that you wrote in May that really kind of
illustrates how the arrangement worked between, you know, Abramoff and Scanlon
and the Indian tribes they represented. And this is actually a story about
how Abramoff and Scanlon helped defeat the efforts of the Jena tribe of
Choctaw to get a gambling casino, and that's because the Jena, if they had
opened this casino, would have competed with the casinos run by Abramoff's
client. So let's talk a little bit about this story. One of the things that
Abramoff did was to arrange for Ralph Reed--to work with Ralph Reed to
pressure federal officials to reject the bid by this casino. What was the
arrangement between Abramoff and Reed?

Ms. SCHMIDT: Well, Abramoff and Ralph Reed went back many, many years.

GROSS: I should mentioned Ralph Reed is a former head of the Christian
Coalition and still very active on the Christian right.

Ms. SCHMIDT: And he now is a political consultant, you know, who's in the
business of making money as a political consultant. And that's where he and
Abramoff teamed up. They've known each other since their college days and
they worked together on lots of these tribal issues. Ralph Reed got paid
something like $4 million by Abramoff and Scanlon to mount an on-the-ground
opposition to this Jena casino plan and basically whipping Christian
opposition, people who are opposed to gambling. And he never, of course
disclosed to anyone that the money he was getting was essentially coming from
the gambling revenues of Abramoff's tribal clients. And, in fact, he, to this
day, maintains he didn't know it was coming from gambling revenues. But those
are really--essentially the principal revenues those tribes have is gambling
revenue. And Ralph Reed in turn contacted James Dobson, very influential
Christian leader who has radio programs. He really has an enormous base of
supporters. And he got Dobson involved in opposing the Jena casino and
threatening to swamp the Interior Department's phone lines with Dobson
listeners and contacting the White House. And this was a powerful force
Abramoff unleashed to defeat this little, small group, 80 people, in this Jena
tribe. It's not really clear that Dobson knew how he was being used. In
fact, it's pretty clear that he didn't understand that Ralph Reed was getting
paid this way by Abramoff.

GROSS: You know, at the very least, I think you had to say that it's such a
cynical thing for Abramoff to do to give money to leaders on the Christian
right to defeat casinos on moral grounds so that Abramoff's clients, Indian
clients who run other casinos could prosper.

Ms. SCHMIDT: That's one of the things that's been so explosive about this
story is how cynical these people were and how clearly that comes through in
their e-mails, where they're just brazenly talking about taking advantage of
these Indian tribes, and Ralph Reed is perhaps a little bit in the dark, more
in the dark than Mike Scanlon is, the e-mails show. But he's--you know, he's
right in the middle of these multimillion-dollar efforts. What we also see is
an incredible, almost Byzantine, lobbying effort inside the Department of
Interior, where Abramoff created an alliance with a woman named Italia
Federici. This was a friend of Gale Norton's. Gale Norton, Interior
Department secretary. She'd been involved in Gale Norton's political
campaigns in Colorado before she came to Washington, and Abramoff struck up a
partnership of sorts, at least a philosophical partnership with her, and got
his tribal clients to give Italia Federici's organization--she had a
Republican environmental advocacy group, actually that Gale Norton was
involved with creating a number of years ago, and Abramoff got his tribes to
give hundreds of thousands of dollars to Italia Federici's group. Italia
lobbied Steve Griles, the deputy secretary of Interior, on Abramoff's behalf,
on behalf of his tribes. She'd call him, she'd talk to him about issues that
Abramoff was concerned about, and we know all this from the e-mails that have
been released by the Senate Indian Affairs committee and from other e-mails
we've obtained. So he was really pulling every lever. And he was having his
lobbying team lean on members of Congress and cajole members of Congress to
write letters to the Department of Interior to have the department oppose this
Jena band of Choctaw's casino effort.

GROSS: So how effectively finally were all of these efforts?

Ms. SCHMIDT: Well, the Jena did not get their casino, and it does seem like
they were pretty effective. You know, it's just one of numerous campaigns
that he ran, and I guess the tricky thing for us in writing about this is
trying to figure out, for example, a congressman writing a letter that he's
been asked to write for one of Abramoff's clients, and the congressman then,
say, gets a big political donation. Is that a quid pro quo, or how do you
establish when something untoward has been done? I mean, after all, members
of Congress, that's what they do. They write letters and they, you know, talk
to bureaucrats about what they want to see done. And I think one of the
things we've tried to do is look at when it's out of line or, you know, an
aberration for a congressman who's, say, not normally involved in a gambling
issue in one part of the country suddenly gets involved, that kind of thing.

GROSS: My guest is Susan Schmidt of The Washington Post. Jeffrey Smith of
the Post, who is covering Tom DeLay, will join us after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Washington Post reporter Susan Schmidt. She broke the
Jack Abramoff story. Also in the studio from The Washington Post is Jeffrey
Smith, who's covering Tom DeLay.

I just want to ask you a question about a recent development in the Jack
Abramoff story, and that is photographs have been published showing President
Bush and Jack Abramoff shaking hands. Now the president has claimed he's had
no real connections with Jack Abramoff. Did these photographs mean anything?
The president says it's just kind of grip and greet. Is that the expression?

Ms. SCHMIDT: Group and grin.

GROSS: Group and grin.

Ms. SCHMIDT: Actually, I don't think we've seen the photos.

Mr. JEFFREY SMITH (Washington Post): We've just had them described to us.
There are at least five that people have said exist, but the White House
scoured its own files to try find these and suppress them and people who have
been taking to the journalists about them have not yet released them for
publication. It's more like something that's coming, that we know exists,
that's coming into the public domain eventually.

Ms. SCHMIDT: Jack Abramoff, until 2004, was a big figure who just about
anybody in Washington would be happy to be seen shaking hands with. So what
does it mean, you know, unless we find out that the Bush White House was doing
favors for Abramoff? I'm not sure if photos themselves mean much. Now the
story is still unfolding. So that may be in the future.

GROSS: My guest is Susan Schmidt who broke the Jack Abramoff story in The
Washington Post and continues to cover the story. Let me bring Jeffrey Smith,
her colleague, into the conversation. Jeffrey Smith has been covering the Tom
DeLay story.

And, Jeffrey, there are several places in which the Tom DeLay story and the
Jack Abramoff story intersect. And I'd like to talk to you about those
intersections. But first let's start with the larger question of what is Tom
DeLay charged with now?

Mr. SMITH: Well, there are formal charges laid against him in the state of
Texas over improprieties in collecting and spending money for state elections.
He's charged with conspiracy and with money laundering there. There have been
accusations leveled against him but not formal charges in Washington related
to his acceptance of trips, you know, at the expense of registered lobbyists
which is a violation of congressional ethics rules.

GROSS: He was very well-known in Congress for money and favors. And you
compare what he did in terms of money and favors with a hotel concierge.
Would you make that analogy for us?

Mr. SMITH: Well, his office maintained tight links with corporate interests
in Washington who had certain legislative priorities. In return for
supporting those legislative priorities, the corporations did favors for DeLay
and for people that DeLay's office designated as the beneficiaries. And so,
in exchange for votes on the House floor, DeLay would arrange for corporations
to have their jets parked at National Airport, you know, waiting to fly the
lawmakers home so they would have the comfort and convenience of a private jet
back to their district instead of having to fly commercial and sort of be in a
very public circumstance. He also, you know, arranged for travel and benefits
such as cars at Republican conventions. He did these favors, you know, with
the assistance of the corporations that he was close to. And he benefitted
from them himself. I mean his associates said he never liked to fly
commercial. He always preferred to fly on a private jet. And he did that for
a very long time. And the people who flew him around, of course, put their
lobbyists on the plane with him and charged a fraction of the cost, you know,
to his campaign fund, which is itself financed by corporations, paid a
fraction of the costs associated with this travel. And they went off to
resorts together and this is and was his lifestyle.

GROSS: Tom DeLay once called Jack Abramoff `one of my closest and dearest
friends.' How well do they know each other?

Mr. SMITH: Pretty well. I mean, they've traveled together to Moscow, to
Scotland, to London. Abramoff spent a lot of time in DeLay's office. He knew
DeLay's staff very well and worked very closely with them. He hired one of
DeLay's top assistants and was in frequent contacts with the others. I mean,
we looked at lobbying records from one client alone that showed he billed the
client, you know, for frequent, in some cases daily, in some cases weekly, I
would say at a minimum weekly, contacts with members of DeLay's staff. The
connections were mostly through the staff and intermittently with DeLay
himself.

Ms. SCHMIDT: Terry, can I just say one thing about that?

GROSS: Sure.

Ms. SCHMIDT: It's an interesting thing. I've talked to people around who
have spent a lot of time, years, around both men, and they were not close
personally. They didn't talk on the phone. They didn't really hang out, but
they did go on trips together, you know, paid for by Abramoff's clients and
these foundations. But they didn't--they don't seem to have had a great
personal rapport, although, you know, DeLay did make that statement, but
that's more of a politician's kind of statement, I think. But as Jeff said,
Abramoff had a very close relationship with staffers who worked with DeLay who
then came to work for him.

GROSS: Including Michael Scanlon, who first worked for DeLay and then became
partners with Abramoff.

Ms. SCHMIDT: Right.

Mr. SMITH: And Tony Rudy and the former chief of staff to DeLay, a man named
Ed Buckham, who also worked very closely with Abramoff.

GROSS: Jeffrey Smith and Susan Schmidt are reporters for The Washington Post.
They'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, more about the connection between lobbyist Jack Abramoff
and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. We continue our conversation with
Washington Post reporter Susan Schmidt and Jeffrey Smith. And Ken Tucker
reviews the new recordings by Scott McCaughey.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Susan Schmidt and
Jeffrey Smith of The Washington Post. Susan Schmidt broke the Jack Abramoff
lobbying scandal and continues to cover him. Jeffrey Smith has reported on
Abramoff and is now focusing on former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who's
facing money-laundering charges in Texas. When we left off, we were talking
about connections between DeLay and Abramoff. Several people who worked on
DeLay's staff subsequently worked for Abramoff.

You mentioned Ed Buckham. I want to ask you about him and a group that he
founded, the US Family Network, which may help illuminate the relationship
between DeLay and Abramoff. The US Family Network was founded by Buckham in
1996 when he was then Tom DeLay's chief of staff. What was the official goal
of this group?

Mr. SMITH: The official goal was to promote issues important to families and
to promote kind of moral values. And the money that the group got over its,
you know, four-year existence came almost entirely from Abramoff's clients.
And it wasn't really spent promoting the professed goals of the group. It was
instead spent in various other interesting ways.

GROSS: What kind of ways?

Mr. SMITH: Well, a big chunk of money was spent to buy a townhouse where Ed
Buckham set up his own lobbying organization and that townhouse also housed
DeLay's political action committee, and it was the place where he made his own
fund-raising calls to corporations, so it was kind of like headquarters for
the DeLay money machine. Some of this group's money was spent on radio ads to
attack Democrats in 2001, and other money was spent on fees, very large
consulting fees for Ed Buckham.

GROSS: So a lot of the money for this moral values group really just went
into Ed Buckham's pocket?

Mr. SMITH: Well, it went into the coffers of his lobbying shop, which, very
interestingly employed DeLay's wife at the time that it was receiving these
huge payments. The group called the Alexander Strategy Group was paying
Christine DeLay between $3200 and $3900 a month for a period of at least three
years.

GROSS: And the Alexander Strategy Group was the lobbying group...

Mr. SMITH: Exactly.

GROSS: ...of Ed Buckham.

Mr. SMITH: Yes.

GROSS: Now this gets a little complicated, so I urge everybody to hold on
tight, but it's really interesting. There's a deal that involves two Russian
oil and gas executives that seems to link DeLay and Abramoff. I'm going to
ask you to describe what the story is about.

Mr. SMITH: OK. It's a very interesting set of connections. First of all,
there was a trip in 1997 by Buckham first and then Buckham and DeLay and
Abramoff to Moscow where they were the dinner guests of two Russian oil and
gas executives. Not long after that, US Family Network, this group that we've
spoken about, received $1 million, according to its tax records, from a London
law firm, now defunct, and the law firm--partners at the law firm say they
remember hearing the names of the Russian oil and gas executives at their
offices. And they also say that they can't reveal the precise identity of the
donor because it involves client matters. The Russians had a close
relationship with the DeLay office. They frequently used the Abramoff-funded
sports boxes in Washington. They showed up at DeLay's office and met with him
personally. They needed various favors from Congress. We don't know how many
of those they got. We're still looking at that.

GROSS: Well, what were some of the things that they wanted, and what are some
of the ways that DeLay might have been able to help them?

Mr. SMITH: Well, there are two people who say that the money came--two
people who were associated with Buckham and with US Family Network and DeLay's
office who are familiar with all these events say that the money came from the
Russians and one of those persons said that Buckham told him the money was
meant to influence DeLay's vote on legislation that made it possible for the
International Monetary Fund to bail out the Russian economy. If that tale is
correct, then it was intended to ensure that DeLay was supportive of something
that was very important to Russian oligarches. And that could have been the
source of the million dollars. I have to say that we don't know this for
sure, and that the Russians say that they were not connected, these two
Russians in particular say that they don't know about this London law firm's
transaction. That's contradicted by, you know, the statements of the London
law firm partners that they remember these two Russian executives' names.

GROSS: Could you just trace, like, who gives the money to who in this story
as far as you can tell? Like, who do the Russian oil and gas executives pay
and then where does the money go?

Mr. SMITH: OK. It's hard to connect all these dots in a perfect way because
the art of lobbying in Washington is hiding things from the public, and that
includes media. So a lot of Abramoff's work was orchestrating a series of
subterfuges and cut-outs and indirect pathways for money so that his clients
could have financial input on policy matters without anyone being able to see
his fingerprints or their fingerprints. What may have happened in this case
is that money came from Russia. It somehow got to this London law firm. The
London law firm, in turn, paid US Family Network. US Family Network was an
important fund-raising venue for Tom Delay. It also paid huge consulting fees
to a lobbyist that in turn employed Christine DeLay, DeLay's wife. So that
may be the intended path of all this money. It's hard to say for sure because
the people involved are not talking.

Tom DeLay denies being influenced by the money. His wife, you know, claims
through lawyers that she was doing real work, not just being paid a subsidy.
But the trail of money is extraordinary. A million dollars coming into a
small nonprofit organization in the United States. That's a huge donation,
and for it to come from overseas certainly raises eyebrows and raises
questions about who stood behind it and where did the money originally come
from and what were they trying to buy? Corporations don't give money away.
And oligarchs don't give money away. No one gives money away. They make
investments. They expect to get something for what they pay.

GROSS: So the connection between these Russian oil executives who you think
were trying to influence legislation--the connection between them and Abramoff
is that they were Abramoff's clients? And they were trying to finally
influence Tom DeLay's vote?

Mr. SMITH: Yes.

GROSS: Theoretically?

Mr. SMITH: Abramoff and Abramoff's firm and one other firm received more
than $400,000 to lobby on behalf of, and this is where it gets complex again,
to lobby on behalf of a Bohemian company that helped organize DeLay's trip to
Moscow in conjunction with these Russian oil and gas executives. Now think
again about what I said. The art of being a lobbyist is hiding connections.
So suppose you wanted to do work on behalf of Russian oil and gas executives
who may be controversial in this country because of some interesting security
connections that they have back home. You don't want to work directly for
them. Instead you set up a shell company in the Bahamas, and that company in
turn pays your lobbying fees. And on the lobbying registration forms, it says
the purpose of this firm's existence is to lobby for the Russian government.

GROSS: Wow! I just have to, like, absorb this for a few seconds. So give us
another example of a story in which Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff and money seem
to interconnect.

Mr. SMITH: Well, there was this very interesting trip to London and
Scotland, you know, in 2000, and on that trip, Tom DeLay's plane fare was paid
for by Jack Abramoff's credit card, we found out, according to the travel
records and people who knew Abramoff's credit card number. We actually have a
copy of the travel invoice. You know, it's against congressional ethics rules
for a registered lobbyist such as Abramoff to pay for someone's travel. It's
not supposed to happen. And it did happen in this case. We have the
documents that show it. It was a wonderful trip to go on. The trip cost more
than $70,000. It, you know, lasted about a week. They flew on a private
plane. They went from, you know, Washington to Scotland where they played on
one of the world's finest golf courses, and they went on to London where they
had a chance to see a couple of shows and go to some nice restaurants and stay
in a hotel room that cost, I think, more than $350 a night.

GROSS: What are the possible implications of the fact that Abramoff and DeLay
seem to be involved in certain financial dealings together? Or seem to work
together financially on some projects or get money from each other?

Mr. SMITH: Well, we've seen the political implications already. Mr. DeLay
is no longer majority leader, and, you know, he had to give up any ambition of
returning to that post. And, I mean, DeLay has long portrayed himself as a
kind of, as I think I wrote in one piece, an icon of moral values. But
instead, he's become a symbol of special interest policy making. He was
openly doing favors for people who contributed to his campaigns and to
political causes, political efforts that he cared about.

GROSS: My guests are Jeffrey Smith and Susan Schmidt of The Washington Post.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guests are Washington Post reporters Susan Schmidt and Jeffrey
Smith. Schmidt broke the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Smith is focusing
on former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who's facing money-laundering
charges in Texas.

There's another example of interconnection between DeLay and Abramoff I'd like
you to talk about. And this gets back to that US Family Network that we were
talking about, the lobbying group. And this involves textile companies in the
Marianas Islands that were clients of Jack Abramoff's but were soliciting help
from Tom DeLay.

Mr. SMITH: Yeah. The Marianas Islands is US protectorate, and as a US
protectorate, it falls under very unusual and interesting tax exemptions, and
it is also exempted from US minimum wage requirements. And for years, you
know, labor activists have been trying to force minimum wage to be imposed and
workplace safeguards. It's a place where they've developed a reputation for
unsafe working conditions and abuse of workers. Most of them, immigrants from
Asia. And where prostitution is rife and has been for a long time. The
Marianas Island's textile industry is the largest on the island, and they
needed favors from Congress. They needed these exemptions from minimum wage,
and so they hired Jack Abramoff to promote their interests in Washington. And
he escorted a lot of lawmakers to the Marianas and a lot of lawmakers' staff.
And, you know, it was during one of these trips that DeLay, at a dinner hosted
by the largest textile manufacturer on the island, said, you know, `Jack is
one of my closest and dearest friends.' He said that at a dinner speech in
which he also promised that he would obstruct any legislative effort to impose
minimum wage and workplace protections.

GROSS: What have you learned about how money is used to affect legislation?

Mr. SMITH: Well, the Marianas Islands case is a very clear example. During
DeLay's tenure as House majority leader, no bill that would have provided
workplace protections or imposed the minimum wage laws passed by Congress, and
I don't think one even made it to the floor. So it's pretty clear that the
legislative priority of the people who were paying money, the US Family
Network were paying huge amounts of money to Abramoff as a lobbyist and were
paying money to other people in Congress, you know, close to DeLay. That
legislative priority won out.

GROSS: I want to ask you both one final question. Jeffrey Smith, you're
investigating Tom DeLay. Susan Schmidt, you're investigating the Jack
Abramoff story. You're doing this investigation, this journalistic
investigation, in a very partisan time and at a time when you know that
journalists on stories with anonymous sources risk being subpoenaed and even
imprisoned in order to give more information and reveal who those sources
were, the sources who wanted to remain off the record. Can you talk a little
bit about the difficulties, if any, you're having now covering this story in
these times.

And, Jeffrey, can we start with you?

Mr. SMITH: Yeah. I mean, it's actually getting easier, not harder, to cover
this story because DeLay doesn't scare people as much as he did before. He's
just not in a position to do so. A lot of our sources have not been
anonymous, actually. It was one of the directors of the US Family Network who
told me what Ed Buckham had told him. And he was willing to be quoted in the
newspaper, so I did. He's the one that said that Ed Buckham had told him the
Russians gave the money to influence Tom DeLay's vote on the IMF bill. So we
haven't faced the kind of challenge that people are writing in the national
security area face now with wiretap investigations and leak investigations and
that kind of thing. That's not what we're facing.

GROSS: And, Susan?

Ms. SCHMIDT: Yeah. I would say that we have actually benefitted from an
enormous amount of information, either documents like e-mails, court
documents, huge amounts of attributed information in these stories. And
really we've not faced that problem at all because the issue of anonymous
sources comes into play when people are alleging that you're getting leaks
from the government, say, you know, investigators. And nobody's alleging
that. There are just many, many sources that we've been able to cultivate and
go to and who come to us, even who are not part of the investigating
mechanism. In fact, you know, we have reported things that led to
investigations. Not the other way around.

Mr. SMITH: Yeah, let me just add one thing, and that is that Jack Abramoff
has said consistently that what he did is no different from what any lobbyist
in Washington does, and Sue may have a different view, but I tend to think
that he's basically right, that Abramoff was not such a special figure in
Washington. He was just good at what he did during a specific period. What's
unique about the Abramoff case, what really elevates it to higher than routine
significance, is that he was a wonderful chronicler of his own activities. He
was very prolific e-mailer, and because many of these e-mails are now coming
in the public domain, we've had a chance to basically look inside his mind and
his strategy and see his strategy and his tactics. And he's revealing things
in these e-mails about himself which most lobbyists tell their wives or their
partners but never tell anyone outside the office.

GROSS: Is there anything kind of unique about Abramoff and DeLay in the fact
that they both claim to be very religious people, they both support a lot of,
quote, "moral causes," and yet they've engaged or allegedly engaged in
behavior that I think few people would describe as particularly moral?

Mr. SMITH: Well, this is one reason why the scandal resonates with the
public so strongly. It seems as if, you know, their actual activities have
betrayed the things that they espouse. I would say, however, that, you know,
what they were about was pursuing power and profit, and that, you know, they
were using whatever cause they could to help them out. And if it helped to
wrap themselves in religion, that was what they did. If it helped to wrap
themselves in the flag, that was what they did.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. SCHMIDT: Thanks for having us.

Mr. SMITH: Thanks very much.

GROSS: Susan Schmidt and Jeffrey Smith are reporters for The Washington Post.

Coming up, "The Minus 5." Ken Tucker reviews the new CD by Scott McCaughey.
This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Latest album from The Minus 5 called "The Minus 5"
TERRY GROSS, host:

The Minus 5 sounds like the name of a band, but it's really singer/songwriter,
multi-instrumentalist Scott McCaughey, and lots of semifamous friends from
other bands, such as Wilco, REM and the Posies. The Minus 5's new seventh
album is officially called "The Minus 5." But McCaughey insists on referring
to it as the Gun Album because there's a handgun on the cover, and a number of
songs feature firearms in their lyrics. We'll let rock critic Ken Tucker sort
it all out. Here's the album's opening track, "Rifle Called Goodbye."

(Soundbite of "Rifle Called Goodbye")

KEN TUCKER reporting:

In any sane world, Scott McCaughey would be insufferable. He writes lyrics
that often make no sense. The first line of the first song here is: "The
quartermaster baked a radio," and only becomes less coherent as the melody
becomes more catchy. Then there's this gun obsession he has.

(Soundbite of The Minus 5 song)

TUCKER: McCaughey sings his songs of weaponry and ludicrous romance in a high
enthusiastic register. He gets people like Peter Buck of REM and Jeff Tweedy
of Wilco to play slithery melodies with strong spines that support McCaughey's
ebullient nonsequitors. At any moment, The Minus 5 project threatens to veer
into terminal cuteness, and given all the guns, I do mean terminal. But
somehow it never does.

(Soundbite of The Minus 5 song)

TUCKER: If McCaughey wasn't so unassumingly charming, making his
semisupergroups sound like a series of fun jam sessions, he'd come off as
looney with an unhealthy obsession. One of his most rigorously nonsensical
songs called "Hotel Senator" mentions a, quote, "gun-shaped knife." And were
it not so pretty, this tune called "Bought a Rope" would be downright
menacing.

(Soundbite of "Bought a Rope")

TUCKER: In the end, the gun album is a lark with a pedigree. The quality of
McCaughey's songwriting, his knack for word play and his ability to make
musicians who don't usually work together cohere as a band recalls the method
of other studio pop eccentrics like Steely Dan and the Beach Boy-less Brian
Wilson. No one would ever accuse them of being a straight shooter and come to
think of it, thank heaven for that.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
the new self-titled album from The Minus 5.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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