Ralph Reed, Jack Abramoff and a plan for "mortgaging old black people"

Will ties to Abramoff sink the former Christian Coalition leader's candidacy in Georgia?

Published July 13, 2006 5:54PM (EDT)

Ralph Reed, the lobbyist and former Christian Coalition leader, will be on the ballot in Georgia next week as Republicans choose their candidate to become the state's next lieutenant governor.

Someone else is on the ballot, too: Jack Abramoff.

Abramoff isn't running for anything; he's working with federal investigators while waiting for his prison term to begin. But Reed's opponent in Georgia, state Sen. Casey Cagle, is making Reed's close relationship with Abramoff an issue in the race, and news events are certainly helping his cause. On Wednesday, a Texas Indian tribe filed a lawsuit alleging that Abramoff, Reed and others engaged in acts of fraud and racketeering in trying to shut down their casino. And earlier today, GQ began distributing an advance look at a new report on the Reed-Abramoff relationship -- one that says that Reed expressed interest in an Abramoff scheme to profit from the deaths of members of African-American churches.

Abramoff had tried to pull off a similar scheme with one of the Indian tribes he represented. As Sean Flynn explains it in GQ, Abramoff once suggested to the leaders of the Tigua tribe that he take out a life insurance policy on each of the tribe's elders, with the proceeds set to go to a Washington-area private school Abramoff had founded. Under Abramoff's plan, the school would then pass the money along to him as payment for lobbying on the tribe's behalf. The tribe didn't go for it, Flynn says; a tribe member says it "felt uncomfortable."

But Abramoff didn't give up hope. Four months after pitching the plan to the Tiguas, Flynn says, Abramoff sent an e-mail to Reed in which he proposed something called the "Black Churches Insurance Program." The details of the program have been lost -- the document attached to Abramoff's e-mail to Reed has disappeared -- but Flynn figures it was pretty much the same deal as Abramoff had concocted for his tribal client. "Yeah," a former associate of Reed's tells Flynn, "it sounds like Jack approached Reed about mortgaging old black people."

Whatever the plan was, Reed seemed enthusiastic at the time. "Yes, it looks interesting," he wrote in a follow-up e-mail message to Abramoff. "I assume you'll set up a meeting in DC as a next step, or whatever we should do next, let me know."

Asked to comment on the plan, a Reed spokeswoman initially told Flynn that his sources were "wrong." A day later, she seemed to acknowledge -- at least implicitly -- that Abramoff had proposed such a project. She said that "no meeting took place to discuss the proposed project" and that Reed had "no involvement whatsoever in marketing such policies to African-American churches."

Will any of it matter to Georgia Republicans? Maybe so. As NBC News reports, the Reed-Cagle race is a dead heat just now, having tightened considerably after Cagle began running a TV spot highlighting Reed's connections to Abramoff.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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