It’s too early to know the damage to the Magazine Publishers of America’s reputation from its ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, people in the magazine industry said last week.
A spokesman for the MPA confirmed last week that the association donated $25,000 to the religious group that Abramoff said he used to influence a top aide to Rep. Tom DeLay, R-TX.
Chris Giglio, vice president at Rubenstein Associates Inc., a public relations firm speaking for the MPA, said the money was donated to Toward Tradition, a nonprofit alliance of Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians. The MPA hired Preston Gates Ellis Rouvelas & Meeds LLP in March 2000 to spearhead a $10 million, three-year campaign to fight a proposed 15 percent postal rate increase for Periodicals mail and to push for postal reform.
Abramoff, a lobbyist for Preston Gates at the time, pleaded guilty this month to three felonies and pledged to cooperate in a criminal probe. Court papers released in connection with his plea said that on behalf of clients eager to influence legislation involving Internet gambling or to oppose postal rate increases, he provided things of value including 10 equal monthly payments totaling $50,000 beginning in June 2000 through a nonprofit entity to the wife of a congressional aide identified as “Staffer A.”
The staff member has been identified as Tony Rudy, DeLay’s deputy chief of staff at the time and who worked with Abramoff after leaving DeLay’s team.
“The MPA’s position is that they hired Preston Gates and that they had a lot of faith in them at the time,” Giglio said. “[Preston Gates] asked them to make that donation, and they went ahead and did it.”
According to wire reports, the MPA’s $25,000 was combined with $25,000 donated by eLottery, a Connecticut company that hired Abramoff to help stop the federal Internet Gambling Prohibition Act. The money paid the salary of Lisa Rudy, wife of Tony Rudy, to organize a conference in Washington, DC, for Toward Tradition.
“The total amount paid to the wife of Staffer A was obtained from clients that would and did benefit from Staffer A’s official actions regarding the legislation on internet gambling or opposing postal rate increases,” Abramoff’s plea agreement said.
In 2000, DeLay was majority whip, the third most powerful position in the House. He replaced fellow Texan Dick Armey as majority leader in 2002.
According to public records compiled by The Center for Public Integrity, the Magazine Publishers of America was one of Preston Gates’ largest clients at the time, paying $1.88 million to lobby on its behalf over three years.
MPA directors “had absolutely no knowledge of how the money would be used, and if it turns out that it was used for an improper purpose, they would be, quite frankly, outraged,” Rubenstein told The Washington Post.
The MPA and Rubenstein have not said who at the association authorized the donation to Toward Tradition. Nor have they answered why a nonprofit magazine association would wish to donate money to a nonprofit religious group. Giglio said the MPA has been Rubenstein’s client for about a year.
Industry watchers expressed concern but took a wait-and-see approach toward the MPA’s involvement.
“It’ll have a ripple effect, but the MPA has played a much, much bigger role in the magazine industry,” said Samir A. Husni, magazine expert and professor and chair of journalism at the University of Mississippi, Oxford, MS. “I don’t think this mishap will really derail them, although I’m sure somebody’s head is going to be on the guillotine or is going to be sacrificed. It’s a sad situation, but it’ll pass.”
Martin S. Walker, chairman of New York-based magazine consultancy Walker Communications and DM News adviser, said the MPA “got caught in an embarrassing situation [that] was not of their doing or their intent. In terms of the kinds of money Abramoff was getting, they were obviously small fry. But this is sort of surprising how much money they need to spend on lobbying and public relations.”
Women’s Wear Daily reported online last week about an e-mail it obtained that was sent by Texas Monthly publisher Michael R. Levy, who is on the MPA board, to executive director Nina Link and other board members.
“The situation is obviously far graver than you indicated in your statement,” the e-mail reportedly said. “Any entity associated with this mess via its legislative advocates [is] tarnished, and will have a very difficult time having even minimal success going forward for some period of time. … I fear the impact this is going to have on MPA’s membership retention, with at least some members deciding that it is in their best interest to take a hike and distance themselves from the organization, and the mess it’s in, by a solar system if not two.”
The MPA heavily publicized its $10 million campaign to “aggressively and successfully” fight the rate increase, according to its 2000 annual report.
“Faced with a proposed 15 percent postal rate hike, the MPA united magazine publishers behind the biggest fight in our history,” the report said. “Working closely with the MPA Board, officers and sponsors, our Government Affairs office developed and launched an ambitious three-year, $10 million campaign to fight the increase and work toward reforming the postal system. Ultimately, we were successful at reducing the rate increase, saving the magazine industry an estimated $100 million in 2001. …
“We have raised the visibility of the magazine industry in Washington and learned that it’s more effective to deal with our issues as an industry, rather than as a loose confederation of competitors. We need to continue to dedicate significant energy and resources to Washington initiatives that protect the interests of the magazine publishing industry.”
That summer, the MPA hosted a “Salute to Congress” reception on Capitol Hill, inviting lawmakers to mingle with magazine executives. It also increased political action committee and individual contributions from its membership and ran nearly 50 ads in member magazines thanking DeLay, Armey and other members of Congress for their “leadership to limit postage rate increases.”
“Members of Congress were delighted with the campaign,” the MPA’s 2000 annual report said.
Executive Editor Mickey Alam Khan contributed to this report.