Before the late aughts, the term "lobbyist" evoked an image of thousands of pinstriped cowboys using sheaves of greenback-stuffed envelopes to corral cash-eating congressmen on the floor of the U.S. Capitol. Then came the sprawling Jack Abramoff scandals, and a single fedora-clad icon became the picture of Washington corruption -- a political gunslinger whose flair and balls-out-ness made him stand out from his fellow ruffians on K Street.
Though there have been other well-known D.C. wranglers like Bob Livingston and Haley Barbour, the words "super-lobbyist" and "Abramoff" are basically synonyms. Eventually pleading guilty to felony charges of defrauding American Indian tribes and of public corruption, he went to prison for more than three years -- and he brought more than a few politicians and professional influence-peddlers into the slammer with him. Released to a halfway house in 2010, Abramoff just published a book titled "Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist."
Abramoff recently agreed to an interview about his book with me on my daily drive-time radio program on KKZN-AM760 in Colorado. During our conversation (full audio podcast here), Abramoff discussed his crimes, but admitted that if he had not been caught, he would still likely be a criminal making bank in the nation's capital. He also expounded on the psychology of Washington, describing how even the most corrupt lawmakers tell themselves that their vote selling is in pursuit of a higher goal. And he offered up his ideas to clean up the system.
Is Abramoff sincerely reformed? Or is this new Abramoff all just a P.R. façade to rehabilitate his image? Or is it a mix of the two? Read the edited transcript of our discussion below and decide for yourself.
Your book looks at a lot of, as the subtitle says, the hard truths about Washington corruption. Are you saying that you’ve had a genuine “see the light” moment where you understand the corruption that you were a part of, or are you saying that this can be fixed and that once it’s fixed we can still have super-lobbyists like the next Jack Abramoff?
I don’t think we ought to have super-lobbyists of any kind, frankly. Lobbying is not a bad thing. I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t have lobbyists or we shouldn’t have lobbying to petition our government. It’s in the Constitution, and it’s something that should be honorable and good. I think what happens is that, because money gets mixed into the play over there, we wind up viewing lobbyists and lobbying very negatively, including the stuff I was involved in. I guess what I’m trying to do is expose some light on (a) what I was involved in and (b) what is still going on to some degree and how lobbyists think and how they approach things and why things are messed up and maybe some remedies for what one can do about it.
You famously pleaded guilty to three criminal felony counts related to the defrauding of American Indian tribes and to the corruption of public officials. Is this kind of thing, in your estimation, still going on? How systemic is it? How many people like the person you once were are still operating in Washington? Is this something that’s the norm rather than the exception?
Well, I think what happened with my situation was that it was sort of the first time the media had an opportunity to peer inside the sausage factory and see what was going on, because of the way my emails were released publicly ... I think they got a picture like they never got before there, and unfortunately for me, I was deeply involved in that world.
What happens that what's legal is bigger in my view than what’s illegal. There aren’t a lot of people breaking the law. You don’t need to break the law. The laws are written in a way that, frankly, the lines are so skewed that you can operate very corruptly within the law for a very long time. I happened to break the law. I happened to be the type who pushed every envelope until I was well over the border of the envelope, but most lobbyists aren’t like that. They will operate happily within the law.
At some level, unfortunately, corruption has seeped its way into even honest dealings there, where you have the exchange of gratuities, you have the exchange of contributions and money, and it’s not viewed as it should be, as bribery; it’s viewed as a polite way that business is done.
If you hadn’t been caught, if it hadn’t been such a big scandal nationally, would you be saying these things in public today?
I’m embarrassed to tell you I probably wouldn’t be [saying these things] and not only that I’d probably still be in there doing it. It took, for me, for better or for worse, it really took my head getting caved in for me to sit back and say, “Wait a minute, what was I doing here?”
At first, when the scandal started, I kind of went, “Oh this will blow over. This is nonsense. These things come and go,” and I thought it would be over in a couple weeks and that would be it. Then when it didn’t look like it was going to be over, for a short period of time I kind of had that typical “Why me? What am I doing differently than anybody else around here? I didn’t do anything that I didn’t learn from somewhere else, so why are you picking on me?”
Then that morphed as I started honestly looking into what I did and what I was involved in and the system that I, frankly, played so well. That morphed into, “Goodness, how could I not have seen this? How could I not have had a clearer head in terms of what I was doing?”
Unfortunately it didn’t until my head caved in. I’d love to be able to tell you that in the middle of it I realized it was bad and I stopped, but I’m not going to be dishonest. I’m going to tell you the truth that it, unfortunately for me, just didn’t happen like that.
As somebody who has been in the business that you were in, give us a sense of the basics of how it really works.
So basically what you have is, 90 percent of the lobbyists have worked on Capitol Hill. They’ve come to Washington to do good and serve the public, ostensibly, and they’ve made the journey through the revolving door. And they have become lobbyists, and they have a lot more money, and they have all these connections. They have connections to people they used to work with and friends who are still up there. And that’s by the way why they are hired, because of those connections, initially. They are also the people who know the process pretty well because they have worked up there.
So now a lobbying firm hires them, and a lobbying firm like mine supplements those relationships by making available to those folks tickets to ball games and restaurants, meals and travel, all sorts of trinkets of the business to enhance those relationships and enhance their access, because at the end of the day a lobbyist is nothing if they can’t get in. If you can’t get in to the decision maker to discuss an issue, what good are you to your clients?
So access is everything, and that’s where a lot of the bribery unfortunately takes place, because also attendant to that are the campaign contributions, raising money for these members of Congress, being an indispensable part of their fundraising team. That’s where lobbyists try to go.
Once you’ve accumulated this access, and ostensibly the firm has clients already or you find clients who have issues, you then approach these congressmen and staff that you’ve developed these relationships with. You’ll get the time on their schedule because you are their buddy or you are somebody taking them to the ball game or you are somebody who is raising money for them, and that’s an advantage over the common man out there or woman out there who can’t necessarily get this kind of access. You take advantage of that -- sit them down and go through your issue and try to get them to agree with you.
Now most of the time you are going to present them with something that they would naturally agree with anyway because you don’t want to have too heavy a lift here in terms of trying to change their mind. But getting them to do something that they might do anyway, ultimately, is still your job. And so the lobbyists' job is on behalf of the client: to push forward their issues with the access that they have, for right or for wrong. And that’s sort of the business.
When you look back on your career as a lobbyist, now with a new perspective on it, what are some of the things you were involved in that most illustrate the corruption of our government?
Well, you know, it’s an interesting question, and I don’t usually look back and think of highlights in that regard because I think the whole thing is the problem. But I’ll give you a story.
I had a congressman. I wanted to get him to help an Indian tribe in Texas. He was congressman Bob Ney from Ohio, and he was chairman of a committee, the House Administration Committee. They were putting through a bill called the Help America Vote Act, and I wanted to slip onto that bill legislation that our staff worded in a very oblique manner -- that was absolutely impossible to decipher what it meant -- which would have helped this tribe in Texas get their casino legalized again. And so I basically plied him with every manner of bribe in terms of meals and tickets and golf. I put him on a private jet and flew him to Scotland to play at St. Andrews and stayed with him and on him throughout the whole process.
We didn’t get it at the end of the day because of some other thing that was irrelevant to him, not related to him, but that is a sadly kind of typical example of what went on and how business was done by me and is unfortunately still being done by others.
What do you think is the solution to all of this corruption?
Before I went to prison I started to go back and [think of] the kind of world I was in and realized that I shouldn’t have been doing it. It was a process for me. It took a while to come to these realizations, as we discussed earlier. But while in prison, I frankly was already there. I started to think, as a lobbyist, what would I fight if I saw it as a reform. Most of the reforms are jokes that they put forward. There's silliness like you can’t eat sitting down, you can only eat standing up, and that kind of thing. So I came up with reforms in four areas.
No. 1: If you are a lobbyist, or you are a special interest, whoever that special interest is, you’re somebody who’s getting money or grants or whatever from the government -- not Social Security and things that we all get. But if you’re going to get a contract and you’re going to get a government relationship that isn’t appropriate or you’re lobbying them, you shouldn’t be able to give one dollar politically. You basically should be prohibited from giving any contribution politically to any federal member or anybody who is running for federal office. And in addition to that, you also can’t give any gratuity: a meal, tickets to ball games, nothing indirectly, directly, not even a glass of water. Basically, cut out entirely the bribe. And that’s what it is. It’s not polite to say it, but that’s what it is. It’s a bribe. Whenever you’re giving money or you’re conveying some financial interest to a person who works for the government, and you are lobbying to get things from them or you’re trying to get something from them, you’re bribing them, that’s it.
No. 2: The revolving door. If you’ve taken a job on Capitol Hill or you’re a member of Congress or the Senate, it’s a worthy thing, coming to serve the people of America. Once you’re done, go home. Don’t cash in, don’t become a lobbyist, don’t become a strategic advisor, don’t become a history professor, don’t become whatever euphemism they use. Go home. Go get a real job. Don’t stay around and cash in. Americans are sick and tired of the people who come to serve our country, coming in worth $20,000 and leaving worth $20,000,000.
No. 3 is term limits. I was never in favor of them as a lobbyist. I used every argument that every lobbyist uses against them except the real argument, by the way, which is that if you buy a congressmen you don’t want to have to buy that office again. So term limits are very important.
And No. 4 finally, and this we see with this insider-trading scandal, any law that Congress makes has to be applied to them as well as to us. They can’t have exemptions like the insider-trading laws and things like that where they can become rich while they throw other people in jail for doing the same things.
So let’s just be practical about this: A lobbyist represents General Electric. No General Electric employee can give any money to any member of Congress?
If General Electric is choosing, as they do, to get government grants or have government relationships, then yeah, that’s exactly right.
Let’s turn to the psychology of the typical member of Congress. As somebody who has done such extensive lobbying with these people, give us some insight on whether the run-of-the-mill typical lawmaker is eager to be part of a corrupt system, or typically resistant.
For 90 percent of them there’s some cognitive dissonance going on where they don’t even believe that they are being bribed. When they show up, before they are sworn in, they meet with their leadership. What does their leadership tell them? You’ve got to pay off your campaign debt. Here’s a group of people who have checks for you. Guess who those people are? The lobbyists.
So right from the beginning, before they are even sworn in, they are introduced to the lobbyists. They are introduced by their leadership, and this is both sides, by the way.
Now, some of them resist it. But ultimately people have to raise money for the most part from somebody, and often the easiest way to raise money is people who are in Washington handing out checks. They convince themselves that they are not doing anything wrong, and that feeds into the lobbyists. They don't have to sit there and convince lawmakers to take the money or convince them that they are moral or convince them that it’s not bribery. Nobody has to do that. Institutionally these guys all believe that everything is fine.
You are a devoted Jew, and Judaism has a very rich history of focusing on justice and a sense of fairness.You were somebody who became the avatar of an unjust system, a system that is not fair. While you were doing what you were doing before you went to jail, how did you square your actions with your own religious tradition?
We talked about members of Congress who felt they were doing the noble thing. Believe it or not, so did I. The money I made, 80 percent of it, my wife and I gave to charity. We were winning all the fights for clients that we loved, who had good causes. Our opponents were other lobbyists and folks that we didn’t like. So as I sat in the middle of that system, I didn’t see the forest for the trees, unfortunately, and so as a consequence I didn’t do the right thing. I regret it now. I look back and say, my goodness, what in the world was wrong with me? But the same intoxicating feeling that not only am I not doing bad, I’m doing good, I’m helping people, I’m helping others -- that unfortunately infused my world as well.