Abramoff Proposes Radical Reforms to Halt Lobbying Corruption

Jack Abramoff Gilbert

Jack Abramoff, the best-known Washington lobbyist of his era, this week described at the National Press Club his radical reform plan to thwart future corruption in the nation’s capital.

Jack Abramoff Book CoverAbramoff’s four-point plan goes far beyond those of most reformers. He seeks, for example, term limits plus a lifetime ban preventing former law-makers from joining what Abramoff calls, “The Influence Industry.” He defines that industry as vastly broader than the term “lobbyist.” He said lawmakers have defined the term to exclude many influence-sellers, such as those who manage working-level lobbyists. Upon close review, he said, "I probably wasn't a 'lobbyist.' It was astounding to me."

Abramoff’s presentation on March 5 drew from his recent book,Capitol Punishment, whose cover is at left, and was billed as his first-ever joint appearance with any other reform advocates. Endorsing his reform hopes in general were United Republic President Nick Penniman and Congress Watch Deputy Director Lisa Gilbert. Club photographer Noel St. John portrays her at right with Abramoff. The moderator was former Press Club President Jonathan Salant, a Bloomberg reporter who covered the scandals, beginning in 2004.

Update: Vice President Biden hired as a senior advisor the head of a major lobbying firm despite a campaign pledge to hire no lobbyists. See here and below for details.

The March 5 discussion before a packed hall was enlivened by vigorous questions by at least two who doubted Abramoff's good intentions.

Indian advocate Tom Rodgers read a prepared tirade against Abramoff, for example, and investigative reporter Wayne Madsen questioned Abramoff closely on whether his admitted willingness to help officials ever led him into facilitating escorts for officials. Abramoff denied involvement. Appearing also was Susan Bradford, an author who argues that Abramoff has been unfairly vilified. She advocated her theme and evidence afterward to me and several other reporters in the Club's restaurant. During the public session, Abramoff responded to my question on his clients' involvement in Alabama's controversial 2002 gubernatorial election between fellow Republican Bob Riley and Democrat Don Siegelman. Abramoff estimated that money from his Mississippi tribal casino-owning clients to help Riley prevail over Siegelman was probably "north" of the $13 million previously estimated.

The DC Danger Zone

Abramoff's book is subtitled, The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist. He devised his reform proposals and book while serving a prison sentence after pleading guilty in 2006 to mail fraud and conspiracy charges. The former lawyer, businessman, restaurant owner and movie director was part a corruption probe that led to convictions of his colleague Michael Scanlon (a former Riley aide), White House appointees Steven Griles and David Safavian, U.S. Representative Bob Ney (R-OH), and other lobbyists and Congressional aides. Abramoff, now 53, served three years and six months of a six-year sentence in federal prison before being released early to a Baltimore halfway house on June 8, 2010.

As summarized in Wikipedia: Abramoff was College Republican National Committee National Chairman from 1981 to 1985, and a founding member of the International Freedom Foundation. He later became a top lobbyist for the firm of Preston Gates & Ellis and later the firm of Greenberg Traurig. He served as a director of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank, and Toward Tradition. Abramoff's lobbying and the surrounding scandals and investigation are the subject of two 2010 films: the documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, and the feature film, Casino Jack, starring Kevin Spacey as Abramoff, portrayed below at right.

Casino Jack Poster"Eight years ago, this happened," Abramoff told the Press Club audience. "It probably would be worse for me," in the long run, he said, if he had not been exposed and had just continued as a major wheeler-dealer, disconnected from the harm he was causing. When the Washington Post published its first article about him, he said he and his law partners were so clueless that they discussed the possibility of reprinting the article on their website to promote their reputation for effective influence. They soon realized otherwise. Later, he  reviewed 850,000 of his emails as part of his cooperation with authorities. He said he understands the harm, and apologized for insulting email language. He privately described clients as "monkeys" and "morons," for example. He explained that he also referred to some of his own family members as similar terms on occasion through an excess of poor judgment and exuberance.

More generally, he said his self-examination while imprisoned persuaded him that much of Washington's system is corrupt and that he was just an extreme example: Many lobbyists take six people to a basketball game, he recalled, while he might on occasion take 40. For special occasions, he used courtside seats costing up to $975 per ticket. "Instead of taking someone to dinner," he continued, "I had a restaurant." It was the now-closed Signature's on Pennsylvania Avenue, located virtually across the street from headquarters of both the Justice Department and the FBI, and also downstairs from the office of our Justice Integrity Project.

Among his reform proposals is strict term-limits on federal lawmakers so they don't get caught up in the web of favor-swapping. He describe the danger to the public simply of permitting lobbyists to buy an official to a cup of coffee. The relationships can then extend, he said, to even bigger favors, similarly impossible to monitor effective.  As examples, he cited the fund-raisers that influence-sellers host and the kinds of arrangements he used to make to help officials and their staff in post-government careers in the private sector. Therefore, he proposes an outright ban on gifts by those in the influence industry and on post-government employment in it. He said his proposals are unlikely to be enacted, but suggested that the public, if not lawmakers, understands that serious reform is needed. Lobbyists will always figure a way around halfway measures, he said.

Gilbert, whose group is part of the Ralph Nader-founded Public Citizen, commented that both the right and left must find common ground or reform will not occur. Penniman, a former publisher of Washington Monthly, said that based on what United Republic is hearing, "The public is hyper-aware of the problem and they want something big to happen. I feel it's an all-America issue."Abramoff said reformers must insist on full reform with all the talent and strength of purpose that lobbyists use for their favorite projects.

Alabama Connections

My question pertained to our Project's long-running coverage of the federal prosecution of Siegelman, Alabama's governor from 1999 to 2003. Siegelman, convicted on corruption charges in 2006, is free on bond pending a request for review by the Supreme Court. Our Project has reported the case as a Bush-era frame-up continued by the Obama Justice Department out of institutional loyalty and other disreputable motives. We have reported the original motive by Bush prosecutors as a desire in part to remove Siegelman from re-election because he was a Democrat who stood in the way of Riley's ascendancy and certain of his policies. These included ostensible opposition to gambling, such as the state lottery proposed by Siegelman in Alabama to help fund education. A lottery, however, might have opened the door to helping Alabama legalized gambling promoter Milton McGregor and undermining such Abramoff clients as the Native Americans running a legalized gambling casino in Philadelphia, Mississippi that draws customers from nearby Alabama.

[In related news, a Montgomery federal jury on March 7 acquitted McGregor of all 28 corruption counts in his second federal trial. This was a stunning setback to federal prosecutors, who have spent millions of dollars prosecuting McGregor and co-defendants following denunciations by Riley. We report on that story separately, but a previous column is below.]

Abramoff Bush RoveI prefaced my question by noting that some of Abramoff's clients liked him and appreciated him. Isidro Garza, former general manager of the only legalized gambling facility in Texas, has told me many times that Abramoff gave excellent value to the Kickapoo Tribe running the casino in terms of government connections. "Maybe that's the problem," Abramoff joked. When The White House disavowed any ties during the scandal, Garza released to the New York times the photo at right showing his boss in right meeting President Bush and Karl Rove at right, with Abramoff in the background circle in red. Rove's administrative assistant, Susan Ralston, had formerly worked in a similar post Abramoff. On March 5, Garza, by coincidence, pleaded guilty in Texas to another long-running federal corruption prosecution initiated by the Bush Justice Department. Garza pled guilty in exchange for a three-month sentence, with the prosecution dropping charges filed in 2006 against several family members in a proceeding long-delayed because the initial trial judge, a Republican, failed to recuse herself on the grounds of appearance of bias against the defendants. Garza, who ran for Congress unsuccessfully against incumbent Republican Henry Bonilla, and his son were Democrats.

In my question to Abramoff, I asked him to clarify Senate testimony and other sources suggesting that $13 million went from Mississippi clients of Abramoff to help Riley's election, with some of the money going to ostensibly anti-gambling crusaders such as Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition leader. Abramoff responded that he could not recall details of how funds were distributed through third parties and otherwise to help Riley but that the total was probably "north of" the $13 million figure.

Audience Questions, Attacks

Kathy Kiely of the Sunlight Foundation asked a question about details of one of its investigations, with the background summarized in her account of the Press Club event here, Abramoff: 'You've got to trust me.' Rodgers, an advocate for Michigan-based former tribal clients of Abramoff, denounced Abramoff in a prepared statement before asking whether he ever bribed or otherwise urged mainstream news reporters to provide favorable news coverage. Abramoff, who said his definition of bribe includes the continual round of large and small favors that influence-peddlers extend, responded that he would have tried to place coverage if he could have but did not remember any specific instances aside from a plan, not acted upon, to buy or found a tabloid covering Capitol Hill. He said he and his colleagues mostly placed their client views into print through so-called "think tanks" of supposedly independent experts.

Also present in the audience was Susan Bradford, whose book is listed below. She maintains that Abramoff has been scapegoated by the mainstream media and by purported reformers among prominent fellow Republicans who are actually, in her view, deeply complicit in the Washington influence-game themselves.

Madsen is an investigative reporter who has extensively covered sex scandals in the city, including those ignored by the mainstream press. The former Navy intelligence and National Security Agency analyst pressed Abramoff on whether his willingness to help clients extended to escort services that fronted for prostitution. Jeane Palfrey -- the so-called "DC Madam" federally prosecuted before her reported suicide following a bizarre trial and conviction -- gave Madsen her list of 20,000 client phone numbers to assist his reporting on prominent government officials, journalists and others using her escort services. U.S. Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), for example, who won 2010 re-election on his family values platform and recently denounced Planned Parenthood for offering contraceptive services, is among those who has admitted being a customer of Palfrey's prostitution service, known as Pamela Martin Associates. Palfrey was based in California, and was about to retire to Germany when prosecuted.

Madsen, who publishes on a subscription-only website, prefaced his question by describing sex procurement for officials, sometimes relying on financially pressed escorts who are part-timers in Washington's influence-buying scene. He cited the suicide death of Palfrey's  part-time employee Brandi Britton and the 2009 federal sentencing of former CIA third-in-command Kyle "Dusty" Foggo for contractor corruption facilitated by prostitutes and poker games attended by the corrupt Congressman Randy "Duke Cunningham, R-CA), who is now serving a prison term. Madsen cited also the mysterious death in 2003 of Jonathan Luna, a Maryland-based federal prosecutor who was investigating the Palfrey escort services and their ties to officials. Abramoff, described by defenders has having a strong foundation in family and civic organizations aside from his business, said he did not procure sex for officials.

Next Steps

In general, Abramoff praised federal prosecutors for their diligence and said that if they haven't brought charges against lobbyists or officials it is not for failure to investigate. He said the basic problem faced by prosecutors is that current law is inadequate to remedy the scope of the problems facing Washington and the rest of the country. He said he has appeared on more than 300 radio stations since publication of his book in November to propound his message.

After Abramoff's talk ended he lingered to answer additional questions. He told those gathered around him that he remains a conservative but is not not involved in politics and, as a convicted felon, cannot vote. Also, he said that he hopes to pick up the pieces of his life and career by returning to the film industry, where he enjoyed success in the 1980s in tandem with his then-ascendant career in politics and law.

"He's got great presence and charisma," commented one longtime reporter in confidence after watching Abramoff in action. "He should be in film and on TV as an actor fighting crime. He'd be terrific at that."

 

Contact the author Andrew Kreig or comment
 

Relevant News Reports

Update: Huffington Post, Jack Abramoff Does Not Know How He Will Pay Back $44 Million, Will Not Go On 'Dancing With The Stars,' Arin Greenwood. March 20, 2012. Jack Abramoff is sitting in a Starbucks just south of Dupont Circle. He is not wearing his infamous black hat. Or any hat at all. He is just another guy in a button-down at a computer with an iced tea and an iPhone that rings a lot. One who served some three and a half years in prison for crimes relating to his work as a lobbyist and who owes $44 million in restitution for defrauding his Indian tribe clients.

Jack Abramoff, NPC, PennimanSunlight Foundation, Abramoff: 'You've got to trust me,' Kathy Kiely, March 6, 2012. (National Press Club Photo at left by Noel St. John, portrayng Jack Abramoff and United Republic President Nick Penniman). Over the weekend, Jack Abramoff disputed one of our blog posts. Since the convicted former lobbyist neither responded to our call for comment before publication nor called us afterwards to point out what he said was our error, we decided to catch up with him Monday night at the National Press Club to ask a few questions. It was an intriguing evening that featured the disgraced ex-lobbyist trying to out-reform the reformers as well as a potentially explosive allegation that Abramoff had a potential business partner in the Washington press corps. The setting was a panel on campaign finance reform that drew more than 100 people, and that began with a moderator's plea for civility and a beefy security guard taking a conspicuous position at the front of the room.  Abramoff appeared unruffled by the presence of a small group of Native Americans, there to represent tribes he bilked, staring implacably at him from the front row. (A court has ordered partial restitution of the more than $45 million in fees that Abramoff and business partner Michael Scanlon collected from casino-owning tribes.)

Huffington Post, Jack Abramoff Confronted By Native American Tribes, Paul Blumenthal, March 7, 2012. On Monday night, the National Press Club played host to the country's most infamous lobbyist, Jack Abramoff. Sitting in the front row were Tom Rodgers, Rick Hill and other members of American Indian tribes. They had come to deliver a message not just to Abramoff, but to official Washington: Abramoff's crimes against Native American tribes will not be forgotten. They are angry that while the convicted felon reinvents himself as a Washington reformer, advocacy groups and the media seek out his views and largely ignore the Native American tribes who were his biggest victims. "Native Americans see him as nothing more than a modern-day Custer," Rodgers, a Washington-based tribal lobbyist, told The Huffington Post. Rodgers, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, and Hill, the former chairman of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, were instrumental in unraveling Abramoff's criminal activities.

WMR, Convicted former GOP super-lobbyist denies past ties to DC call girl ring, Wayne Madsen, March 6, 2012 (Subscription required). Convicted former Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who once regaled members of Congress with golf trips to Scotland, fancy meals at his downtown Washington restaurant, and $975 courtside tickets at Washington Wizards basketball games, denied he was ever involved in providing sex escorts for politicians or their staff members.

Jewish Journal, Abramoff talks about the Talmud and bribing politicians, Brad A. Greenberg, March 11, 2012. Jack Abramoff, the former superlobbyist who spent three and a half years in federal prison for conspiring to bribe lawmakers, is visiting American Jewish University in Los Angeles on April 1 to talk about political reform. Abramoff has been making the rounds and promoting his new book, “Capitol Punishment.” The Jewish Journal‘s Jonah Lowenfeld caught up with the Beverly Hills High graduate recently. Here’s what he had to say:  Abramoff believes corrupt lawmakers — and the lobbyists who seek to influence them by improper means — don’t see anything wrong with what they’re doing. He should know — he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong, either. “You’ll hear from Congressmen, ‘A $2,000 contribution isn’t going to buy my vote.’ ‘A meal isn’t going to buy my vote,’ ” Abramoff said, the table between us bare but for his laptop computer. “But we learn, in fact, from the Talmud that they’re wrong.” Abramoff, 53, has been an observant, Orthodox Jew since he was 12, so it’s not surprising that he points to a talmudic source as part of his new campaign against bribery of public officials. But while he was showering legislators with gifts, Abramoff believed he wasn’t on the wrong side of Jewish law, as the Torah restriction on bribery focuses only on judges. “Legislators,” Abramoff said, “I never thought or considered them to be judges.”

Justice Integrity Project, Texas Judge Finally Recuses In Gambling Casino Case, Andrew Kreig, July 16, 2011. A Texas federal judge removed herself from a major political corruption case five years after defendants moved for her recusal, thereby clarifying federal law on the due process right of litigants to a fair judge. The decision by U.S. District Judge Alia Moses of Del Rio to withdraw at the request of three defendants accused of looting their state’s only legalized gambling facility helps underscore aberrations around the nation when judges insist on deciding cases despite clear-cut law. Other recusal disputes fester right up to the Supreme Court.

Washington Post, Obama’s sin is not hypocrisy but naivete, Ruth Marcus, March 9, 2012. Steve Ricchetti is a once and, no doubt, future lobbyist. So it was inevitable that Vice President Biden’s decision to hire Ricchetti as a senior adviser would prompt howls about Obama administration hypocrisy. After all, it had pledged to keep lobbyists out of its White House, and now it was bringing in one of the city’s top you-know-whats. Make that former you-know-whats: Ricchetti, cleansing himself of the supposed sin of lobbying, had dropped his lobbyist registration shortly before the start of the Obama administration — though he remained head of the, yes, lobbying firm he founded with his lobbyist brother. President Obama’s self-imposed ban on lobbyists delivered on a campaign pledge adopted in the aftermath of the seamy Jack Abramoff scandal. I’m not arguing that lobbyists are candidates for sainthood — just that they are not the demons of popular, and Obama campaign, imagination.

Alabama Cases

Legal Schnauzer, Alabama's Long Bingo Nightmare Is Over, But We Still Need Accountability, Roger Shuler, March 8, 2012. One of the most embarrassing episodes in the history of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) ended yesterday when a federal jury found that all defendants in the Alabama bingo trial were not guilty. The jury clearly reached the correct verdict--and after two trials and a months-long, anti-bingo crusade led by former Governor Bob Riley--citizens might be tempted to say, "Whew, thank God that's over."

But the public should resist such a response, no matter how understandable it might be. That's because officials who were responsible for bringing this bogus case should be held accountable, either through an internal DOJ investigation or a Congressional review. Better yet, we hope the defendants can uncover some uncomfortable truths, and seek significant damages, with one or more massive lawsuits--perhaps through the civil provisions under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

If any of this shines unflattering light on the Obama administration, so be it. The president has either adopted many of George W. Bush's wrong-headed notions on justice--or turned a blind eye on his predecessor's corrupt activities--so now it's time for Eric Holder and company to "enjoy" some scrutiny under a white hot light. If it costs Obama the 2012 election . . . well, tough beans. The president has repeatedly proven that he is not deserving of progressives' support anyway.

The Alabama bingo investigation/trial was a disgrace from the outset, and the public deserves answers on why millions of its dollars were wasted on a sideshow designed to help Alabama Republicans. Obama has had almost four years to do the right thing on the justice front--to return us to a nation governed by the rule of law--and he has failed at every turn. He and his "justice department" deserve to be exposed.

WHNT-TV NEWS 19 of Huntsville, Alabama, The jury has announced verdicts in the state bingo trial, March 7, 2012. The jury found all defendants NOT guilty of all charges. The defendants are Milton McGregor, lobbyist Tom Coker, former State Senator Larry Means, Senator Jim Preuitt, Senator Harri Anne Smith and Jay Walker. All are now cleared.

Milton McGregorJustice Integrity Project, Alabama Gambling Leader Claims DOJ Misconduct; Top Prosecutor Quits, Andrew Kreig, Jan. 20, 2012.  Facing retrial Jan. 30 on federal corruption charges, Alabama’s top promoter of legalized gambling alleges that the elite Justice Department unit prosecuting him illegally suppressed evidence during his first trial last summer. Meanwhile, that unit’s deputy chief suddenly resigned this month under mysterious circumstances. Victoryland bingo parlor owner Milton McGregor’s willingness to hit back hard at federal prosecutors in this week’s filing could presage even more explosive allegations. McGregor is at right. Also, the sudden resignation of DOJ’s Public Integrity Section Deputy Chief Justin Shur shortly before his scheduled leadership of the McGregor retrial heightens confusion, at best, within DOJ’s anti-corruption unit. Known by the acronym “PIN,” it is led by Chief John "Jack" Smith under the overall leadership of DOJ Criminal Division Assistant Attorney Gen. Lanny Breuer and Attorney Gen. Eric Holder.

Justice Integrity Project, Conservative George Will Urges Review of Siegelman Convictions, Andrew Kreig, Feb. 12, 2012. Conservative commentator George Will published Feb.12 a nationally syndicated column urging the Supreme Court to reconsider the corruption convictions of Democratic former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman. This represents a breakthrough in the national media’s treatment of Siegelman’s 2006 convictions. Siegelman was Alabama’s governor from 1999 to 2003 and the state’s most prominent Democrat until the eve of his convictions in a second federal trial. He, his supporters and our Justice Integrity Project have ascribed his investigation by Republicans beginning in 1999 largely to a politically motivated frame-up first by Alabama Republicans controlling the Attorney General’s office and then the Bush Justice Department that’s been carried forward by co-opted successors in the Obama administration.

 

Books By or About Jack Abramoff

Abramoff, Jack. Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist. WND, 2011.

Susan Bradford CoverBradford, Susan. Lynched! The Shocking Story of How the Political Establishment Manufactured a Scandal to Have Republican Super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. CreateSpace, 2011 (portrayed at left).

Chafetz, Gary S. The Perfect Villain: John McCain and the Demonization of Lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Martin & Lawrence, 2008.

Stone, Peter H. Casino Jack and the United States of Money: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff and the Buying of Washington. Melville House, 2010; Updated from Heist: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies, and the Buying of Washington. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.