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Originally published Monday, January 9, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Abramoff used area foundation as conduit for money

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff funneled money through a Mercer Island religious foundation as he tried to influence a top aide to Republican congressional...

Seattle Times staff reporters

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff funneled money through a Mercer Island religious foundation as he tried to influence a top aide to Republican congressional leader Tom DeLay, according to his guilty plea last week to corruption charges.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin confirmed Sunday it was his foundation, Toward Tradition, that took $50,000 from two Abramoff clients and, at Abramoff's suggestion, used it to hire the aide's wife to organize a conference for the group.

Lapin said he and his board had no idea the money was part of Abramoff's vast scheme to influence Congress and, in this case, stop bills to raise postal rates and ban online lotteries.

The business interests that paid the money in 2000 and 2001 said they didn't know it would be used to hire the aide's wife.

The foundation is a conservative Judeo-Christian group where Abramoff once served as chairman of the board. It's referred to only as a "non-profit entity" in Abramoff's plea agreement.

Lapin, in an interview Sunday and in a memo he sent to board members, said Lisa Rudy, wife of former DeLay aide Tony Rudy, was hired to organize a Washington, D.C., conference for Toward Tradition.

Lapin said others had been hired to do similar work in the past and Rudy did a good job setting up the fall 2000 event.

"We were innocently hiring someone to do a job and not being aware that it was part of something else," Lapin said.

He said the FBI interviewed him and Toward Tradition employees last year. The group gave documents to the government. And Lapin said he was told neither he nor his organization was a target of any investigation.

Lapin and Abramoff are friends, both Orthodox Jews whose lives intersected in the world of politics and religion.

The rabbi is a well-known voice among conservatives in Washington, D.C., and Seattle, where he hosts a weekly radio show on KTTH-AM. In many ways Lapin has become, as The Washington Post called him in a story this summer, "The Republicans' Rabbi-in-Arms."

He's also friendly with DeLay. Although he has been reported to have been the man to introduce DeLay to Abramoff, Lapin said Sunday he doesn't recall that.

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There are other ties between Lapin and Abramoff, who worked for the Seattle-based law and lobbying firm Preston Gates from 1994 to 2000. Abramoff served on the board of Toward Tradition, including a stint as chairman, and donated the $10,000 or so a year expected from board members, Lapin said.

One year Abramoff met that commitment by sending a check from the Capital Athletic Foundation, an organization he controlled that has become a key piece of the corruption investigation.

Lapin confirmed he urged supporters of President George W. Bush's re-election to give campaign donations through Abramoff, which helped the lobbyist gain Bush "Pioneer" status among top presidential fundraisers.

Abramoff also had dealings with Lapin's brother, David, a Los Angeles-based rabbi and business consultant.

During Senate hearings last year on the Abramoff scandal, e-mails between Daniel Lapin and Abramoff were read detailing the lobbyist's request that the rabbi help phony-up some awards for him.

Abramoff said he wanted something to help burnish his application to join a fancy D.C. club. Lapin responded that he could oblige, saying, "I just need to know what needs to be produced ... letters? plaques? Neither?"

Lapin says he was only joking about the awards and he assumes Abramoff wasn't serious either.

But National Public Radio reported in July that Abramoff at least one time listed on his biography awards from Toward Tradition and another Lapin organization — awards the rabbi said were never given.

"Stark indicator"

Lapin has been reluctant to criticize Abramoff as details have emerged about the lobbyist's dealings in D.C.

Last week's plea bargain changed that some.

"Obviously his formal admission to some of these things is a sort of stark indicator that he was engaged in a lot of things that a lot of his friends didn't know anything about," Lapin said.

"We almost never discussed his business dealings. Whenever we spoke it was about our families. It was about Jewish/Christian relations. It was about Toward Tradition, about friends we had in common."

Some Toward Tradition board members are harder on Abramoff.

"He touched so many established good people and brought out the bad in them," said Carl Pearlston, a board member from California. "I really am apprehensive about how the Abramoff affair is going to tar Toward Tradition. It can't help but do that to some extent."

Toward Tradition is led by Lapin, a South African-born Orthodox rabbi who moved from Los Angeles to Washington state in 1991, then launched the foundation.

The foundation is dedicated to advancing "traditional Judeo-Christian values that defined America's creation and became the blueprint for her greatness," the foundation's mission statement says. In the recent holiday season, for example, Lapin and the foundation joined in the campaign to fight what it saw as secularists' attack on Christmas.

In a November speech headlined "Merry Christmas is NOT Offensive," Lapin urged Jewish people to protect religious freedom for everyone.

Payments to Rudy

The government's interest in Toward Tradition has apparently focused on the payments to Lisa Rudy.

Lapin said her name was first raised in the summer of 2000 when Abramoff asked whether anyone had been hired to organize that fall's conference in D.C.

Lapin said Abramoff told him, "I know someone who is available to do the job and what's more I could get her salary covered." Lapin told him, "OK, terrific."

Lisa Rudy is the wife of Tony Rudy, at the time a senior aide to DeLay, who was then majority whip in Congress. Tony Rudy later went to work as a lobbyist for Abramoff, according to The Washington Post.

Lisa Rudy couldn't be reach for comment.

At the time he approached Lapin about hiring Lisa Rudy, Abramoff was working in the D.C. office of Seattle's Preston Gates.

Toward Tradition's board approved hiring Lisa Rudy in 2000 and soon after Abramoff sent a $25,000 check from a firm called eLottery. It came with instructions that Rudy was to be paid $5,000 a month.

eLottery is a Connecticut company that provides states with online lotteries. The company hired Abramoff to help stop the federal Internet Gambling Prohibition Act.

Lapin said other checks came from another Abramoff client, the Magazine Publishers of America. Those checks, too, came with directions to keep paying Rudy.

Abramoff was lobbying for the association and, according to his plea agreement, was trying to stop a bill that would have raised postal rates.

A total of $50,000 was paid to Rudy. Abramoff's plea agreement says the money was obtained from clients that benefited from the aide's "official actions regarding the legislation on Internet gambling or opposing postal rate increases."

Lapin said it is not unusual for board members to solicit donations from corporations and others for Toward Tradition. It's also not unusual for donors to ask that the money to be used for a specific purpose.

In an October Washington Post article, Robert Daum, a former eLottery official, said that all the money spent by the company at Abramoff's direction was for the purpose of defeating the Internet gambling bill in Congress.

"We were willing to pursue all legitimate means to ensure that outcome, as people do all the time in Washington," Daum told The Post.

Reached Sunday by The Seattle Times and asked about the $25,000 contribution from eLottery to Toward Tradition, Daum said, "Anything I have said prior, stands." He declined further comment.

Lapin said Toward Tradition did no lobbying and had no involvement with the legislation mentioned in Abramoff's plea bargain.

He told board members that he has negative views about gambling in general and particularly about government-sanctioned gambling.

"So why did eLottery give us $25,000 when we were never viewed as a friend of the gambling industry? Now we are told it was at Jack Abramoff's direction and that he had purposes that went way beyond helping Toward Tradition," Lapin wrote to board members.

The same is true about money from the Magazine Publishers of America.

Howard Rubenstein, a spokesman for the magazine publishers, said the $25,000 to Toward Tradition was given at the direction of an employee of Preston Gates but not Abramoff. He could not recall the name of the person.

The magazine publishing group had "no idea that it would be used the way it was used," Rubenstein said Sunday.

Stanley Ellberger, a Toward Tradition board member from New Jersey, said he had been briefed about hiring Lisa Rudy and was told she did a good job in setting up the Washington conference.

"The bottom line for us was that she actually performed the services that we paid her for," Ellberger said.

Ellberger said he had faith that Lapin has always acted ethically. "I wouldn't doubt that even for a nanosecond. He would not do anything that would not be kosher," Ellberger said.

Michael Medved, the Seattle-based nationally syndicated radio host and movie critic, sits on the Toward Tradition board and has been critical of Abramoff during his broadcasts.

In an interview Sunday, Medved said he has met Abramoff only a few times, shared three meals with him, and added, "Jack's not a part of my life, thank God."

Medved and Lapin are long-time friends and co-founded the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice Beach, Calif.

"I certainly do wish I had never met Jack and Jack had never met any friends of mine," Medved said.

For his part, Lapin was philosophical when asked what he wishes he might have done differently in his dealings with Abramoff.

"I'm sure I'm not that different from most people when I say I have a long list of regrets in my life," he said. "And I just find it easier and less painful not to spend too much time delving into that list and prioritizing it. The more one lives the more regrets one has for turns taken and directions taken and things done and things not done."

Seattle Times staff researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story. David Postman: 360-943-9882 or dpostman@seattletimes.com

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