Monday, October 16, 2006

A Second Look at Susan Ralston

It was initially a choice between Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao or (then) Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta when AsianWeek editors a year ago discussed who they considered to be the most influential Asian American in the White House. They concluded that it was neither. In their view, the one Asian American who commanded the personal friendship and respect of President George W. Bush, more than anyone else, was Susan Bonzon Ralston, the Filipino American Special Assistant who resigned on October 6.

It was not surprising then that AsianWeek's front page cover story this past week was Ralston's resignation, with the headline "No More Asians in the White House, Special Assistant to the President Quits."

When my column last week about Ralston ("Falling on the Sword") appeared on the Internet, before it was published in the newspaper, it drew criticism from Filipino American Republican leaders who believed that it presented a "one dimensional" picture of Ralston.

Interestingly enough, the piece was also attacked by one reader ("a Democrat with conservative leanings") for being "too kind" to her. While some Republicans thought it was wrong for me to mention Ralston's father in the piece, another reader thought it was "a transparent attempt to elicit sympathy for her." A columnist just can't win.

I reported that Ralston resigned after the House Government Reform Committee (HGRC) released emails of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff including 66 of his contacts with the White House, more than half of which were with Ralston who worked for him before he recommended her to Karl Rove.

One of Abramoff's clients was the Northern Mariana Islands which opposed the labor reforms that had been initiated by the Interior Department's Office of Insular Affairs headed by Allen Stayman.

A month after Ralston began working in the White House in 2001, she met with Abramoff lobbyist Todd A. Boulanger who provided her with a binder about the North Mariana Islands which recommended the firing of Stayman.

Among the emails released by the HGRC was a February 21, 2001 email from Ralston to Boulanger where she wrote: "Thanks for breakfast. I showed KR the binder. . He gave the binder to Mehlman to read cover to cover and to be prepared." [KR is Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman, now the head of the Republican Party, was then the White House political director.]

In July, 2001, Ralston emailed Abramoff promising that Stayman would be "out in four months." According to the Los Angeles Times October 15, 2006 Sunday edition, "the promise was fulfilled."

Yet, when Filipino American delegates to the 2004 national conference of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) pressed Ralston to use her White House clout to help the Filipino WW II veterans fight for equity, she refused to do so, claiming that she doesn't do "policy."

As my Republican friends have since pointed out, it didn't end there. Perhaps because of the criticism she received at the Chicago NaFFAA conference, especially from then NaFFAA National Chair Loida Nicolas Lewis, Ralston later agreed to help NaFFAA on the veterans issue.

Two weeks after the NaFFAA conference in September of 2004, Ralston arranged for NaFFAA chair Lewis and NaFFAA Chief of Staff Armando Heredia to meet with White House Domestic Policy Adviser Allan Gilbert and his assistant, Matthew Smith, to discuss the Filipino veterans issue.

When the American Coalition for the Filipino Veteran (ACFV) learned of the meeting, the veterans lobby group requested that a Filipino veteran leader be included in the meeting. According to the ACFV, both Lewis and Heredia agreed that Mr. Franco Arcebal, a WWII Filipino veteran who was tortured by his captors during the war and who is the ACFV vice-president of membership, should attend the White House meeting.

When the request was made to Gilbert's office to include Acerbal, who had flown in from Los Angeles for the meeting, it was denied. Eric Lachica, ACFV Executive Director, emailed Ralston: "We just spoke at 9 A.M. with Sandy w/ Mr. Alan Gilbert's Domestic Policy office. She said that you turned down Mr. Franco Arcebal from attending today's 2 PM meeting of Ms. Loida Nicolas-Lewis and Armando Heredia of NaFFAA w/ Mr. Gilbert on Filipino WWII veterans bills."

Ralston quickly replied: "I did not make the decision. I only helped to arrange the meeting since I am not involved in this issue. Please discuss w/ Matthew Smith and
Alan Gilbert. I am NOT attending the meeting. Eric, your threats, such as the one to protest the Administration, do NOT help your cause and only make it more difficult for the White House to have any kind of constructive dialogue w/ you and your group."

Despite that initial disappointment, the ACFV was later able to forge constructive and productive contacts with Ralston. When they heard of Ralston's resignation, ACFV national president Pat Ganio and ACFV Executive Director Lachica said that the veterans were "saddened and disappointed."

According to Ganio, Ralston had later arranged for meetings of ACFV officials with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi, with the White House staff and a key National Security official to obtain Bush's support for the Filipino Veterans Health Care bill, for Senator Daniel Inouye's pension bill and for the U.S. grant-in-aid to the Philippine Veterans Medical Center.

"Our Fil-Am community leaders lost an irreplaceable and helpful contact in the Oval Office. She will be sorely missed by us," said Ganio.

The qualities that got Ralston her White House job were the very same reasons she stepped down. Aside from her professional competence, it was her loyalty and sense of gratitude - two virtues held in high regard in the Filipino community - that caused her to resign.

Ralston was grateful to Abramoff for recommending her to Karl Rove where she ended up as the right hand of President Bush's "right hand man." The alleged favors she did for Abramoff were probably done because of her "utang na loob" (debt of gratitude).

She was loyal to Rove and to President Bush, refusing to say anything or do anything that may cause them any damage. She was even willing to "fall on the sword" for them.

Although Ralston may have resigned, she is not out of the woods yet as she is still being investigated for her failure to report the gifts of concert tickets and games that she received from Abramoff. Earlier in August, Roger Stillwell, a former Interior Department official, pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge for not reporting that Abramoff had given him tickets to football games and concerts.

According to Rudy Pamintuan, Ralston's personal friend and the chair of the White House Initiative for Asian Americans, there is an exception for gifts from long-time friends made before joining the government.

The Filipino community (and the Asian American communities) lost a major asset in the White House. Whatever may be said about Ralston's head (her judgments), they cannot say about her heart (her loyalties). We wish her well.

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