I. The Abra-Scam.
Quietly, in late October of 2018, Congressman Ralph Lee Abraham removed Terry Finley’s 2014 letter to the editor of The News Star from his campaign website. Finley of Calhoun, Louisiana had written the Monroe paper to praise Dr. Abraham’s character in advance of his runoff election for Louisiana’s Fifth Congressional District.
“His dedication to others is so strong that he has dedicated his salary as congressman to St. Jude’s Hospital (sic) and Independence Fund for wounded veterans,” Finley wrote. “He will serve all regardless of their party affiliation or anything else that may separate us as he has in his medical practice.”
It was the final piece of evidence that the congressman had scrubbed from his website about a bold promise he made. He was a wealthy man, a veterinarian and physician, so he was not running for Congress because he needed the money.
He vowed to give every dime he earned to a hospital that treats children with cancer, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, and the Independence Fund, an organization that helps double-amputee combat veterans. In his first term, that amounts to $348,000. In total, Abraham should have contributed at least $696,000 to charity.
The News Star headlined Finley’s letter, “Abraham: A Man of Quiet Integrity.”
It may no longer be on Abraham’s website, but the internet is written in ink.
Before he even was sworn in for a third term in January, Ralph Abraham officially announced he would be a candidate for governor this year. The people of the Fifth District had re-elected a man who campaigned, only two months prior, on an empty promise.
He has already missed multiple votes in Congress, including votes on key pieces of legislation uniquely affecting his district, because he decided instead to attend fundraisers back in Louisiana.
When a reporter surveyed Louisiana’s federal delegation about whether they intended on cashing in their paychecks during the ongoing government shutdown, most members quickly said no.
Abraham’s office, however, responded affirmatively. Only later, they reversed course. The congressman, they now said, would also refuse his paycheck.
For anyone who followed Abraham’s career and for supporters like Terry Finley, there should have been only one answer, offered without hesitation: Dr. Ralph Abraham has never taken a paycheck. Don’t you remember?
It’s what got him elected; this was a man of quiet integrity.
“You should not pay a penny for representation,” he repeatedly told voters on the campaign trail in 2014, when he challenged incumbent Vance McAllister in a crowded field for a seat in Congress.
No matter how his team tries to contort their way out of this, Dr. Ralph Abraham won and then held onto a seat in Congress by deceiving voters about contributing hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to children suffering from cancer and veterans who have had multiple amputations. That is what began his career in politics.
Of course, none of this would have ever been set in motion if it were not due to the meteoric rise of an instantly recognizable Louisiana family, the Robertsons of West Monroe.
II. It Started With A Kiss.
On April 7th, 2014, an obscure, small-town newspaper, The Ouchita Citizen, published an iPhone video recording of a man and a woman kissing one another inside of a nondescript office building. The lights had been turned off, so the clip appears to be in black and white, like closed-circuit security camera footage.
Within days, the clip had made national news and imperiled the political career of its lead actor, first-term U.S. Congressman Vance McAllister, a Republican from Louisiana’s sprawling Fifth District.
McAllister’s victory had taken the Republican establishment by surprise.
He had never run for office before, and the presumed frontrunner was Neil Riser, a state senator who had the connections, the name recognition, and an army of professional campaign consultants.
But Vance McAllister had a few things Riser lacked: He could self-finance; he may have been an unconventional candidate, but that also made immediately likable to anyone he met on the campaign trail. McAllister seemed to be having fun, and while he was an unabashed business conservative, he occasionally made it known that he was much more tolerant and open-minded about social issues than the hard-core, far-right Republican base.
It also helped that he had no connections to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who, by 2014, was already the least popular governor in state history. Riser had always been an ally of the governor, and his campaign was staffed by Team Jindal.
But McAllister’s real secret weapon was his friendship with the Robertson family of “Duck Dynasty,” who were then at the pinnacle of their celebrity. Willie Robertson, in his first foray into politics, even cut a commercial for him; it was a game-changer.
Vance McAllister crushed Neil Riser in a runoff, winning more than 59% of the vote.
As a congressman, McAllister, in turn, invited Willie as his guest to the State of the Union; the national media loved it. But Team Jindal resented McAllister, who, unlike other Republicans in Louisiana, was unafraid to criticize the governor, which made him a particular liability as Jindal began to build the scaffolding around his presidential campaign.
The iPhone recording, which showed McAllister engaged in an extramarital affair and earned him the nickname “the Kissing Congressman,” was a deliberate act of political sabotage; the publisher of that small-town paper was a political ally of the governor. Prior to publication, he hadn’t even bothered to confirm McAllister’s identity; he didn’t have to. The whole thing was a set-up.
Although McAllister had been advised to issue a statement of denial, he had already told his wife about the affair; he knew he had to fess up. Hopefully, voters would forgive him.
But its release had the intended effect.
Because of the recording, McAllister lost the coveted “Duck Dynasty” endorsement. After all, their brand was built on wholesome family values; each episode of their hit reality television show ended with a prayer.
III. A Quack In The Plan.
Bobby Jindal coveted the support of the Robertson clan. If his presidential campaign would have any chance of success, he needed Louisiana’s most-influential Christian celebrity family to lend him their brand and their goodwill.
To that end, Bobby Jindal, as governor, literally created a fake award from the state of Louisiana to present to Willie Robertson in a scripted ceremony for their television series.
The controversy surrounding McAllister would also likely ensure that Neil Riser would get a shot at redemption. The midterm elections were only seven months away.
But the best laid plans of mice and men… and ducks… often go awry.
When qualifying approached, a new unknown candidate emerged, a young man with no experience in office, no name recognition, and an eccentric campaign platform that read more like a term paper written by a college sophomore majoring in philosophy than a coherent set of policy priorities. His name was Zach Dasher.
And Zach Dasher was Willie Robertson’s first cousin. He was literally a member of the Duck Dynasty.
Dasher’s entrance in the race complicated Team Jindal’s plans.
They could no longer afford to openly support Neil Riser; that would risk upsetting the Robertson family and could potentially poison any chance Jindal had of receiving their support in his nascent presidential campaign. They loathed McAllister- not because of his affair but because of his independence, and they also knew Dasher had no chance.
So, furtively, they sought out a credible candidate, and Dr. Ralph Abraham of Alto was hiding in plain sight. He was already a campaign bundler for Jindal; he had even appeared once in a commercial for Jindal’s gubernatorial reelection campaign (good luck trying to find it, though), and he was wealthy enough to not require their entire financial apparatus to move in and create a stir.
When Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, a Democrat, decided, once again, to run for the seat, he effectively ended any opportunity McAllister had at winning reelection. The district is expansive, and although McAllister is a white Republican and Mayo is an African American Democrat, there were potentially enough crossover votes to ensure a second term for the embattled incumbent. At that point, many voters were already well-aware of the roles Team Jindal and a former staffer with Riser’s first campaign had played in sabotaging McAllister by illicitly planting a camera to record him “in the act.”
No one could claim the moral high ground, though, to his credit, McAllister repaired his marriage, confessed his transgressions to his constituents, and ran a competent operation in D.C.
He may have embarrassed himself, his family, and his supporters, but after the shock wore off, there were more questions about the sleaziness and the character of his Republican opponent’s consultants.
So, Team Jindal boarded their escape pod, and they used their connections in the media to promote the unknown doctor from an obscure small town who could once again play a role in one of their campaign productions.
This time, instead of small-town doctor who ran a rural clinic, he would be a wealthy entrepreneur and philanthropist who was so pure of intention, he wouldn’t even take the money that came with the job.
IV. I’m runnin’ out of credit and find a little Cash on the radio.
“(Abraham) said if elected he will donate his salary to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Veterans Independence Foundation,” The News Star reported shortly after he secured a spot in the 2014 runoff.
“Representation and public service should be a privilege,” he told the paper in a profile piece that, we now know, to be a complete deception by the doctor on almost every issue. Read the article; it’s still online.
Ralph Abraham won his first election by roughly the same margin McAllister had won two years prior. He kept a relatively low-profile until he was well-settled in his second term. His debut in front of the Baton Rouge Press Club last year was an embarrassing disaster. The Advocate pulled no punches. “Out of touch, lacking ideas, congressman shows he’s not ready for prime time” read the headline of Lanny Keller’s blistering column.
Keller, it turns out, was being generous.
Abraham’s performance was a parade of ignorance on basic issues, a permanent documentation of his negligence as a member of Louisiana’s federal delegation and a vestigial reminder of the kind of government that Bobby Jindal empowered. But ultimately, it made no difference in his re-election campaign. He has been on autopilot for years now.
However, his phony pledge to donate his salary to worthy charities is irredeemable and permanently disqualifying.
He lied to voters; he lied to children with cancer; he lied to wounded warriors, and despicably, he thought his own privilege would somehow insulate him from accountability.
In a tortured and absurd attempt at revising history, his campaign claims Abraham’s promise was only valid for his first term.
Aside from the campaign statement, however, there is no evidence whatsoever that Ralph Abraham donated anything other than $300 to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, a contribution made in December of 2018.
It is almost certain that Abraham has donated more than $300 to charity over the past four years; though it may not be a direct monetary contribution, we know, for example, that Abraham, a licensed pilot, sometimes flew patients to M.D. Anderson in Houston and St. Jude’s on his private plane.
Those were small acts of kindness (which he made sure were documented by Roll Call), but ones that also undermine his campaign’s explanation about why he could not afford to keep his promises to donate his salary: That the multi-millionaire physician, veterinarian, and congressman with a private plane has been struggling financially.
Abraham can no longer earn money by practicing medicine full-time due to his gig in government, which, apparently, he did not realize even after running for a second and then a third term in Congress.
“Because of the loss of income, it was not a pledge he could continue beyond the first term,” his campaign spokesperson Cole Avery told The Advocate. “There’s the belief that something should be one way, and then there’s the reality.”
This is nonsense. The same exact issue came up during Abraham’s 2014 campaign.
There was another physician above him on the ballot, Bill Cassidy, who was challenging incumbent Mary Landrieu for the U.S. Senate. When it was revealed that Cassidy, who was then a member of the House, had not filed the majority of his timesheets with LSU, for whom he worked in a part-time capacity, we all got a crash course in the rules governing congressmembers who receive compensation for outside work practicing medicine. LSU even opened an investigation into the matter.
(I vividly remember all of this because I worked with another writer in breaking the story).
By his campaign’s own admission, Abraham did not donate his salary to charity during his second term, and unless they furnish documentation to prove otherwise, there is no reason to believe he donated his entire salary to charity during his first term either.
His campaign had been well-aware of the media’s interest into questions about his charitable donations for several days, and they have not provided a scintilla of evidence to prove he ever kept his word, even after being given multiple opportunities.
The burden of proof now belongs to Dr. Ralph Lee Abraham, not to the media and certainly not to St. Jude’s or the Independence Fund.
V. Wreck It Ralph: An Epilogue
Ralph Lee Abraham should have never launched a gubernatorial campaign before he even took the Oath of Office for a third term in Congress.
It was an insult to his constituents in the Fifth District; it disrespected the implicit promise he made to voters when he decided to qualify for a third term, and it demonstrated the kind of contemptuous narcissism that has festered and corrupted our politics for decades and particularly during the past three years.
His Democratic opponent, Jessee Carlton Fleenor, a working-class farmer, put thousands of miles and spent countless hours in his old Dodge pickup truck, visiting all 24 parishes, attending dozens and dozens of civic events and festivals and community meetings, befriending as many people from as many places as he possibly could, and doing all of it without relying on corporate donors or PAC money or a family fortune.
Ralph Lee Abraham never showed up, but he still won anyway.
It was an election he didn’t even care about, a broken promise. It is hard work to campaign in that district if you don’t own a private plane or have the power of incumbency; it’s enormous.
“I used to tell my colleagues that I was the only one of them who had to drive through another state to get across his district,” Vance McAllister told me.
Fleenor recalled that a roundtrip drive from one end of his district to the other took around 13 hours; you can drive across entire state of Texas in less time.
I could have refrained from inserting my own commentary and only provided readers with links to a series of news articles, videos, and archived screenshots to prove the damning case against Abraham, but I’ve also categorized this report as an opinion piece for a reason.
I was born and raised in the Fifth District. I worked for the government, the City of Alexandria, in the district, coordinating with staff from our federal delegation, in both chambers, on a number of projects. I am also disabled, and I spent much of my childhood in and out of hospitals.
Abraham’s empty promise is personally, deeply offensive to me.
I’ve only encountered him once, at a memorial service honoring the life of a well-known elected leader in my hometown a couple of years ago. Abraham had never met the man, but there was no question he was obligated to be there in his capacity as a member of Congress. Instead of speaking about the man’s numerous accomplishments, instead of conducting even a modicum of research on the person for whom he was tasked with eulogizing, he spoke about the disease that took his life. I’m not sure what others in the room thought about Abraham’s eulogy, but whenever I have been asked about him, it’s the story I tell, a perfect illustration of a man who does not know his audience or his job.
Even if he were to produce proof that he donated $348,000 to charity during his first term in Congress, which now appears entirely unlikely, he still broke his word to voters in his second term. If you believe a person’s word is their bond, Ralph Abraham owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to charities.
There is no excuse for that; he exploited children with cancer and wounded warriors, and it’s unforgivable. It’s immediately disqualifying. It’s not naïveté, as Prof. Josh Stockley is quoted as saying about the actions of a multimillionaire with two terminal graduate degrees.
It’s deliberate and cynical, and Abraham should resign from office and spare his constituents any more indignity and embarrassment.
There was at least one person who told Abraham and the public, directly and honestly, that he could never keep the promises he was making on the campaign trail: his opponent in the runoff, the Honorable Jamie Mayo, the mayor of Monroe, Louisiana.
“I’m very concerned that he has indicated that he will maintain his medical practice,” Mayo told The News Star in November of 2014. “What he is saying to me and also the citizens of the 5th Congressional District is that he will, in effect, be a part-time congressman if elected. We have 24 parishes within the 5th Congressional District. The parishes within the southern part of the district already say there are problems with not being properly represented because they have not had a congressman that has consistently represented them.
Mayo knew what he was talking about, because he knew the district. He knew what job he was signing up for. He understood that governing required a commitment to the public, and he told voters the truth.
Ultimately, though, he lost to a white Republican with a private plane, who is now responsible for representing the tenth poorest congressional district in the country.
“You cannot be a part-time congressman with other interests and be able to effectively and efficiently represent the 5th Congressional District,” Mayo warned.
Ralph Abraham may have said he would go to Washington and give his salary to charity, but he would much rather be flying around raising money for himself.