Vampire Kisses: Did Abramoff and Wilson Bleed Romero in NM?
Dennis Greenia, Vampire Slayer
I first learned about Jack Abramoff's successful plot to help Heather Wilson ambush and bleed dry my good friend, Richard Romero, in two separate New Mexico congressional elections while strolling with dengre down K Street. Both times, Abramoff employed a stealth PAC purportedly championing health care reform. By 2004, New Mexico's political aquifer flowed red.
I'm not the first person to learn about Abramoff from dengre. He's one of the brave few whose nocturnal obsession with vampires unearthed Washington's Empire of the Undead for the slumbering masses.
Dengre, aka Dennis Greenia, reminds me of Van Helsing. He wears rumpled plaid shirts and seems to sport a permanent case of bedhead. He talks about Abramoff all the time. I'm not sure if he sleeps.
"Ironically," he told me, "Jack was finally discovered because of his personal pursuit of religion. He was unhappy with his kids' school, which he felt did not allow enough freedom to practice Judaism. You or I would just take our kids out and home school them if we found ourselves in this situation. But Jack decided to found an Orthodox Yeshiva for his boys. He wanted only the best for them. His needs became more and more extravagent. He had been skimming off the top of the money he'd earned for the Republican Party as its bagman for awhile. But now, instead of needing a few hundred thousand a pop, he needed millions. Among other things, he wanted to buy a couple of Zambonis for the school."
"What's a Zamboni?" I asked. Although I am a Jew, I had never heard of one. My shul had saved up for years to rescue a Torah Scroll that survived the holocaust in Prague. Now it was raising money for its restoration. Maybe a Zamboni was a scroll rescued from Italy.
"It's an ice grader," explained dengre. "Jack felt strongly that his sons' Yeshiva should have an all-star hockey team."
Istopped at the light, my jaw hanging open. Dennis was already crossing the street.
I hurried to catch up. "Why hockey?" I asked.
"He felt his kids were entitled to the same advantages as other top-notch East Coast prep schools but in a Jewish setting. He loved hockey. The other schools had good hockey teams. He wanted a better team." Dennis paused for a moment. "Unfortunately, he purchased his first Zamboni before building the ice rink. So he never got to use it."
Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live
Like Van Helsing, dengre has spent so much time studying his prey, that he has come to share qualities. "The reason Abramoff became so successful," he told me, "was that he was willing to do all the work, whatever needed doing, and to leave the credit to others."
Dennis first stumbled upon Abramoff through his day job. He's the Director of Publications for Coop America, an organization that champions fair labor conditions in the developing world. They were advocating for legislation to improve the plight of workers in the CNMI. They had secured bi-partisan Congressional support and Clinton's blessing for the bill which was widely expected to pass. Then, for no apparent reason, it faded away.
Dengre began to look for answers. He googled all the organizations that he knew opposed the bill. A single name appeared repeatedly: Jack Abramoff. "The worst thing about it is all the Baby Jacks he's spawned," dengre told me. "A lobbyist would come and work for him and then go off and start his own company. The entire Republican party is infested with them. They're everywhere. They're even in New Mexico. We can't stop working until we've routed out all of them."
"It took us years to get the MSM to pay attention," he told me. "Independently, there were a few people who had been connecting the dots, but by and large, the story was not getting the eyes it deserved."
"How did you do it?" I asked.
"You can accomplish anything," he answered, if you are willing to do all the work but let others take the credit."
Later, we strolled back to his office. Dengre was opening and closing drawers, looking for a document he wanted to show me. He opened a drawer and stacks of papers tumbled out onto the floor. "Oh, sorry!" he exclaimed. "Jack's invoices." He stuffed them back into the drawer.
"You don't know Richard Romero, by any chance, do you?" he asked me.
"Sure," I told him. "Everybody in New Mexico knows Richard Romero."
"Could you get me an interview with him?" And he proceeded to tell me a sensational story about the Baby Jacks of my home state.
Meanwhile, Back on the Ranch
Richard Romero is one of New Mexico's most progressive politicians. Tall, handsome and articulate, as President Pro Tempore of the Senate in a state infamous for its corruption and cronyism, Richard successfully helped to pass a bill allowing public financing of the Public Regulatory Commission.
Thanks to Richard's leadership, those seeking to regulate corporations in New Mexico can forgo corporate donations in favor of public financing by getting 500 registered voters to sign a petition and donate $5.00 apiece. Ben Ray Lujan, Democratic candidate for New Mexico's Third Congressional District, waged a successful campaign for PRC Commissioner through public financing, as did several other progressives. Richard strongly supports Universal Health Care. He served as a teacher and principal prior to becoming a politician.
After returning to New Mexico, I drove down to Richard's house in Albuquerque. He lives modestly in an old Hispanic neighborhood. We called Dennis and, as I set up my computer and recorder in my newfound position of assistant vampire hunter, Dennis explained to Richard that he had been victimized twice by the unholy trio: Jack Abramoff, Heather Wilson and Karl Rove.
In many respects, the Republican character of New Mexico's first Congressional District is a product of social engineering. Developers built what eventually became Rio Rancho, New Mexico's fourth largest city, on the former Alameda Land Grant in 1961. According to the US census, the Median Household Income in Rio Rancho in 2006 was $56,914 compared to $40,629 in New Mexico (whose poverty rate is surpassed in the US only by Mississippi). Rio Rancho is 75% Anglo in a state that is 55% Anglo. In other words, it is an upper middle class gated Anglo community of about 75,000 souls in an impoverished rural state with large Native American and Hispanic populations.
Like many of the people of Rio Rancho, Wilson is a recent transplant. A close friend of powerful US Senator Pete Domenici, she was tapped by Gary Johnson, the then-newly-elected Republican Governor, as Secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department in 1995. She immediately cut or eliminated prevention funding for high-risk youth in rural communities throughout New Mexico, transferring it to wealthier Republican districts such as Rio Rancho (a blatantly political maneuver). Wilson first ran for Congress with backing from her mentor, Pete Domenici, becoming almost instantaneously the recipient of funding from Tom DeLay and his political action committee, ARMPAC (Americans for a Republican Majority).
Congresswoman Wilson's votes show she has been a reliable water carrier for DeLay and his minions. She was named one of "Tom's Tainted Ten," a clique of Republican Congressional delegates who had accepted extraordinary funds from ARMPAC and ARMPAC allies that manufactured or sold gasoline tainted by MTBEs, and then voted for legislation allowing continued MTBE use despite related groundwater contamination in their own districts. Wilson had accepted $46,959 from ARMPAC and $1,000 from DeLay personally along with an additional $13,500 from MTBE manufacturers (located mainly in or near DeLay's district), and another $120,787 from oil and gas companies that use MTBEs. Like the other members of "Tom's Tainted Ten," she voted to change House Ethics Rules to protect DeLay from future prosecution. She eventually returned $10,000 to ARMPAC.
Van Helsing in New Mexcico
But it was not Wilson's ARMPAC funding that attracted dengre's attention. It was the money flowing from Abramoff into health care-related stealth PACs (the precursors to 527s) that drew him to New Mexico.
Now he was on the phone talking to Richard while I recorded and transcribed the interview. I resisted the urge to get up and search through Richard's pantry for a garlic ristra.
Dengre was talking about Richard's 2002 Congressional Campaign. "That was the year that these people [Rove, Abramoff, DeLay, etc.]... they had tried since they were young to establish one party rule in the United States. In the aftermath of 9/11, in the fall of 2002 ahead of the election, it just looked like they were just on the verge of power, and that they could just really, they could really win. They were pulling out all stops. All the tricks of the trade."
"Yeah. Yeah," agreed Richard, interested.
"And in all these different elections. And I don’t think that what they were doing in Alabama or New Hampshire or Colorado or some other places was appreciably different than what they were doing in New Mexico."
Helping 'Em Buy the Ranch
"As a matter of fact, I’ll never forget," Richard said, "during the campaign, Karl Rove came to New Mexico to help with…I wanna say a fundraiser…some kind of event for the Republican Party. It was over at the Hispanic Cultural Center...
"What I remember was that...the second time I ran in 2004...was that the Republicans were trying to push this prescription bill through. And it was controversial because I think everybody understood the drug firms wanted a cut. And, the…the…if I remember correctly, the big issues of course were the donut...the lack of coverage for seniors from, oh, say $800 to maybe three or four thousand dollars. There was a big gap. The other one had to do with, um, pharmaceutical companies not wanting to have the government bid for drugs like the VA does. And that was one of my biggest issues because you know Heather always touted herself as being for the veterans and of course I was a veteran. I was pushing that…that button. And I was saying, 'Why don’t we just let the government bid for these services just like the vets do and you’ll save quite a bit of money?'"
Heather Wilson had helped to push Bush's Medicare "reform" through in 2004, a bill that left many seniors holding the bag for their prescription costs, while giving away large sums to pharmaceutical companies. The bill was unpopular in New Mexico before a mysterious "grassroots non-profit" peppered airwaves in CD 01, Wilson's district, with ads.
Richard continued his story. "One of the things I noticed early on was that, you know, she had this…I thought this group was beginning to, as they say, “innoculate” her. They were running ads…a group called “Seniors USA” or something to that effect, they were…"
Dengre cut in. “United Seniors Association?” he suggested gently.
"Something like that. They were…"
Dengre asked, "They also were called, “USA Seniors?” I could hear him sharpening his wooden stakes over the phone.
"Yeah. And, and one of the…they ran several ads and many of them were, were praising her. And they started out I think with Art Linkletter, remember him?" Richard looked at me.
"I do," I affirmed.
"Yeah. Art Linkletter was, like, their star as a senior, and he said, “Be sure to call Heather Wilson and thank her.” They started early. What, what surprised me was that she usually sent out a lot of those congressional flyers, you know, using her franking privilege, and she ran 'em all the way up to the deadline. But this time around she not only did that but she also...I..I...I thought that this group was so...so much in support of her...uh that I thought it was a Republican group, but it didn’t say Republican Party, it just said Seniors USA or something, but...but they were really praising the bill and thanking her so it was pretty much, you know, directed in her favor. And they started early."
Richard paused. "My God!" he exclaimed. "This was like, I think, I swear it must have been June or July! Uh, I mean, I...I was...you know, I was scrambling trying to raise money just to go on TV and, of course, I knew she had money but this was at no cost to her because this was third party or outside party or whatever you wanna call it!
"She was basically...when you do ads like that you protect yourself…" Richard's deep baritone trailed off for a moment. "It’s not cost effective unless somebody else is spending money, BIG money, because those ads were...I think they were frequent. They weren’t like every now and then. And they were on the major networks. So it was expensive. You know, when I ran, the last time...to run up at around 14, 15, 1600 points on TV…to produce an ad and run it would…was roughly around $100,000 a week. Now this isn’t a major market, but it's still expensive, you know?"
He told us that the ads had run throughout July and August. I mentally estimated their cost to be at least $800,000.
"You know, Abramoff was on the Board of USA Seniors," suggested dengre meaningfully. "Along with Richard Vigary, the guy who pioneered direct mailing for the Republicans."
"Really?!!" exclaimed Richard. "They were?"
"So one of the things to think about, Richard," dengre advised, "when you’re thinking about these cycles is, um, you know, Abramoff working basically as a funder for Karl Rove which is sort of what he did. They would move money into an election like yours. So one of the things to think about is what were the things in these election cycles that seemed to come out of nowhere at you and you could never quite figure out who was financing them? Another thing that I’m very curious about because it's relevant in the news right now is the Indian Pueblo Tribe."
Dengre was referring to Sandia Pueblo. Following a short post-US-Attorney-scandal lull, Wilson had recently made the headlines again after being anonymously named in the indictment of Kevin Ring, an Abramoff associate. It didn't take long for people to ferret out her identity. She was acting as a top surrogate for the McCain campaign. The bloodhounds and vampire killers were hot on her heels.
According to the indictment, Ring and Abramoff, with the possible assistance of an aid in Wilson's office, had demanded $2.75 million from Sandia Pueblo to protect their sacred Sandia Mountains from development. They were working against a deadline. Time would run out if they didn't act quickly. It was alleged that the Pueblo was informed they would be "fucked" with their congressman if they didn't fork over the money. Heather Wilson was their congressman.
"Yeah, I remember when Heather flipped on that one," Richard recalled. "I wondered what had changed her mind."
We talked briefly about a few other expensive surprises Richard recalled from his congressional campaigns...the time the state Republican Party chair, John Dendahl, was busted by the press offering $300,000 in 2002 to a Green Party Candidate to run against the Dems in Richard's district...the time another Hispanic candidate, a fellow with experience as a covert ops specialist through School of the Americas briefly entered the Congressional race in 2004 (although Richard suspected a local Democratic politician as the instigator)...
"Well, Richard," said dengre, "I'm sorry I have to cut this short now, but I'm in DC and the sun is about to set. I have to pick up my daughter, sprinkle her with Holy Water, and drop her off at home. And then, well, I have to get to work."
"Be careful," I cautioned him. "Don't get bitten. We can't afford to lose you."
I packed up my tape recorder and computer and looked at Richard hopefully. "I wish you'd get into politics again," I suggested tentatively.
He smiled. "Do you write speeches?" he asked.