In early 2019, about two months after coastal Orange County congressional district residents finally booted Dana Tyrone Rohrabacher from office, the 30-year incumbent stood in front of a local crowd who’d come to his “Appreciation Party” in the wake of a historic ballot-box shellacking. Based on his ruddy complexion, watery eyes and disjointed speech, booze—perhaps a pitcher or two of potent margaritas, his cherished cocktail—made the appearance less painful. Election experts had long-considered a Rohrabacher defeat unlikely thanks to closed-door gerrymandering deals with California Democrats, who may have slyly wanted an embarrassing GOP nitwit on the public stage.
In a district repeatedly molded to hold a comfortable margin of Republicans, the onetime Orange County Register editorial writer—who routinely calls himself “a patriot,” but chickened out of Vietnam War combat—was free from the late 1980s to wander the right-wing rubber-chicken circuit, religious radio studios, cozy parlor gatherings of corporate moguls and the halls of Congress as a fringe character who inspired palpable fright and unintentional laughter. In his final speech in the House, he compared his bravery to that of Davy Crockett of Battle of the Alamo fame and paraded himself “as one of the fierce warriors of the Cold War.” The 72-year-old sold himself on places such as FOX News as the hip “surfin’ congressman,” though on the occasions I saw him in the waters off Huntington Beach, he mostly sat idle on large body boards and looked fragile tackling foot-and-a-half waves.
His repertoire of boneheadedness seemed boundless. Rohrabacher spent years demanding that California hospitals lock out wounded and sick people seeking life-or-death medical treatment if they were Mexican. He angrily blasted Bill Clinton-era Democrats for supposedly giving communist China highly sensitive defense-satellite technology, but retreated quietly when this paper found a buried letter he’d signed advocating that precise transfer. He used C-SPAN speeches to rant about the evils of brutal dictators before suspiciously becoming the lead Capitol Hill apologist for Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose critics repeatedly found themselves meeting mysterious deaths.
Underscoring a career that wobbled from blunder to irrelevance back to blunder, Rohrabacher touted Osama bin Laden-harboring Taliban terrorists in the mid-1990s as noble, enlightened folks smeared by ignorant American journalists. After the 9/11 attacks, the congressman, who fancies himself a screenwriter, worked to erase that history, offering an alternative reality that cast himself as a brave, unyielding freedom fighter: an imaginary Rambo, if you will, without the chiseled physique hiding beneath his trademark food-soiled polyester suits and scuffed old shoes.
In Rohrabacher’s fantasy world, his loss last November to Laguna Beach’s Harley Rouda can’t be attributed to voters’ increasing wariness about his performance. It must have been the result of an evil, international anti-democracy plot, as he suggested at his “Appreciation Party.” The chief conspirator against his re-election was, he claimed, a “Bolshevik billionaire”: George Soros. “That’s a badge of honor as far as I’m concerned,” Rohrabacher offered. “That’s cool.”
Orange County has a history of producing nutty political extremists, some far more malignant than Rohrabacher, but he nonetheless continues to enjoy a delusional following. “He was the guy the swamp tried to fight before there was a swamp,” Rhonda Rohrabacher, his wife, confusingly told the crowd with tears in her eyes. “And let’s never forget that.”
The veteran politician, who married his spouse after she committed 1995 election-fraud crimes, looked satisfied, then offered his own stream-of-consciousness version that linked a 200-year-old war to modern-day political shenanigans to oyster farming to the 2020 election in just eight sentences.
“Those poor souls who made sure the flag kept flying over Fort McHenry,” he said, joltingly referencing events that inspired Francis Scott Key’s crafting of “The Star-Spangled Banner” while British naval ships bombarded the military installation in the War of 1812. But Rohrabacher forgot to mention that salient point before continuing. “And that flag kept flying over the United States of America. That’s what we’re here for.”
After glancing again at Rhonda—who pocketed $5,158 per month from campaign coffers during the last election cycle, plus another $11,000 as an election-defeat bonus for proclaimed campaign-manager duties—Rohrabacher seemed to suddenly remember the “swamp” angle.
“And, you know, sometimes it takes a lot of sacrifice, but I, uh, I may not have made any money at all” while in Congress, he said, ignoring the nearly $6 million in salary he’d collected.
“By the way, isn’t it a miracle that most of these members of Congress—I don’t know how they do it, but after 10 years, they leave Congress as millionaires,” continued Rohrabacher, who sold his $1.7 million Costa Mesa house after the election and set his sights on Maine. “How did they do that? I did not.”
That disingenuousness is astounding. Of course he knows how dirty players in the political world use influence to enrich themselves. Several of his close friends landed in prison on bribery-related charges. One was lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a travel companion of the Christian Coalition’s dubious Ralph Reed and the subject of the acclaimed 2010 documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, in which Rohrabacher is shown defending slave labor for his pal’s slimy foreign clients.
Two years before a federal judge sentenced Abramoff to a six-year prison term for mail fraud, bribery and tax evasion, the congressman proved willing to hold his hand out for non-campaign money. He hit up the dirty lobbyist to make a $2,300 off-the-books contribution ostensibly as birthday presents for his then-infant triplets. Others who put checks in the pot included Erik Prince, founder of the Blackwater USA mercenary-army operation ($1,500); Patrick J. Nolan, a onetime California state Assembly member caught in an FBI bribery scheme ($100); Christopher Cox, the former congressman who headed the Securities and Exchange Commission when Wall Street caused the 2008 economy’s collapse ($480); and Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, who sought government contracts and subsidies while Rohrabacher sat on a House subcommittee overseeing NASA ($3,080). In total, the congressman, who loves wearing eye-burning Hawaiian shirts, collected nearly $30,000 in the ploy, according to records obtained by the Weekly.
Three others in Rohrabacher’s circle were also implicated in ethics scandals involving Russian money: representatives Bob Ney (R-Ohio), Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Curt Weldon (R-Pennsylvania).
Putin spy Maria Butina dined with Rohrabacher, sought his advice and ran a plot to infiltrate conservative political groups, including the National Rifle Association, with infusions of foreign cash. Butina won an 18-month federal prison sentence, though the congressman defended her as an innocent victim of unethical FBI agents and called her arrest “stupid.” Never mind she admitted to a national security prosecutor that she conspired to act as an unregistered Russian agent. In a Nov. 3 CBS broadcast of 60 Minutes, however, the 30-year-old Butina portrayed herself to correspondent Lesley Stahl as a victim of American “racism” against Russians.
Despite the legal woes of his warped associates, Rohrabacher has always escaped charges. But that doesn’t mean he’s been the angel he labels himself. The Weekly obtained a series of records that provide a previously unseen glimpse into the congressman’s world at the midpoint of his Washington, D.C., career. Those documents depict a man determined to bond with Russians tied to Putin’s espionage operations, as well as a thirst to cash in on secret business deals. At the time, the congressman’s files show that he and his wife were eyeing houses in the $3 million range.
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When Rohrabacher first ran for Congress in 1988, he campaigned as the “term-limits champion” by urging a cap of three, two-year terms to protect the public from entrenched, career politicians. That sentiment quickly disappeared once he landed in the Capitol. By the time he finished his ninth election in 2004, Rohrabacher had trampled a series of Democratic Party opponents, including winning a 33 percent margin of victory.
On Sept. 15 of that year, he pushed for a constitutional amendment allowing non-natural born citizens of at least 20 years to serve as president or vice president. The congressman called the Founding Fathers’ notion that the nation needed to be protected from undue foreign influence “archaic.” Observers believed his move was a ham-fisted attempt to aid then-pal and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was born in Austria.
That same day, Rohrabacher also sponsored House Resolution 5102, a bill “encouraging the promotion of democracy; free, fair and transparent elections; and respect for human rights and the rule of law in Ukraine,” which had splintered off as its own pro-Western nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The argument eventually became cheap lip service. Though initially subtle, Rohrabacher’s drift toward Putin was, in hindsight, an all-out deliberate course correction to serve as the dictator’s propaganda tool. Indeed, by early 2014, the congressman was openly backing the Russian military’s invasion to annex Crimea, where Putin erected a high-tech wall on the Ukrainian border.
How to explain Rohrabacher’s journey from anti-autocrat crusader to celebrator of a ruthless former KGB agent? After all, he has never stopped berating communist Chineses bosses as monsters. In January, he acknowledged to a Washington, D.C., interviewer that the “avalanche” of negative coverage about his Putin bond now annoys him. Yet, he still tried to soft-sell the dictator’s well-documented savage edges. “I’ll tell you what Putin is,” he said. “Putin is Mayor [Richard] Daley [the onetime boss of a Democratic machine in Chicago]. And he’s watching out like Mayor Daley; he’s watching out for Chicago and his clique. Putin is watching out for Russia and his clique.”
Rohrabacher then asserted that Putin’s assassinations of political dissenters places him on par with American leaders, adding incoherently, “When Russia was our enemy, it was the Soviet Union, and it was being guided by the idea—the ideology that was dictating what it would do rather than just what’s in the interest of its country.”
Are such ramblings what motivated the congressman’s flip-flop? Or could there be other, more plausible explanations? In May 2017, The New York Times reported the FBI warned Rohrabacher that Russian spies had been working to recruit him. He laughed off the situation, claiming he can easily outwit Putin’s agents.
On Feb. 22, 2005, a Rohrabacher relative sent a typed, single-spaced, three-page letter after the congressman lobbied him for a large sum of cash he could use for entrepreneurial opportunities. The relative, a veteran businessman, declined the offer. He also discussed the woes of launching companies because of long delays in seeing profits, as well as “precarious” potential fallout of involving friends and family as investors in half-cocked plans. The man advised Rohrabacher to stick to what he knows: winning campaigns.
“I have to add, Dana,” the relative wrote, “that you have made me increasingly nervous over the past few years in your attempts to stray from your chosen field to think, talk and venture into the business arena. With the ethics questions ever present, I would hope it would make you less likely to do so. The combination income you now enjoy along with the more-than-generous retirement plan you’ll be getting should push you to concentrate more on managing and living within the income you have rather than rolling the dice to hit the jackpot elsewhere, which could jeopardize the situation you have in hand.”
Though the Rohrabachers reported making close to $380,000 annually, the advice was ignored. On May 11, 2005, records obtained by the Weekly show that a biodiesel business with ties to Moscow, where Putin held firm control, was willing to cut a deal with the Rohrabachers. “We hereby confirm that we give Rhonda full support for USA and Canada [rights], and we will not sell through any other sales channel for the time being,” the email stated. “We are right now making the final test of the new evaporation unit, and we hope to have everything ready in about one month time.”
Rhonda’s detailed professional résumé, which we’ve also obtained, boasts a 2000 BA degree from Loyola Marymount University in European Studies, with a minor in German. She lists her prior jobs as a news columnist, political campaigner and field representative for a state assemblyman. There is no mention of expertise—or even a gofer internship—in the biodiesel industry. But the congressman’s wife also noted she’d built “international technology experience” in the early 2000s as a consultant for “Russian manufacturers on how to market their products in the United States—[those] products included nutritional supplements and home electronics.”
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By the mid- to late ’90s, close Rohrabacher drinking pal Abramoff began efforts to sell Russian interests. The Washington Post would later report on how millions of dollars in Russian money flowed secretly to conservative U.S. politicians and their related organizations. The Post described Abramoff’s strong ties to Marina Nevskaya, a Russian who’d taught at the school where her nation’s intelligence agents trained. Nevskaya was partial owner of the oil firm Naftasib with fellow countryman Alexander Koulakovsky. Naftasib supplied oil for the Russian military’s Black Sea fleet. Nevskaya and Koulakovsky were also business partners with Viktor Chernomyrdin, who ran state-owned monopoly Gazprom and associated with Putin. In 1999, Representative Weldon honored Koulakovsky’s alleged dedication to democracy as well as Russia’s commitment to freedom after the Russians hired his wife as a $20,000-per-month consultant.
In July 2019, veteran Russian expert J. Michael Waller advised a New Zealand investigative journalist that he believes Naftasib engaged in sinister activities. “In my estimation, Naftasib and its agents were running what appeared to be aggressive political-intelligence operations against the United States,” Waller told reporter Cass Mason. “All the indicators were consistent with the pattern of a Russian-state-sponsored entity working to corrupt elected American officials, and I had warned people of this possibility, and that was my position more than a decade ago. It remains my position today.”
Mason also noted that the journal Russian Reform Monitor had identified Naftasib’s bond with Russian spy agencies.
You know who else worked for Naftasib interests? Dana and Rhonda Rohrabacher, at a time when records show he wanted substantial cash infusions and she was bouncing checks after chronic shopping sprees. It got so bad that, at one point, Macy’s declined a request for a credit card because of the Rohrabachers’ history of failing to pay bills.
On Sept. 18, 2005, the congressman bypassed his own six email accounts and sent Nevskaya a message using Rhonda’s private one. In a “Dear Marina” communication, Rohrabacher reported that he was willing to work behind-the-scenes to help Naftasib on its “major investment” plans for a Ukrainian shipping port. He bragged that he’d spoken about the project with Kateryna Yushchenko, the American-born wife of Viktor Yushchenko, then-Ukraine’s president, who’d been severely poisoned precisely a year earlier by men who fled to Putin’s Russia. A medical exam found the president’s blood contained dioxin 50,000 times greater than the general population. He survived, thanks to rehabilitation efforts, but Russia refused to extradite the suspects.
In his communication with Nevskaya, Rohrabacher cryptically wrote, “I may be able to lead a congressional delegation to Berlin on the first four days of October. Is there a chance that we could meet the contact you had in mind at that time and place? All the best, Dana.” [My emphasis.]
Nevskaya responded two days later, to Rhonda’s private email account. “Dear Dana,” she wrote. “Thank you so much for [contacting Kateryna]. . . . Please, let me know your schedule when you know. Kisses for Rhonda and the kids. Marina.”
It’s not clear what transpired in the aftermath, except that Rohrabacher increased his blame-America rants for the Kremlin and started to buy fine suits with button-down shirts that contained cotton. He also stayed in office another 14 years. During the period, the couple left their gorgeous $3,300-per-month Costa Mesa rental resembling a pigsty, as we documented in the December 2013 article “Dana Rohrabacher Is Dirty.”
Ukraine remains in the headlines, thanks to another pro-Putin politician’s controversial delay of sending a congressionally approved $391 million aid package to help that ally thwart ongoing Russian military aggression. Donald Trump’s activities are the subject of current impeachment hearings. In 2017, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) observed that if any American politicians were on Putin’s payroll, it had to be “Rohrabacher and Trump. . . . Swear to God.” That observation explains plenty, if accurate.
Adding fuel to the fire, Rohrabacher told Fox’s Sean Hannity, Trump’s chief propagandist in the media, that American law enforcement and intelligence agencies had committed “a con job” by officially acknowledging Putin interference in the 2016 U.S. election for the New York City real estate developer and reality TV celebrity who is besmitten with ruthless strongmen.
Now that Rohrabacher is a private citizen will he serve swampy clients? His expected partner in the firm is ex-Secret Service agent Paul Behrends, who was booted from House committee staff two years ago because of his work for Putin’s interests, including attempts to thwart human rights legislaton aimed at Russian abuses. The ex-congressman long ago blocked my efforts to question him. But it’s clear his public persona as Mr. Pro-America doesn’t match his private machinations in league with ultra-wealthy authoritarian-regime characters.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.