Infamous former lobbyist Jack Abramoff claims to be a changed man. After making millions of dollars manipulating the system, Abramoff, who was once chairman of the College Republican National Committee and close friends with ex–House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, is now working with liberal lions like Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig and good-government groups to reform the practices that made him immensely wealthy and influential—and ended up sending him to prison for 43 months. As the author of the book Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist and the host of a radio show on XM Satellite Radio, Abramoff has made it his personal mission since his release to spread the word about his past wrongdoing in an effort, he says, to do recompense. City & State Editor Morgan Pehme asks Abramoff if all lobbyists are dishonest, how the system can be improved, whether it’s naive to think that it can be and why anyone should trust him given his history. What follows is an edited transcript.
City & State: Is the system of lobbying in our country inherently corrupt or is our government populated by corrupt people who take advantage of a system that is vulnerable?
Jack Abramoff: I think the system is corrupt in a very refined way. It’s not crudely corrupt like it used to be where it was not at all a bother to anyone that someone would walk into an office such as Lyndon Johnson’s when he was the Senate Majority Leader and hand him a sack of cash. That was the old days. Now it’s much more refined and more polite, but it’s certainly corrupt. So the system is corrupt, but I don’t think the people view themselves as corrupt. I didn’t view myself as doing anything wrong in that respect and that’s the problem; that it’s commonplace to engage in, in essence, bribery because no one is trained to think of it as bribery. And so I think most people in the system are good people but they are in a system that itself in its core is corrupt and certainly many, many, many take full advantage within the boundaries of the law and some, like I, go over the law, over the boundaries. It’s not necessary to go over the boundaries, but even within those boundaries there’s tremendous capacity for corruption and for acting despicably.
CS: So you are saying that there are good people who are lobbyists and that you can be a lobbyist and not engage in practices that are unethical or unsavory.
JA: The short answer is yes. Most lobbyists are very good people. Most congressmen are good people. They’re in a system where this is legal, this is normal, this is okay. People outside the Beltway don’t think it’s normal, but they’re very insulated in Washington. They really only listen to themselves on this issue. But in terms of being a lobbyist and not engaging in the use of financial resources to influence people, which is the essence of the problem, yeah, you can do that, as long as you’re not up against a lobbyist who is doing that. Once you are up against a lobbyist who is doing that, nine times out of 10 you’re going to lose, and so as a consequence you wind up with everybody who wants to be at the upper, top level engaging in it.
CS: So does legislation ever get past in Washington on its merits?
JA: Well, very few pieces of legislation get passed in Washington and this has been the case since the parties became much more hardened into their ideological positions. I’m not certain it’s a bad thing, by the way, because I’m not certain that much of what they want to do to the country should be done. I wrote a column about this—I have a controversial opinion about this, though for me, everything I do is controversial—but my view is I hope they don’t get along. When they get along, we all suffer. When they get along they pass taxes and spending and dumb invasive rules and criminal laws and all sorts of other stuff that basically make us miserable as a country. There’s very little they do that really solves problems… Most things that they pass are basically political plums for their favored interest and this is true on both sides, so not doing things is a good thing as far as I’m concerned…. Are any good laws passed? Yeah, things can get passed, but the problem is they get passed, but if they’re a “moving train” as it’s called—a piece of legislation that’s going to get to its destination—there are all sorts of folks looking at that to try to throw some things into some of the box cars when nobody’s looking, or if it’s something that’s reform-oriented they’ll water it down so much that it really is meaningless. For example, the STOCK Act that was recently passed to address the problem of insider trading. Well, the way to address that problem is to prohibit anybody who is on Capitol Hill, member or staffer, from engaging in any trading, period. Every asset they have should be put into a blind trust, something that is administered in a public fashion away from them, and they can keep their assets, but that should be the case. And I’m against lifetime legislators anyway. So for the period that they’re there, that should be the case. That’s the reform they need. Instead the reform they have is that if they do trading they just have to let us know. So what? You let us know. And then what? There’s no consequence to it. So, I let you know. I bought some stock. And? So that’s the problem. Even good legislation unfortunately often becomes perverted because of the system.
CS: That’s basically how you’ve depicted the legislation that was enacted in the wake of your scandal to reform the lobbying laws—that baked into the cake were all these ways to circumvent the rules. Is that just par for the course?
JA: Absolutely. That’s exactly what they do. When they have a crisis, especially related to them, they will move expeditiously to pass something to make it seem as though they’ve solved it. The STOCK Act as well. To make it seem like, ‘Oh, we took care of that problem, that problem is done,’ and then they don’t want to talk about it any more. So if it’s raised again, ‘Oh, we passed that, why are you raising that?’ That’s the problem with these guys. They know what they’re doing, by the way. This isn’t some hapless bumbling bunch of idiots. They know how to handle their own business and ensure that their perquisites continue. The main reason is that the reform groups have an attitude that they just want scraps from the table. ‘Give us something, make little baby steps.’ And I think the lot of them feel that they’re sort of getting there, but they’re really not getting anywhere at the end of the day, because, if I wanted to, I could go back right now and reassemble 99 percent of what I did, be completely within the law, change a few things, and be on my way. And that’s the problem.
CS: Aren’t good government groups just going for this kind of incremental change based upon a realistic evaluation of what can actually be accomplished?
JA: There’s no question that that is exactly what they are doing. The problem is you can’t approach this like that. You got to approach this as saying 300 million people in this country, every part of this country except for the Beltway of Washington, agrees that this system is crazy. So change the paradigm. Don’t play in Washington. Organize the army and come to Washington with an army. That’s how I lobbied, anyway. I would organize big vast groups of citizens to basically pound these guys when I was lobbying. So my thinking is always along those lines. I am working with a group, by the way, we are going to do that, we’re trying to do it. The problem is it actually isn’t so simple anyway. As we actually get into the details of this, because of free speech, because of the courts and other things – in my book I advocated, for example, for a complete closing of the revolving door between public service in government and cashing in and basically what I wondered was if you served in the Congress or in the staff you couldn’t ever become a lobbyist, a lobbyist redefined, not a lobbyist as currently defined, because a lobbyist as currently defined, the truth is I’m not sure I was a lobbyist…. But if you’re working on Capitol Hill you can’t ever become somebody who has to register as a lobbyist. Now I’m told, we have constitutional scholars working on this, Trevor Potter and his team, and they say you can’t do it, can’t make a lifetime ban, employment ban in the United States – it’s just not legal. All right, so I said 10 years from your last check to your next position, so we’re playing with that. I wanted to cut out all money given by lobbyists to congressmen, and their clients, no money, can’t do that either. So we’re going to do $100 per cycle. Okay. So, it’s de minimus. Even as we get through these things, the reform groups, a lot of them, certainly the progressive folks, their dream is to have public financing for campaigns. That is anathema for conservatives. Nothing will pass if it’s not supported equally on the right and the left. So I am in these discussions with the guys on the right, telling at least what conservatives will accept. They want something that will democratize the elections, and expand the base of finance, and they’re concerned, for example, that congressmen won’t have adequate money to run their races if the special interest money goes away. I point out to them, since they don’t have the kind of hands-on experience that I have with congressmen, that I would hardly worry about congressmen finding money. I think that like a fish goes to water, congressmen will find money, don’t worry about that, but that’s not adequate. So we’re trying to find some method of democratizing giving that is sufficiently acceptable to conservatives and is something that’s enough for them. I don’t know if we will. We’re trying. So working through these things—and we’ve been working for months—to come up with a piece of legislation that is incredibly, aggressively, radically bold. Solving all of these major corruption issues and corruption is a very big issue politically, as you know. Gallup just did a poll showing that corruption is the number 2 issue after jobs. I was personally surprised – happy, but surprised. Maybe not completely surprised, because in my travels and speaking and shows I’m doing have shown me that. I’ve yet to encounter anybody who agrees with the Beltway culture on this. So harnessing the vast army of angry Americans out there is the paradigm that many are thinking about, not the ‘let’s get the best we can get from the guys who benefit from this system.’ If you have that attitude, you will never get a change. Because they’re not about to willingly give away the perquisites of their royal lifestyle. Why would they? And their future, by the way, because my experience is that 90 percent of them wanted to become lobbyists.
CS: I was reading about what you’re doing with Trevor Potter and Lawrence Lessig, and it brought me back to the debates that we’ve had in New York about independent redistricting and campaign finance reform, and it always seems like when you’re trying to implement legislation that is inherently acting against the self-interest of legislators, it is the least likely to get passed.
JA: Well, it’s only possible to get it passed if you have a several election cycle plan. And that plan has to include in the first several cycles defeating as many people as possible based on this legislation. They only care about losing their job. At the end of the day you can’t say, ‘I won’t give you money.’ I never as a lobbyist said to a congressman, ‘If you don’t do what I want I won’t contribute to you.’ First of all, how crass would that have been? But, second of all, they don’t care. They could stumble out of their office and come across fifteen people wanting to hand them checks. Money is not the issue. Losing their seat is the issue. Now, if we posit a piece of legislation that removes the capacity of lobbyist and special interests to bribe them, with money, and ends the revolving door effectively, and does other like measures, and they will not sign on to this bill, and their opponent pledges that they will sign on to this bill, if I’m that opponent, I’m running against them in the following way: ‘Congressman Smith, please explain to us why you won’t agree not to take bribes. Please explain why you won’t agree not to cash in. Just explain it to us, please.’ Now how do you explain that? So who are they taking the bribes from? Lobbyists, that people loathe, anyone, or special interests. I mean, lobbyist and special interest are two of the most pejorative terms you can apply to someone in the American political lexicon. So what we’re trying to do is to frame a capacity for challengers – and incumbents, if their challenger is on the other side – to win their elections based on just the positioning. But number two, we’re going to go into these races, we’re going to raise money and go try to beat people. I don’t know if we’ll pull it off because we’re just running out of time, but our hope was to go after a half dozen in this cycle, fifty in the next cycle, and then in the next cycle we feel we’ll have their attention.
CS: You have said that when you were lobbying you had significant influence on the offices of 100 members of the Congress. If this culture of corruption is so pervasive, even if you pick off 10 incumbents, that’s not a sea change.
JA: Let’s say a half dozen the first time out incumbents. That’ll be an interesting news item. It will give us the momentum, though, to build up the war chest to go after fifty incumbents. Fifty incumbents? If we got 30 of them, that is the major story of the election. If we got all of them, that’s as big as any tsunami that hits Capitol Hill. At that point, most members of Congress, who are decent people by the way, they don’t want to be beholden to special interests or lobbyists, even if they’re their friends, and I know this from my relationships on Capitol Hill. Nobody felt that they were in a corrupt relationship with me. I didn’t feel I was in a corrupt relationship with them. But if it were refocused and reframed and all of a sudden public and it was part of their race, there was not one member of Congress who would have chosen me over their constituents. Not one. Even my closest friends. Not one. Even Bob Ney, who arguably was at least publicly the most corrupted by our largesse. Even he, none of them, I’ve yet to meet that congressman. Maybe Duke Cunningham, I don’t know. I met him, but I didn’t deal with him. I believe that the goal is based on our life experiences. Based on my life experience with these people, this kind of plan, if executed properly and not completely even, but just effectively, maybe in large part this will get this issue right in front of the Congress. Now the other thing we’re doing which we’ll say it’s easy to do it now, before we have actually drafted the bill even, we’re demanding utter and complete loyalty to the legislation we draft. We’re demanding, among other things, that they pledge not to allow any amendments, including technical amendments, so we’re trying to put the bill into a perfect form if we can and the reason we do that is because of years, decades of experience watching and helping technical changes destroy a bill. A comma can destroy a bill. So nothing, not a period on an ‘i,’ not a crossing of a ‘t.’ Zero. That is the commitment, and if you don’t give us that commitment, you’re the enemy of this effort. The end.
CS: Sounds like you’ve adopted a Grover Norquist tactic with his no new tax pledge.
JA: What I say to my progressive friends is don’t look at that issue, look at the mechanism. It was utterly and completely effective. Now, there is this meme out there against pledges and it’s such a silly place. They always focus on kind of the titles and details of something instead of looking at the essence of it. So we are not doing a pledge, as a consequence, because people are allergic to pledges. It’s the most idiotic thing in the world to me, but all right, whatever. And so we’re trying to just basically say, ‘Look, congressmen are not going to not talk about what they are going to do if they are elected.’ Are congressmen going to say like Supreme Court Justices, ‘I can’t tell you how I’m going to rule on anything?’ Of course not. They talk all the time about it and we’re going to make them focus on this and hopefully get them to talk about it in a way that they are supportive. Whether we’re going to get someone to sign a pledge? I doubt it.
CS: Is lobbying at the state level any less tainted than at the federal level?
JA: In some cases, it’s better. In some cases, it’s worse. Some states like Kentucky have put in as a consequence of the scandal some fairly draconian measures to keep a strict regime. In others, like Georgia, it’s legal for lobbyists to give any gift they want to a legislator.
CS: You have said that you feel like there’s something inherently corrupt about donations to candidates. That it’s essentially a form of bribery.
JA: If you’re asking for something, yeah. If you’re just Joe Citizen and you wanted to give to a candidate, God bless you.
CS: Well, if there are all these restrictions from the courts on being able to turn off the spigot of big money donations, how do you think we should address substantive campaign finance reform in a way that would be palatable?
JA: I think that the courts would probably be okay with an approach that if you’re lobbying – we’re already in an America with the notion that you can forgo certain rights by accessing other options. You can opt out. For example, you can forgo your free speech rights by opting to get security clearance. So American law is rife with this notion that you can trade your rights, so what we’re positing is that nobody forces somebody to lobby or take something from the government. Nobody had a gun to my head at any point. If you opt to be a lobbyist or hire a lobbyist, fine. No problem, you have that right to petition the government, but by accessing that right your free speech right in this manifestation of it is now reduced. You’re reduced to $100. So we think this will survive this court…. What the court said is that you can’t just across the board have a diminution of free speech. You can’t do that. This isn’t across the board. This is a very specific group of people who have chosen some other benefit that they want and so trading the benefits is what we’re basing this on.
CS: For lobbyists who want to avoid the path that you went down and do their job in an honest and respectable way, what advice would you offer?
JA: If the playing field gets leveled then it’s very simple…. Just learn what the rules are and don’t break any of them…. Try not to do something you don’t want to read about in the front page of the paper. Until the playing field gets leveled, it’s the same advice, but there’s also, unfortunately, a reality there, which is you may not be able to compete with the guys that are playing by those rules, but don’t care what they read in the paper, because it’s legal.
CS: It seems like there isn’t any incentive to play by the rules then, because then you’re going to be left behind.
JA: That’s one of the reasons these rules have got to get changed. If something is legal, how do you explain to someone who is aggressive that it’s perfectly legal to avail yourself of this, but it’s not polite? Polite? In American politics? In Washington, D.C.? Unfortunately our politics is long past the polite stage. So that’s how the rules have to be changed. We can’t rely on people’s decency and common sense. If it’s legal, it’s legal. If it’s not illegal, it’s not illegal. Now a lot of people still don’t do it, even though it’s legal—most lobbyists don’t do it, by the way—estimates of how many lobbyists there are varies wildly, but it’s anywhere from 10- to 30,000—say it’s 10,000—of the 10,000 certainly less than 10 percent are engaged in active giving of money. Grover [Norquist] actually did an analysis. It was very interesting. In 1997, I think it was. In conjunction with the then what was called the K Street project, which was something he was active in, and DeLay was. I was accused of being, I was actually hostile to the project…. I was more extreme than they were, because I thought if Republicans got jobs on K Street and they didn’t give money to the Republicans and raise money for the Republicans, that that was worse, because at least Democrats on K Street got the joke. They knew what to do with their money and they knew who was in power. The Republicans are just useless, so I thought the project was, for the wrong reasons, a bad idea. Anyway… [Norquist] took the FEC contribution list, and he took the LDA list, the Lobbying Disclosure Act list, and he cross-referenced them. And he created a list of all lobbyists and how much money they get. And it was shocking. I think in those days you could give a maximum of 75,000 per person. There were probably a half dozen – I was one of them – who gave a maximum of 75,000. Most lobbyists gave virtually no money. Some of them, because they were cheap. Lots of them, because they were cheap. But some of them, because they use money in the system. But if I came up against a lobbyist like that in a lobbying effort I’d smash their skulls in. It wouldn’t even be fair. It would be like the New York Giants playing some kindergarten kickball team. That’s a problem. That’s the problem.
CS: Among the ills that you were in involved in was not just that you were the master of this toxic culture of lobbying, but that you were actually at the vanguard of the type of politics in this country that is so polarizing – winner take all, driven by ideology, my opponents are the enemy – and I was wondering about that dimension of your work and what is your reflection upon it?
JA: My analysis of my opponents as the enemy was much more a reflection of my college days and my youth and immaturity. I don’t believe that people who are politically opposed to me are the enemy. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe, as many conservatives do, that [liberals] are evil, deranged, that they’re mentally ill – literally, I think most conservatives think this. Look, I grew up in Beverly Hills, I went to Brandeis, I spent my whole life among liberals. I don’t dislike liberals. I don’t like liberalism…because I just think that it is illogical and it doesn’t fit humanity. The nostrums of liberalism don’t work. The insistence on the part of liberals, sometimes in the same manner, by the way – a harsh and strident manner – and many times today even more so that than the right, that their solutions are absolutely from heaven, as much as the right feels that way, is what gets us this problem. But here’s the difficulty that we have. We have a very divided country. The division is not insignificant. The division is basically that a group a people believes that the government is the worst solution to the problems and should be the last solution to problems. That taxation has to be extremely low and government services have to be paid entirely by, say, a low flat tax, call it 10 percent, and that anything else that violates the economics of the Laffer curve doesn’t make economic sense, doesn’t make logical sense, is immoral, and creates an atmosphere where a totalitarian state can start to rise up, as it has throughout all of recent history, all over the world, including in very civil places. We don’t want that here. That’s one side. And therefore any action that moves us in that direction is not only something that we do not support, but something we’re terrified of. That’s one side. The other side says the government is not the enemy, government can help solve problems, that it’s not fair that somebody should make a billion dollars a year and somebody should make a dollar a year. That’s not fair, and that the government or government state action can equal that playing field. That’s a playing field that should be equal and the government can do it. And, you know, all the attendant other philosophies. Now, these are the essences of the two camps at this point. These two camps can’t agree on almost anything. So the polarization is not necessarily only driven be the politicos, but in fact the culture of the country. The country is extremely divided, and not likely, by the way, to become undivided. And so therefore we are undoubtedly going to go through a period of Republican-Democrat-Republican-Democrat gridlock, et cetera. And nothing will get done. That will be the reality of the country. The problem is we’re not going to solve our big problems, but the solutions to our big problems – the conservatives want to solve the debt problem by stopping the expenditure of the government, selling off the governments assets, like if you’re a debtor, I owe $10 million, ok, the bank comes in, sees I have a bunch of land, sell it, pay your debt, and stop spending your money, that’s conservatives. Lower the taxes so we can get more tax revenue. The liberals on the other side have a different approach to that. Even if I was a strident politico trying to create battles and wars, which I’m not by the way, I spend as much time on MSNBC as I do on FOX these days. and I’m working with progressive groups. I believe personally that I’m doing what I can do, to bridge those things that are bridgeable, and I think this is one of the bridgeable issues by the way. The left and the right both hate the bribery thing. They hate that. They hate the revolving door, and so my attitude is where we can get together, let’s get together, and let’s do something and it probably will affect so many other things. But in terms of the general division of the country, I don’t see that going anywhere.
CS: How would you address the people who question your motivations, pointing out that you’ve been very adept at exploiting systems to your own advantage?
JA: I can’t make any money off it, really. What do I have to do? I have to make money to pay off my restitution and support my family. I could go back and be a lobbyist, by the way. I’ve had offers aplenty. I had an offer yesterday to go back and be a lobbyist. I could make a fortune as a lobbyist. I know exactly how to lobby. I know how to do it within the rules. I could do it easily. And, by the way, at some level, because I’m not as financially well – it’s difficult for us financially, very difficult, I don’t know where next month’s rent comes from, I don’t – it is a big financial temptation, but I changed my philosophy about it and so I can’t – and I never did something I disagreed with. I never took a client I disagreed with. I was offered millions of dollars to take Saudi Arabia. I turned it down. China. Turned it down. Others that are less famous or infamous, but so in terms of the criticism that I have somehow come out and am taking advantage of this, I want to go and if I can, help solve the problem. I didn’t always want to do this. When I was in prison at the beginning, I wanted to just go away, do my time and that’s it, heal my family and go away. And in part it was the Hill OGA bill and other reform efforts in my wake that angered me and led me to believe – look, I know things about this system that nobody else who knows these is now on this side. The people on this side don’t know this stuff. They don’t know really what they’re up against. I know what they’re up against. I was what they were up against, and so I decided at great cost, by the way, to some remaining friends who are lobbyists who are not thrilled about what I am doing, and others who criticize not because I’m somehow taking advantage of them, but because they know that there’s a chance that if I can help move things along there might be a problem for these guys, and they attack me vociferously. I don’t care. After you’ve spent 43 months in prison you could hardly care what a lobbyist has to say about you. It’s not exactly a threat. So, my normal response is when people say, ‘How do we know we can trust you?’ My response is: ‘Should it matter to me whether you trust me? Why? I’m not selling you something.’ I guess I have a book out there. Fine, so don’t buy my book…. Otherwise, what am I going for here? There’s no money in this. Am I going to build a career of fame based on my reform efforts? Show me anybody else in the reform movement who’s done that and I’ll answer you that. I’m doing this because I think it’s right. I’m doing this because I need to do it. I was part of that system. Once I realized that I was wrong, once I realized that the system was wrong – I don’t want to claim that I got on a horse like Maximus and I was going to ride to Rome, no, first I just wanted to go away – but it ate at me in prison and I decided, I talked to my family, and I said, ‘Listen, I’m going to get attacked again, but I can’t just live out the rest of my life like this. I’ve got to try.’ We might not make it. The odds are we won’t. The system’s been going for a hundred years and so overcoming it is unlikely, but at least I wanted to say I did everything I could, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
Tags: Alfred E. Newman, and Urban Policy, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, Do As I Say, Federal Elections Commission, Jack Abramoff, Jeff Smith, Management, Milano Graduate School of International Affairs, Morgan Pehme
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