A Central Figure In The Abramoff Corruption Scandal Is Helping MTG Become A ‘Real Player’

Sixteen years ago, things looked bleak for Ed Buckham. The former chief of staff to the House Majority leader had been swept up in a wave of scandal, found himself under investigation by the FBI and, ultimately, was forced to close down his lucrative lobbying firm. 

He was never charged with a crime and, now, Buckham has made a fairly quiet return to a notable role on Capitol Hill. Buckham is the chief of staff to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). 

Their partnership brings together a man who, before his fall from grace, was known as one of the most influential and effective operators in the halls of Congress and Greene, a MAGA firebrand who is trying to turn her popularity with the GOP’s right-wing base into real power in Washington. 

In a statement to TPM, Greene praised Buckham as a worthy ally in her ambitious mission. 

“I have big plans for the future of this country, so of course I’m going to hire the best,” Greene said. “And I’ll continue stacking my team to accomplish every goal I set.”

Greene’s statement was provided by her office. It did not address questions about Buckham’s past. 

Buckham’s roller coaster congressional career started with stints as a staffer in multiple offices. He became known as one of the most powerful people in Washington during his time working for Tom DeLay, a Texas congressman who became the GOP’s majority whip and ultimately majority leader with Buckham as his right-hand man. Buckham parlayed his position into a lucrative lobbying career — until a snowballing series of scandals saw him exiled from K Street. Greene ultimately gave him a chance for a comeback as she seeks to climb the ladder as DeLay once did. 

Reached by phone last week, DeLay described Buckham as perfectly suited to help Greene plot a Washington ascent. 

“She found him and she’s very smart to have hired him, because no matter what her future is in the House or otherwise he can help you,” DeLay said.  

‘The Hammer’ And ‘The Handle’

A Tennessean, Buckham began his career in Congress in 1983 when he was in his mid-twenties. He started as a research assistant on the Judiciary Committee and worked for multiple Republican members before becoming executive director of the House Republican Study Committee, a group of the most conservative members. It was there that he met DeLay, who was, in his own words, “ambitious” and eager to move up in the world. 

“We got to be friends and he wanted me to be chairman of the Republican Study Committee, which is a huge stepping stone to the leadership table,” DeLay said of Buckham. “So, I agreed and that’s when we hooked up. He was executive director and I was chairman of the Study Committee and we drove the leadership crazy.” 

Buckham joined DeLay’s staff in 1995. With Buckham’s help and counsel, DeLay scored a series of partisan wins including helping drive the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton. During their run, DeLay earned the nickname “The Hammer” for the aggressive tactics he used to keep Republican colleagues in line. DeLay said Buckham “was huge in developing the strategy.” 

“If I was ‘The Hammer’ … he was the handle, that’s for sure,” DeLay said of Buckham. 

U.S. House Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) speaks to the news media at a briefing after a closed meeting with President George W. Bush on Capitol Hill July 27, 2005. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.)

After working on DeLay’s staff, Buckham opened a lobbying firm, the Alexander Strategy Group, in 1998. The firm made millions and, according to the Washington Post, “thrived” thanks largely to “its close connections to DeLay.” Alexander Strategy Group also had DeLay’s wife on the payroll for four years. 

Then came the Abramoff investigation — at the time perhaps the largest political scandal to hit DC since Watergate — and it all came crashing down. 

The substance of what super lobbyist Jack Abramoff was accused of — fraud in his dealing with his clients — is not so much what the scandal is remembered for as the way it metastasized, expanding to include more and more people. A dizzying series of interconnected corruption cases swept through the Republican Party, culminating in the conviction of Abramoff, who was close with Buckham and DeLay. Both Buckham and DeLay were investigated as part of the probe during the mid-2000s, but were not found to have committed any wrongdoing and were not charged with a crime in conjunction with the case. 

Some of their colleagues were not so lucky. Two of DeLay’s senior congressional aides were among the group of Republican staffers and Bush administration White House officials who ended up being convicted or pleading guilty as part of the fallout from the Abramoff probe. 

Abramoff himself pleaded guilty to three felony charges in January 2006. The charges against Abramoff included fraud related to him steering Native American tribes that had casino operations to a strategy firm run by a former DeLay aide, Michael Scanlon. Both Abramoff and Scanlon, who pleaded guilty in 2005, also faced charges related to providing gifts to public officials in exchange for actions that benefited their clients and were sentenced to prison time following their pleas. The bribery scandal also led to the conviction of one Republican congressman, Ohio’s Bob Ney, who pleaded guilty in 2006 to multiple offenses after admitting he accepted trips, campaign contributions, and other gifts in exchange for official actions that benefited Abramoff’s casino-running clients. 

There were extensive ties between Abramoff, Buckham, and DeLay. After leaving DeLay’s office, Buckham, who was an ordained minister, organized a conservative Christian non-profit called the U.S. Family Network. The group, which raised millions, paid substantial fees to Buckham’s lobbying firm and was funded “almost entirely” by businesses linked to Ambramoff. This cash included a mysterious $1 million check that allegedly came from a pair of Russian oil tycoons. 

“In my opinion, the money we took in to bring America back to God was all from these tainted sources,” Christopher Geeslin, a former board president of the U.S. Family Network, told Washington State’s Spokesman-Review newspaper at the time. It was one of multiple interviews where he expressed concern about the group’s finances. “I believe that we were a shell organization for [Buckham’s] own enrichment, and possibly public corruption,” he added.  

‘A Concierge Operation’ 

While DeLay and Buckham were cleared in the Abramoff investigation, they were not unscathed. Buckham shut down his lobbying firm the week after Abramoff pleaded guilty. He directly attributed the closure to the scandal. DeLay resigned from Congress in April 2006, a week after one of his aides entered a guilty plea of their own. The scandal was widely seen as helping to precipitate DeLay’s downfall. At the time, DeLay also faced separate corruption charges in Texas over his fundraising operation. He was convicted in 2010 on state money laundering charges for allegedly funneling money he received from lobbyists who sought to influence him to other Republicans. He denied any wrongdoing, and the conviction was overturned in 2013.  

An overjoyed former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) greets colleagues and friends at the US Capitol after a Texas appellate court overturned his conviction for allegedly scheming to influence Texas state elections with corporate money, on Capitol Hill Thursday September 19, 2013. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images.)

DeLay’s prodigious fundraising operation, which had attracted the interest of the FBI and authorities in Texas, was a key weapon in his arsenal as he hammered his priorities through the House. He backed the pet projects and campaigns of allies and funded primary challenges against his enemies. Through it all, Buckham was a key part of the operation. 

“I give him credit for any successes that I’ve had — never lost a vote — and all the good stuff we did,” DeLay said of Buckham. “He was right in there at the very beginning. He taught me everything I know. He’s quite the strategist.”

The pair’s connection was spiritual as well as political. Buckham became DeLay’s pastor and they held intimate prayer sessions in the congressman’s office. 

“He was my mentor, my rock, my refuge,” DeLay said of Buckham. 

DeLay’s vote counting and wrangling operation was known for its personal touch with members of the Republican caucus. He and his team knew all the members and their spouses. DeLay provided his colleagues with cigarette breaks and meals during late night sessions as well as what Newsweek described as an “endless stream of birthday cards and get-well wishes, flowers and small favors.”  According to DeLay, “Buckham was huge in developing the strategy and he knew the House better than anybody.”

“We set up, really, what you could call a concierge operation,” DeLay explained. 

In the end, the mix of campaign contributions, meals, and event tickets that paved the way for DeLay and Buckham’s rise was key to their demise. The investigations that led both men to leave the Hill focused on their relationships with lobbyists and the mix of favors, campaign donations and gifts that swirled around them. 

After shuttering his firm in the wake of the Abramoff scandal, according to public records, Buckham worked with an RV dealership in West Virginia and other small businesses. 

However, he was never far from the Hill. Buckham’s son and daughter have both worked as congressional staffers. In 2016, the right-wing Freedom Caucus reportedly considered hiring Buckham as its executive director — a throwback to his days at the top of the Republican Study Committee. At the time, Politico covered the possible comeback and described Buckham as “a controversial former top aide to Tom DeLay and central figure in the Jack Abramoff scandal.” 

The Freedom Caucus ultimately went a different route. 

Keeping Her Options Open

In the end, it was Greene, who has been mired in nearly constant controversies of her own, who brought Buckham back. Greene owned a Crossfit gym and became involved in conservative activism during Donald Trump’s administration. She first ran for office in 2020 as a staunch supporter of the former president’s MAGA agenda. Since then, Greene has made national headlines for her history of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments as well as her embrace of paranoid theories about the coronavirus, QAnon, and even supposed Jewish space lasers. Greene was also involved in the conspiracy-fueled efforts to protest and overturn Trump’s 2020 election loss that coincided with the Jan. 6 attack. 

Greene hired Buckham in October 2021 at a turbulent moment in her office. It was a little over nine months after she came to the Hill and her first chief of staff had quit shortly after Greene engaged in a shouting match with Democrats outside the Capitol.

The bombastic, inexperienced Greene and Buckham, a devout behind the scenes operator might seem like an odd couple. However, each has something the other needs. Buckham brings the experience in dealmaking and diplomacy Greene needs if she hopes to move from MAGA influencer to wielding real influence. And, in Greene, Buckham found someone who had so much of their own drama that they were willing to look past his. 

As she announced Buckham’s hiring, Greene praised him to the right-leaning Washington Examiner as a “a strong conservative” who has had experience in the swamp, so to speak — probably more of it than most people working on the Hill right now. Greene also brushed aside any concerns about Buckham’s past. 

“This is a serious hire,” Greene said. “It’s the first of more to come, and I’m not afraid of the controversy.”

Apart from an article on the progressive site Raw Story, Buckham’s comeback has attracted relatively little public attention. However, behind the scenes, the move made waves. DeLay, who still speaks with Buckham, “was thrilled” about his former chief’s return. He said he heard from other Republicans who were “excited” to see Buckham join forces with Greene.  

“A lot of — especially the conservatives and staffers … it seems to me that they’re calling him up and getting advice. He’s very much involved in what’s going on,” DeLay said of Buckham, adding, “I know that, when he walked into Greene’s office … I heard from a lot of people on the Hill that they were very excited about it. … He talks to a lot of people, a lot of staffers especially.” 

In a profile on Greene last year, the Washington Post did not mention Buckham’s past ties to Abramoff. However, the paper noted that Republicans credited Buckham with giving Greene a “focus on the inside game in Congress” that had been instrumental in shifting her relationship with GOP leadership. That gamesmanship may be useful as Greene aims to go from the fringe to a far more central role in Washington. 

According to one senior Republican congressional aide, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss strategic deliberations, Greene is “trying to set herself up for something.” The aide said Greene angled to become Trump’s running mate as he pursues a second term and has moved on to eyeing offices in her home state, such as a run for Senate or the governor’s race. 

Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) takes a photo with U.S. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) after being elected Speaker of the House in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 07, 2023 in Washington, DC. After four days of voting and 15 ballots McCarthy secured enough votes. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images.)

According to a source close to Greene, she is keeping her options open including potentially taking a Cabinet position if Trump is re-elected or a leadership position on the Hill. As Greene seeks to gain power, she has notably broken with some of her colleagues on the right. Last year, Greene was ousted from the Freedom Caucus following tensions with her fellow conservatives over her support for former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and her clashes with Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO). As other MAGA members and conservatives led the successful effort to oust McCarthy, Greene emerged as one of his vocal backers. 

“She wanted to be a real player,” DeLay said, praising Greene’s handling of the speaker battle as a move that would help her gain ground. “It was obvious to me she wanted to be a player and she used the Freedom Caucus as her base, but at the same time, she knew as time went on, here comes McCarthy, and she knew — or somehow somebody told her — that she needed to grab ahold of his coattails and support him. So she went from a leader in the Freedom Caucus to maybe backing off a bit and knew where the power was.” 

And DeLay suggested Buckham’s impact on Greene’s approach was clear. 

“I shouldn’t say it that way … she’s a woman,” DeLay began before briefly pausing and plowing forward with a laugh. “I was going to say his fingerprints is all over her.”

Buckham rejected that notion in a statement provided to TPM by Greene’s office. 

“Marjorie Taylor Greene doesn’t need Ed Buckham. She’s a force of her own. I’m just here to assist,” Buckham said.

Buckham did not comment on his past work in Washington. 

‘Just The Way Business Was Done Back Then’

For his part, DeLay dismissed the scandals that brought both him and Buckham down as “the beginning of the cancel culture.” He painted the investigations as a conspiracy hatched by Democrats and competing lobbyists who were “using our legal system as a political weapon” and suggested similar forces are behind Trump’s legal woes.  

“Ed was investigated deeply, and they found nothing, and I knew they wouldn’t,” DeLay said. “It was generated — the whole investigation was generated by the Democrats aided by … the Native American tribes, the lobbyists for the American tribes, because the lobbyists lost a lot of money to Abramoff and his operation and they wanted to destroy him to get rid of him.”  

Despite believing he was unfairly targeted, DeLay has no regrets. 

“None at all. It was time for me to go anyway,” said DeLay.  

Abramoff, for his part, is not willing to weigh in on Buckham’s comeback. Reached via phone on Monday, Abramoff declined to comment on this story. 

“I am so sorry to be rude, but at this point, I do not speak either on or off the record to the media,” Abramoff said. “I hope you understand that this is not personal, but rather a blanket policy for now.”

It’s a new rule for Abramoff. After being released from prison in 2010, he leaned into his infamy and made regular media appearances, including a stint as a mystery judge for TPM’s annual Golden Dukes scandal and corruption awards in 2011. Abramoff’s current silence may have something to do with a new round of legal woes. In 2020, Abramoff pleaded guilty to multiple criminal charges related to an allegedly fraudulent cryptocurrency scheme. The charges included violations of rules that were actually inspired by Abramoff’s prior misconduct. According to court documents, Abramoff entered a guilty plea on two counts pursuant to a plea agreement that would involve “continued cooperation with the government.” Abramoff’s attorneys and prosecutors jointly requested that his sentencing be postponed as the trial for the CEO of the cryptocurrency company is ongoing. A judge agreed, and the next status hearing in the case has been set for next month. 

Another figure associated with Buckham’s controversial past had no similar reluctance to comment — and he dramatically changed his prior story. Christopher Geeslin, the former board president of the U.S. Family Network, who had accused Buckham in newspaper interviews of taking “tainted” money from Russia, is happy to see Buckham back on the Hill. 

Geeslin called Buckham a “fine man” and suggested he had been “somewhat naive” when he expressed concern over the group’s finances.

“It’s just the way business was done back then I guess,” Geeslin said.

Geeslin, who is a pastor, suggested the situation had worked itself out perfectly. 

“Ed Buckham, I consider him a good friend and any problems we had in the past, we don’t have them now,” he said, adding: “In my opinion, he’s right where God would want him to be and I’m glad he’s there.” 

Source link

Leave a Comment