COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (BP)–Focus on the Family founder James Dobson is calling charges by a liberal interest group that he once assisted casino clients “ridiculous,” and one of the group’s advisory board members even concedes there is “no proof.”
The controversy surrounds print and TV ads by the Campaign to Defend the Constitution — “DefCon” — a liberal organization that calls itself a “grassroots movement to combat the threat posed by the religious right to American democracy.” The group ran a full-page ad in The New York Times March 8, slamming Dobson, Traditional Values Coalition founder Louis Sheldon and former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed for having alleged ties to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and gambling interests. The headline at the top of the ad reads: “These Religious Leaders Have A Serious Gambling Problem.”
The ad criticizes Dobson for recording radio ads opposing the opening of a new casino. According to the DefCon advertisement, Dobson’s radio commercials were paid for by Abrahmoff’s casino clients who didn’t want competition in the casino industry. The DefCon ad says Dobson and the other two men are “knee deep in the Jack Abramoff scandal” and that they “must have been betting they wouldn’t get caught taking their thirty pieces of silver and selling out the millions who believed in them. They were wrong.”
Speaking on his radio program March 10, Dobson called the charges “ridiculous,” noting that he has always opposed gambling and that he served in the late 1990s on the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, which recommended severe restrictions on gambling, including a ban on amateur sports betting. Dobson said Focus on the Family was opposed to the casinos simply because it opposes the expansion of gambling, and not because of any ulterior motive.
“It’s not based on any facts,” he said of the DefCon ad. “… I had never heard of Jack Abramoff until he broke into the news in Washington…. I’ve never had a conversation with him. I’ve never taken a cent from him with regard to gambling or anything else.”
Asked if Focus on the Family was considering a lawsuit, Dobson said, “I am not a lawyer … and that’s up to our attorneys to decide, but I know they’re looking at it.”
The DefCon TV ads shows actors portraying Dobson, Sheldon and Reed in a casino, winning poker chips that are being placed in an offering plate.
“Millions of Americans gave them their trust and their money, and they turned that into political power and glory,” a voice says. “Now they’ve been exposed for supporting gambling interests and casinos.”
Dobson has been one of the pro-family movement’s most outspoken opponents of gambling. Appearing on FOX News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” March 8, Dobson spoke out about the evils of gambling.
“I know what gambling does to families,” he said. “I know how it undermines the financial basis for families. And I know what it does to children.”
The ads, Dobson said, are “an attack on my character.”
Among DefCon’s advisory board members are Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; Ira Glasser, former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union; Kate Michelman, former president of the NARAL Pro-Choice America (formerly the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League); Mel White, co-founder of the homosexual group SoulForce; and Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at Duke University who argued before the Supreme Court in 2005 in an unsuccessful effort to get a Ten Commandments monument removed in Texas.
“These people hate us … and they’re trying to find some legitimate excuse for everybody else to hate us, too,” Dobson said on his radio program. “But … they stepped over the line this time, because there is absolutely nothing here.”
DefCon’s website points to two newspaper articles as its proof that Dobson had ties with Abramoff. Both of the articles assert that Reed was involved heavily with Abramhoff and that Reed, not Abramhoff, dealt with Dobson. According to the June 23, 2005, edition of the Denver Post, in 1999 Reed billed a casino-running Indian tribe for anti-gambling ads produced by Focus on the Family. Those ads allegedly ran in Alabama during debate over a lottery vote. The second newspaper article, a Washington Post story from March 13, 2005, says that Focus’ anti-gambling ads were used in Louisiana in 2002 to urge opposition to the opening of an Indian casino, and that Reed got Indian tribes that already were operating casinos to pay for the ads. The Post quotes Abramoff as boasting in an e-mail, “Dobson goes up on the radio on this next week!” Focus on the Family, though, says Dobson recorded no such ads, that radio ads never aired, and that Abramoff was “bragging about events that did not happen.” Focus on the Family also denies ever broadcasting advertisements paid for by gambling interests.
The Washington Post article goes on to say: “There is no evidence that Dobson’s group knew of Abramoff’s connection to Reed.” The article also says Reed said he was unaware that Abramoff’s money “came from gambling proceeds.”
One of DefCon’s advisory board members, Max Blumenthal of the Nation, acknowledged during a teleconference with reporters that there is “no proof” tying Dobson to the scandal.
“[A]nd I doubt there will ever be any proof that Dobson consciously colluded with Abramoff,” Blumenthal said. “I would wager to bet that Dobson was unaware that Ralph Reed was essentially a middleman for Abramoff.”
Focus on the Family says it got involved in the Alabama and Louisiana anti-gambling battles following requests from three pro-family leaders: Tony Perkins, then a Louisiana state legislator (now the president of the Family Research Council); Gene Mills, executive director of the Louisiana Family Forum; and Gary Palmer, president of the Alabama Policy Institute. Reed had no role, Focus says.
“Jack Abramoff and those who worked for him appear to have taken credit for many things in order to justify their exorbitant fees,” Sonja Swiatkiewicz, Focus on the Family’s manager of media and constituent communications, said in a statement to Baptist Press. “However, the fact remains that there is no record of any ads aired in Alabama or Louisiana; Focus on the Family staff did discuss the gambling-expansion proposals on our daily radio program, which we paid for ourselves. Our anti-gambling efforts have never been financed by those profiting from the destruction of families and communities.”
The only Focus on the Family involvement in Louisiana via the radio, the organization says, came when Vice President of Public Policy Tom Minnery and Family News in Focus host Bob Ditmer recorded an anti-gambling special edition of the radio broadcast that aired only in Louisiana.
“[B]ut that is hardly an uncommon practice, and these discussions were not radio commercials,” a statement on Focus on the Family’s website states. “Focus on the Family frequently airs ‘state-only’ radio content geared to important issues in individual states, and the destructive nature of gambling to families has been discussed more than 200 times in the history of Dr. Dobson’s daily broadcast.”
The Focus statement also says records show only one phone call from Reed during the time frame, “but it was made after we had already received multiple requests” to get involved in the Louisiana casino debate.
“It appears Mr. Abramoff attempted to use Mr. Reed’s respect among social conservatives to further the goals of his casino clients,” the Focus on the Family statement says. “Neither Dr. Dobson nor Focus on the Family were aware, however, of Reed’s association with Abramoff, or of his ties to other tribes seeking to build casinos.”
Focus on the Family has posted a series of commonly asked questions and answers about the DefCon issue. It can be read online at http://www.family.org/cforum/feature/a0039768.cfm.