WASHINGTON — Jack Abramoff can’t say he wasn’t warned.
When the now-notorious lobbyist was a rising star as Republicans expanded their power in Washington, a concerned senior partner in his firm warned against his win-at-all-costs approach to business. “At the rate you’re going,” the boss said, “you’re either going to be dead, disgraced or in jail in five years.”
Abramoff writes in his autobiography, out Monday, that the line rang in his ears for the next decade, including the 3 1/2 years he spent in a federal penitentiary paying for his bribery of public officials and other crimes before his release last year.
The 52-year-old’s name has become a synonym for Washington corruption. The influence-peddling schemes he masterminded ultimately resulted in conviction of 20 people and changed federal lobbying laws.
But Abramoff says the reforms aren’t tough enough to keep special-interest power in check and, from his insider perspective, he lays out what more needs to be done.
He writes in “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist” that there still are plenty of corrupt lobbying practices that are perfectly legal.
Abramoff is now out of the lobbying business, but the father of five has returned to the home he shares with his wife in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Md., and is promoting the book, including an interview airing Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” Authorities have said in court filings they are looking into using the book proceeds to help repay a $23 million restitution order to his victims.
Abramoff became a lobbyist in 1994 after the Republican takeover of Congress, when firms were eager to hire help with conservative credentials. Abramoff was the former two-term chairman of the College Republican National Committee and executive director of President Ronald Reagan’s grassroots lobbying organization, Citizens for America, and rode the Republican bandwagon of power in the House.
He was especially close to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. He writes that the two bonded over their adherence to religion; Abramoff is an orthodox Jew, DeLay a born-again Christian. Abramoff got his clients to donate generously to DeLay, helping build the No. 2 House Republican’s power and giving himself an ally in a high office.
He built relationships with other congressional offices by collecting campaign cash for those who helped his clients. He charged high fees, but they were his ultimate undoing. He often charged $150,000 a month instead of an industry standard closer to $10,000 a month. It’s a practice he defends in his book because of the results he says he delivered.
The Washington Post in 2004 began a Pulitzer Prize-winning series investigating the tens of millions of dollars that American Indian tribal clients were paying Abramoff and his business partner, former DeLay spokesman Michael Scanlon, who provided grassroots organizing services.
It eventually was revealed that the two men were secretly kicking back profits to one another worth more than $20 million, and the Justice Department pursued felony charges.
Both pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with an investigation that would lead to the conviction of other lobbyists on Abramoff’s team, congressional figures including Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney and officials in the Bush administration.
Many of the lobbyists were convicted for winning favors for their clients after taking public officials out for meals at fancy restaurants and giving them tickets to sporting events and concerts. He ran his own restaurant on Pennsylvania Ave. between the Capitol and the White House that became a hangout for Ney and other Hill figures. Abramoff had skyboxes at all the Washington area venues and says the firm acted like Ticketmaster to Capitol Hill. The reform law passed in response makes it illegal for lobbyists to give those gifts.
But Abramoff dismisses the reforms as toothless. He says there are more effective ways to get powerbrokers to do a client’s bidding, particularly political contributions that he says should be banned from lobbyists or anyone receiving federal contracts or otherwise benefiting from public funds.
“As a lobbyist, I thought it only natural and right that my clients should reward those members who saved them such substantial sums with generous contributions. This quid pro quo became one of the hallmarks of our lobbying efforts,” Abramoff writes.
“What I did not consider then, and never considered until I was sitting in prison, was that contributions from parties with an interest in legislation are really nothing but bribes. Sure, it’s legal for the most part. Sure, everyone in Washington does it. Sure, it’s the way the system works. It’s one of Washington’s dirty little secrets – but it’s bribery just the same.”
Abramoff says term limits would prevent lawmakers from getting too close to special interests. He also says lawmakers and their staff should be banned for life from working for any organization that lobbies.
The movement of congressional figures to lobbying is pervasive in Washington. The Internet site LegiStorm tracks those who move from the Hill to K Street, where many lobbying firms have offices, and says there have been 493 already this year.
Abramoff said he would often get access inside congressional offices by suggesting to key staffers that they come work for him when they were finished with their congressional careers.
“Assuming the staffer had any interest in leaving Capitol Hill for K Street – and almost 90 percent of them do – I would own him and, consequentially, the entire office,” Abramoff writes. “No rules had been broken, at least not yet. No one even knew what was happening, but suddenly, every move that staffer made, he made with his future at my firm in mind. His paycheck may have been signed by the Congress, but he was already working for me.”
The exposure of the Abramoff scandal became the subject of congressional hearings where Abramoff repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment Constitutional protection against incriminating himself and did not respond to questions. He writes in the book that most of the senators who were vilifying him were hypocrites who had taken thousands from his clients and firms.
“I stared stone-faced at (former Colorado Republican Sen. Benjamin Nighthorse) Campbell as he hurled invectives at me,” Abramoff writes. “I wondered how he’d react if I reminded him about the $25,000 in campaign checks I delivered to him during our breakfast meeting at posh Capitol Hill eatery La Colline the morning of April 23, 2002. I’ll never forget that breakfast. After I handed him the envelope full of campaign contributions, he let me know that my clients would be treated well by his Indian Affairs Committee.”
Former North Dakota Democratic Sen. “Byron Dorgan railed against the `cesspool of greed’ surrounding my practice,” Abramoff writes. “I guess it wasn’t a cesspool when he had his hand out to take over $75,000 in campaign contributions from our team and clients.”
Dorgan said in response that he’s never met Abramoff or received a campaign contribution from him.
“It’s not surprising he writes a book that criticizes those of us who led the investigation that sent him to prison,” Dorgan wrote in an email to the AP. “The record of our investigation exposed his corrupt behavior. He bilked Indian tribes out of tens of millions of dollars and he should be forever ashamed.
Campbell did not respond to a request for comment.