The Mercer Island rabbi and Seattle radio talk show host caught up in the Capitol Hill lobbying scandal says his charity did nothing wrong and he saw no indication that friend and charity board member Jack Abramoff was running afoul of the law. "Had Abramoff's lifestyle been dissolute; replete with women, drugs, yachts, and fast cars, I along with many others would certainly have recognized the unwholesome warning signs and been uncomfortable," says Daniel Lapin, head of Toward Tradition, the charity through which, federal prosecutors say, $50,000 was washed by Abramoff to an aide to U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay in return for favorable legislation. "However," says Lapin, telling his story in detail for the first time in a lengthy public e-mail, "from what I observed, Jack's life revolved around his work, his family, and his faith. He spent money on subsidizing a kosher restaurant, a religious high school, Israeli causes, and helping poor relatives. These don't excuse illegal acts but neither were they warning signs to his friends and associates."
The Rabbi Responds
The full text of Daniel Lapin's widely disseminated e-mail.
Meet the Lapin Brothers
Rabbis Daniel and David both count superlobbyist Jack Abramoff as a friend, and both now are turning up in news coverage of the Tom DeLay scandal. (May 11, 2005)
Jack Abramoff's guilty plea harkens back to his days with Seattle-based Preston Gates Ellis. (Jan. 11, 2006)
Lapin seems to distance himself from the disgraced Abramoff, who through 2000 was a lobbyist for Seattle-based Preston Gates Ellis. "I did not serve as Jack's rabbi or mentor and our friendship revolved around our families, children's educational challenges and the difficulties of being a political conservative in the larger Jewish community," Lapin writes in the e-mail, dated Wednesday, Jan. 11. "We shared occasional social and family events. I can recall no discussions about Jack's business and never heard anything from him that caused me to think he was doing anything unscrupulous." Abramoff was not a member when the charity was formed in 1991, but "he became a supporter and joined the board of directors a little later and eventually served a few terms as chairman of the board," writes Lapin. "He resigned his chairmanship at the end of 2000 and from the board in 2004. In total, on account of his time pressures, Jack Abramoff attended only five board meetings of Toward Tradition. He contributed to the organization at a level typical of the level of other board members. His giving to Toward Tradition was slightly lower than some board members and slightly higher than others"
Though Lapin is credited by some with introducing Abramoff to DeLay, the now-deposed GOP House leader from Texas who has since been indicted for money laundering, Lapin's not sure it happened. "Some [news] articles claimed that I introduced them while others, including one in The Washington Post, have the two meeting at a DeLay fundraiser, introduced by Edwin A. Buckham, then DeLay's chief of staff," Lapin writes. "Although I have no clear recollection of having formally introduced them, it is certainly possible. I was at several Republican Party events at which both Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff were present, including one at the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego at which I spoke."
The rabbi says Justice Department investigators extensively interviewed him and charity staff members last August about the $50,000 sent in 2000 to Lisa Rudy, wife of a DeLay aide, steered by Abramoff from his Preston Gates Ellis clients through the charity. It is one of the criminal acts outlined in the plea agreement Abramoff made Jan. 3. "Toward Tradition documentation," states Lapin, "clearly demonstrated that, in all innocence, we had thoroughly employed [Lisa Rudy's] services and that she had in fact done for us all that the local coordinator was supposed to do at a fee within the range of what we expected to pay for the services provided." He adds that "Jack, still a member of the board, was doing what many non-profit board members do for the non-profit organization they serve, which was solicit a gift from a business associate for our benefit."
Lapin also writes that a famous incident in which he was asked to supply phony awards in Abramoff's name so he could join an elite Washington, D.C., social club was blown out of proportion. "Anyone familiar with Abramoff's jocular and often fatally irreverent e-mail style won't be surprised that I assumed the question to be a joke," Lapin writes. "The very notion that an exclusive social club would regard a meaningless award from Toward Tradition to be adequate credentials for admittance was ludicrous. I responded in similar style offering to 'wallpaper his office with awards.' I regret the exchange."