Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

New CBS News VP Tied to Jack Abramoff Scheme

Posted in media, politics by allisonkilkenny on February 25, 2009

The Raw Story

abramoff200809041When it was announced last week that CBS News had hired Jeff Ballabon as a senior vice president for communications, with responsibility for “all media relations and public affairs,” there were scattered complaints about Ballabon’s extreme conservatism and apparent bias against Democrats.

One blogger at Huffington Post, Ira Forman,recalled that when he debated Ballabon a decade ago, “Ballabon claimed that, after his most recent job in Washington, he became convinced that Democrats are inherently bad people and Republicans are fundamentally good people.”

However, what has not been widely noted is that Ballabon formerly had a close relationship with lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff, first as a client and then seemingly as a friend.

Ballabon was an executive vice president with Channel One in 1998 when it came under fire from Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL). Channel One had developed a comfortable niche providing free educational programming to public schools in exchange for running commercials during the programs, many of them for soda, candy, and other junk food. Responding to complaints from conservative constituents, Shelby expressed concern and called for Congressional hearings.

Channel One quickly hired the lobbying firm of Preston, Gates to head off this threat to its profits, ultimately paying them over a million dollars. Preston, Gates assigned the still-obscure lobbyist Jack Abramoff to the account. 

Emails released by the Senate Finance Committee show that Abramoff was hard at work by January 1999. Over the next several months, he would recruit all his most reliable allies to speak on Channel One’s behalf: Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, Citizens Against Government Waste, the Traditional Values Coalition, Rabbi Daniel Lapin’s Toward Tradition. and two groups which had sponsored Abramoff’s overseas junkets — the National Security Council Foundation and the National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR).

As described by Raw Story in a series of articles in 2006, all these groups were accustomed to provide articles or testimony favorable to Abramoff’s clients — such as the Marianas Islands or Stoli Vodka — without revealing their relationship to the lobbyist. John Byrne and Ron Brynaert wrote specifically of the support expressed for Channel One in May 1999 by NCPPR’s Amy Ridenour:

“Ridenour defended Channel One’s use of commercials after Ralph Nader’s Commercial Alert urged Congress to investigate the practice. Ridenour said Nader’s charge was spurious. ‘Commercial Alert turns benefits of Channel One on its head,’ she wrote in an editorial. ‘Instead of seeing the free 10-minute current events program and 250 hours of educational programming and tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and servicing as a benefit received by the schools in exchange for one to two minutes of commercials, Commercial Alert sees the schools as exploited and those who benefit from Channel One’s services as “forced” to watch ads.'”

Ballabon was fully aware of these subsidized efforts on Channel One’s behalf. On May 19, Abramoff emailed him, “When we are through the hearing, we have to discuss getting Amy a contribution as we discussed. She was going to do 5 pieces for $10K. We can chat on this next week.”

Ballabon responded, “yup–i have not forgotten (was it $10? — I wrote it down–whatever it was, she’ll get it.)”

However, the most interesting of the emails relating to Ballabon may be one which has been largely overlooked, perhaps because it is not part of the Senate Finance Committee file but was released separately, by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Ralph Reed, who had been friends with Abramoff since their College Republican days in the early 80’s, also participated in the Channel One lobbying effort. On February 3, 1999, just as the campaign was getting underway, he sent Abramoff an email with the subject heading,”Karl Rove.”

“Did you and Karl chat?” Reed asked. “I am planning to get Ballabon down to meet with the Governor in the next month or two and I’d like to do the same with you.”

It would be interesting to know whether Ballabon actually did meet in Texas with then-Governor George W. Bush, and if so what was said about Channel One’s lobbying campaign, but no emails appear to have been released which could shed light on this matter.

However, it does appear that Abramoff and Ballabon remained close, because in December 2001, Abramoff tried to get an invitation for Ballabon to a White House Chanukah party. In a December 5, 2001 email released by the Government Reform Committee, he asked the favor of his former aide, Susan Ralson, who by then was working for Rove in the White House.

“I understand that they are doing a ceremony for Chanukah on Monday night,” Abramoff wrote. “I was wondering if you could possibly arrange for xxxx, the kids and me in to that? The last time we were able to go to that was during Bush 41. Jeff Ballabon also wants to come (solo) if that is not too much to ask.”

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