Archived Opinion

Taylor tangled in Abramoff’s web

The recent revelations about Rep. Charles Taylor’s ties to a lobbyist who has confessed to federal bribery charges is a serious problem for this region’s Congressman, a controversy that calls into question his ethics and reveals close ties to the sleazy world of politics and money that encircle so many who make a career of politics.

The episode revolves around the Michigan Saginaw Indian tribe’s request for $3 million in federal aid to build a school. The Bureau of Indian affairs initially denied the request for the casino-wealthy tribe. But in May 2003, Taylor, who oversees the BIA budget from his post on the House Department of Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, along with his counter part in the Senate, Conrad Burns of Montana, went to bat for the tribe. They wrote a letter to the BIA asking the money to be approved.

That letter was written a month after the confessed felon and former super lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who represented the Saginaw, had thrown Taylor a fundraiser that netted our congressman thousands of dollars, including $2,000 from Abramoff and $1,000 from the Saginaw. A month after Taylor wrote the letter, the Saginaw donated another $3,000 to his campaign. In a similar manner, Burns collected $10,000 in donations from a pre-letter fundraiser and a donation after it was written.

This information came to light as part of a federal corruption probe into whether lawmakers and other Washington insider’s helped Abramoff’s clients in exchange for cash and gifts. Abramoff has already confessed to fraud and conspiracy charges for buying favors from lawmakers, and his methods included everything from outright cash donations to free meals and wining and dining in skyboxes at professional sporting events.

Back home in WNC, many are questioning Taylor’s involvement in this episode. Prior to Taylor’s letter, a Republican staffer in Congress was arguing for fiscal austerity’s sake that the Saginaws did not need federal money. Abramoff responded in emails by pointing out that his Indian tribe clients had given thousands of dollars to only Republican candidates, and that they needed to reward their friends by supporting this request. A few weeks later, Taylor wrote the letter, which some investigators charge contained information that was leaked to Abramoff’s staffers, information the BIA had not yet made public.

In Taylor’s defense, this was near the time when he also would be seeking money for the Cherokee to build a school, so he could argue that this was a precursor to that request for money. Perhaps that’s the case, and it’s certainly true that he’s become adept at steering large sums of money back to this district.

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Still, the timing of the fundraisers and the letters raise serious doubts about the motives for supporting the Saginaw. Federal laws against bribery make it a crime for lawmakers to take action because of political donations or gifts. We know Abramoff used his influence illegally in other cases, and the investigation into his actions continues.

If Taylor’s political career had been squeaky clean, constituents might let this episode drop. But it hasn’t. Questions have been raised about his business dealings in Russia, improper loans to political cronies from his Asheville-based Blue Ridge Savings Banks, and his refusal to even pay property taxes to cash-strapped mountain counties. Now this episode just raises further questions about the motives of our career Congressman.

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