Politics & Policy

It’s Not About Abramoff

The "scandal" involving conservative writers is about politics, not ethics.

Conservatives have shown a surprising degree of naïveté in the recent controversy over “pay for play” op-eds. The Left has driven this story, and I fully expected the great use they would make of it; but I have been surprised at the reaction of some supposedly thoughtful conservatives.

I have strong opinions on this matter. And, frankly, as the president of the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI)–an organization that has been at the heart of this issue–I believe my thoughts ought to be heard and considered. I fully expected that most conservatives would see this controversy for what it is: an attempt by the Left to isolate conservatives from their natural allies in the business community. But after seeing a smattering of silly columns and blogs by conservatives on this issue, I thought I had to weigh in with some much-needed context.

Just as we on the right have observed that the Left is funded by labor unions and by left-wing foundations like Ford, Rockefeller, and MacArthur, the Left understands that the Right gets funding from the business community. The Right doesn’t always agree with the business community, and the Left doesn’t always agree with the labor unions. But it is only right and natural and proper that free people be able to support with their own wealth those with whom they agree. It shouldn’t be any other way, and any other way is the road of more regulation and less freedom.

And just as we on the right have tried various strategies to weaken the impact of union funding on the leftist political agenda, the Left would do anything they could to weaken the relationship between the business community and conservative organizations. The Abramoff scandal presents them with their latest opportunity. They see the Abramoff scandal as the opportunity to drown as many conservatives as possible in its vortex, guilty or not.

The First Casualties

As is now well-known, a reporter from BusinessWeek Online named Eamon Javers obtained information that Doug Bandow and Peter Ferrara had accepted funds from Jack Abramoff in exchange for writing projects. As freelance writers, both Doug and Peter accepted funds from a variety of sources to keep body and soul together, though Doug had the distinction of a regularly syndicated column. But neither ever wrote anything contrary to his principles, and both Ferrara and Bandow have a history of sticking to their principles and refusing to compromise, even to their own financial detriment. It was thus particularly ironic that Peter and Doug were first against the wall when the witchhunt began.

Javers contacted both the Cato Institute, with which Doug was affiliated, and Doug’s syndicator. In my judgment, the Cato Institute made a mistake by firing Doug Bandow, one of our original libertarian thinkers who came from California and served in the early days of the Reagan administration. By panicking and sacrificing Doug to the liberal horde, Cato set a bad precedent. And while I don’t make policy for Cato, I do make policy for IPI, and I determined to do what I could to draw some distinctions, and to defend good people.

Javers’s effort looked suspiciously political: He focused exclusively on right-leaning writers and right-leaning organizations, and gave no attention to labor-supported organizations and left-leaning writers. Right after getting Bandow fired, Javers contacted IPI, perhaps hoping to place Peter Ferrara’s head on his mantle alongside Doug’s. Javers and I had an extensive discussion on the ethics of the issue, and we discussed several different scenarios, some of which I thought would be unethical, and others which I thought were not a problem. In his subsequent story, Javers misrepresented my sentiments, as well as Ferrara’s, though Javers has insisted that his representation was accurate.) In any case, we did not fire Peter Ferrara.

I felt that we were on strong grounds in not firing Peter, for three reasons: First, whatever happened between Peter and Abramoff happened years before Peter began working for IPI, and nothing even approaching “pay for play” has ever happened with anyone affiliated with IPI. Peter had thus not used his position with IPI to advocate for another agenda or otherwise broken trust with IPI. The only reason IPI even came up in the story is simply that if you Google the name “Peter Ferrara,” IPI is Ferrara’s most current and best-indexed entry. I’ve never met Jack Abramoff, and IPI has never been involved with him.

Second, while it’s easy to judge people after the fact, bear in mind that Abramoffdidn’t tell anyone at the time that, some years later, he would plead guilty to multiple felonies.

But the third reason we did not take action against Peter is that–while it’s easy for inexperienced young writers and bloggers to opine in retrospect about how “I’d never, ever do that”–in the 13 years I’ve been president of IPI, to the best of my knowledge, IPI has never been asked about financial disclosure by a newspaper. There have been no clear policies, no rules, no precedents. Rather, the rules are being asserted now, in hindsight–and the new rules are being reinforced by the hesitancy of organizations to stand up against the accusers, and by naïve conservatives who don’t see this effort for what it really is.

Op-ed writers are taking positions, not reporting. They do not labor under the same obligations as reporters. Rather, it’s obvious that the writer of an op-ed has a particular agenda and is trying to persuade. I’m convinced that most newspapers (and their readers) understood this all along and made their decisions based on the arguments being made, not on the details of the writer’s compensation. There is nothing wrong with privately funded research, and privately funded policy advocacy.

The Case of Mike Fumento

The Left’s real intentions became clear in the case of Michael Fumento. Unlike Bandow and Ferrara, Fumento apparently had no involvement with Abramoff. Furthermore, unlike Bandow and Ferrara, Fumento apparently received no direct payments. Rather, Fumento helped raise money from sympathetic corporations to support his work, money which went to his employer.

This is not unusual, among left-leaning organizations as well as right. But, because Fumento’s work was supported by corporations, the Left hangs a cloud of controversy over it, even though everything seems to have been done in a completely aboveboard and legal manner. Nor is the Fumento scenario a case of “the scandal is not what’s illegal, but what’s legal”: No, Fumento’s work is a case of free people–in the form of a corporation–quite naturally supporting viewpoints that they favor. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Conservatives must, at all costs, avoid giving unwitting aid to the Left’s attempt to discredit conservatives by popping off about how awful and terrible and unwise Bandow and Ferrara and Fumento have been. To the degree that we assent to the Left’s critique, we encourage them to persist in this unfair and selective campaign. So long as free people are freely supporting with their own wealth organizations and individuals whose work they admire, we should celebrate that, not impugn it.

The conservative movement is not politicians or other elected officials. Politicians come and go, and half the ones who arrive as conservatives end up betraying our principles long before they go, pausing only to pass silly things like even tighter restrictions on lobbyists in order to keep themselves from selling out their own principles. No, the movement belongs to the organizations and activists who have built it for the last thirty years, and it’s our job to protect and defend the movement, not to offer up the heads of our important policy thinkers and writers every time the Left asks for one. If our people are to be defended, it falls to us to defend them. The Left does not get to decide which conservatives will be tolerated, and which are to be sacrificed. The New York Times and Business Week do not decide who works for the Institute for Policy Innovation.

Those of us who run conservative organizations and who serve as editors of conservative journalistic outlets need to draw clear and distinct lines between (on one hand) those who have clearly broken laws and/or engaged in genuinely unethical conduct and (on the other) those who are for whatever reason opportunistic targets caught up in the swirl. Basic fairness, as well as political prudence, demands that we make these distinctions, even if–especially if–the Left does not.

Tom Giovanetti is president of the Institute for Policy Innovation.

Tom Giovanetti is the president of the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI), a public-policy think tank in Dallas that is an accredited NGO with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

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