Jim Fleming: Jack Abramoff. Hardly a murderer, but to many in the Beltline, he is the Devil incarnate. Senator Conrad Burns said, “ I wish he’d never been born.”Congresswoman Deborah Pryce said, “He is a creep and we hate him.”Paul Begala summed it up when he said on Crossfire, “Jack Abramoff, he’s scum.”
How did this guy earn such vitriol? Jack Abramoff was the notorious lobbyist at the center of one of Washington’s most far-reaching corruption scandals. He served four years for fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. His testimony brought down dozens of other public and elected officials.
Abramoff is out of jail now and he told Anne Strainchamps that he intends to spend the rest of his life making amends.
Jack Abramoff: I came to a different view of myself and of the system I participated in over time. This has been years this has been going on. When it first started, frankly, there were articles in the Washington Post and the discussion at my law firm was, “Do we post these articles on the firm website?” They were really nothing out of the ordinary and firms.
Anne Strainchamps: But when the first articles, like the Washington Post articles, accusing you of influence peddling and unfair influence, you thought of putting those on your website?
Abramoff: Yeah. To a lobbyist in that system, basically the article said that I had a lot of influence, I charged a lot of money and I was very powerful. That’s how, in those days, the prism through which I would read those articles and, frankly, the people around me did. It’s kind of ironic, kind of almost gallows humor, that we actually had a discussion on e-mail the next morning, “Should we post this article on the website?” That’s just how out of it we were, how deep in the forest we were.
Strainchamps: Did you?
Abramoff: No, we didn’t because we didn’t like the headline and we didn’t like the picture. Think about that, how superficial that analysis is but, tragically, that’s where we were holding.
Strainchamps: But that’s such an interesting place. So you’re at this place where the first headlines are coming out and you don’t feel guilt, you don’t think, “Oh my gosh. They found me. I’m breaking all the laws.” Obviously there’s some part of you that thinks, “I’m just doing what everybody else does.”
Abramoff: Well, my first reaction beyond, “Should we put this on the website?” was, “What’s the big deal? This will blow over. It’s Washington. Things blow over. Everybody’s got A.D.D. in Washington. So they’ll be something else that comes along and after a week or two, this will be out of the headlines and nobody will care.” That was my first, real reaction and that, obviously, didn’t happen.
As I started getting pummeled day in and day out and hearings were being called in the House and the Senate and just all sorts of things were going on and my next reaction was, “What in the world is this? Why me? What have I done that’s any different than anybody else? I’m just playing the system as I learned it,” and that was my reaction for a little bit longer until I finally said, “You know what? I’d better take an honest look at this and at myself and what I did.”
I started to go through with my attorneys the e-mails that I wrote and I came to the realization, number one, that, yes, indeed, I went over the line. I broke the law. And as I started to see that, in fact, I was wrong. I broke the law. I did things that I’m ashamed of that I shouldn't have been doing. I, frankly, shouldn’t have been in the system. What was I doing there?
I started over time, and I’m talking months and months and what turned into years and years of rethinking everything. But the time even before I got to prison, I had, frankly, come to the epiphany that not only I was guilty, I was wrong. I was wrong in terms of what was illegal but worse, because 99% of what I did was, frankly, legal, I was wrong in what was legal. I entered prison knowing that, frankly, unfortunately, I probably belonged there.
Strainchamps: So like what? I mean, what specifically are you embarrassed about or feel ashamed of?
Abramoff: Well, I, legally, I didn’t “bribe anyone” but of course I bribed people. It goes on everyday. Anytime a lobbyist or a lobbyist client conveys a financial interest to a public servant with the interest of that public servant doing something on their behalf, it’s a bribe. So I was deeply enmeshed in a system of legalized bribery that’s shameful, that’s wrong, and that I’m working at this point in my life to do everything I can to change.
Strainchamps: Will you play out for those of us who don’t work on Capitol Hill, how does this work? Let’s say I want a vote passed by a Representative. What do you do?
Abramoff: Well, usually you hire a lobbyist because most people can’t come directly spend the time to develop the relationships necessary to gain the access to make their points. Lobbying is all about access. Can you get in the room with the decision-maker? Part two of lobbying, of course, is being persuasive. But if you’re not in the room, if you’re not talking to the person making the decision, I don’t care how persuasive you are, it doesn’t matter.
So step one in lobbying, get in the room, get the access and that, unfortunately, not everyone, but for the most part, those that have tremendous access garner it because of giving money, raising money politically for Congressmen, taking them on trips, going with them on trips, playing golf, sharing meals, giving them sports tickets, etc., basically all the components of bribery. And that’s how that is done.
So if you have something you want changed, you’re going to hire a lobbyist who has the best access on Capitol Hill to the Congressman who’s important to you and that individual you’re going to rely on them to make sure that they have the kind of access, frankly, that you and everyone else isn’t going to normally get. It’s only going to be gotten because they are important, financially, to that member of Congress and their staff. That access is the corrupting part of lobbying. When using money to gain that access and that’s indeed what is bribery.
Strainchamps: The way you describe it, like golf games, tickets to sports events, frankly, it doesn’t sound all that . . . it just doesn’t sound like that big a deal but I think what we’re missing is the epic scale under which you did this. I mean, you paid millions of dollars for sports tickets alone, right?
Abramoff: Yeah. I just want to say though that it is a big deal and it’s not necessarily about only the scale. I was operating on a scale that was, frankly, ridiculous, but that’s a personality defect I have. I had a mantra of, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” So instead of buying four tickets, let’s just say, to the Redskins game, I had 72 tickets. Instead of having just some seats at the Wizards basketball game, I had 40 tickets, you know, that kind of thing. I overdid it. I didn’t take people on meals, I owned restaurants. I didn’t take them playing golf, I put them on an airplane that took them to St. Andrews, the old course, to play golf. So I overdid it.
But the issue isn’t the Jack Abramoffs of the world. Jack Abramoff got punished for doing it and for going over the line, as I did. The issue is that every gratuity, even things that don’t sound like a big deal, are helping to corrode the system. The fact that it doesn’t sound like a big deal, by the way, is indeed what people on Capitol Hill believe. You’ll hear constantly a member of Congress say, “No one’s going to buy my vote for a $2,000 contribution or a meal or a ticket to the Redskins or something like that.”
The truth is, though, the relationship is created where the public’s servant has gratitude, if they’re a decent person, has gratitude to those who give them anything.
Strainchamps: That gratitude you refer to, you used to talk about owning people. Is that what you mean? They feel indebted to you?
Abramoff: What I would talk about is having so much influence in an office that you literally owned it, where I noticed that when I offered a job to say, a chief of staff and they were going to come join me in a year at the lobbying firm, and I should just note that virtually everybody I dealt with up there wanted to work for me, wanted to move over to K Street and become a lobbyist and make much more money. So whenever I did offer a job, I noticed at that moment, whenever they accepted it, from that moment until the day they came to join me and it could, again, be a year or more, they were working for me already. That’s how the kind of control that a lobbyist can have over, a real vice-grip over a Congressional office can take place.
Strainchamps: And how many, I don’t know, when you think about how many Senate and Congressional offices and how many of those did you have staff you thought you owned?
Abramoff: Well, probably 100 offices that we felt we had serious impact in their offices. Then beyond that, probably a total of, I don’t know, about 300 offices that we had some impact. I mean, for top lobbying, people have to understand something, the lobbying firms in Washington, the top tier, and we were at the top tier, their full-time job is obtaining access, working the access, maintaining the access and doing everything they can to make sure they can get in and get offices to help them do what they want and they do it, in large part, through raising money.
I raised millions of dollars a year through my clients and others and got it to members of Congress who were helpful to my clients. People have to realize that this is what goes on. This is their stock and trade. So they spend their full-time doing it.
Strainchamps: So here’s the thing that I never understand, you know, I’ve read a lot of stories about you and everybody’s very focused on, I mean, you are the big, bad guy, you are the poster boy for corrupt Washington, D.C., but all those guys you “owned”, all those Senators and Congressional people and their staffs, they took what you offered. I mean, you didn’t hold a gun to their heads or anything, right?
Abramoff: Right. No.
Strainchamps: So I don’t understand. I mean, who’s corrupt? To me, you may have been the Devil incarnate offering temptation but they took it.
Abramoff: Yeah. I mean, clearly it takes two to tango in Washington, at least to tango, and people are on both sides of that equation. But again, don’t forget, 99% of the things that I did were legal, all right? So people ask why aren’t there a bunch of people in jail - because it’s not illegal! That’s the problem. It is legal. This needs to change and I’m working right now very hard with some of the reform groups, particularly United Republic, to change this and to change the rules because these rules, by the way, are drawn by the very people who intend later to become lobbyists. So obviously they’re not going to draw them too tightly and they benefit from them while they sit in there.
So the rules need to be changed. People didn’t go down with me because there weren’t a lot of people who felt a need to go over the line. Frankly, I was stupid. I didn’t need to go over the line either but I did. Had I not, I might still be up there doing it, tragically. So in some respect, for me, it was beneficial. I mean, this was a horrific experience, please, let me not say anything else, but in a certain way, I thank God that I was taken out of there.
Unfortunately, it was not easy for me anymore, by the way, than it’s easier for any of the others who are currently doing it, to sit back and say, “You know what? We shouldn't be doing this. This is wrong. This system is destroying the country.” I didn’t do that for a minute. I really regret it.
I wish, by the way, I could say to you I did. I wish I didn’t have to say this shameful thing that it took my head getting cut off for me to realize I was wrong. That says something very bad about me, I guess, and it’s something I’m trying to work on.
Strainchamps: So I’m curious about the personal part of coming back from something like that, not so much from the public sense but I guess I’m thinking about personal redemption. Do you forgive yourself? Do you not? Do you try to atone? What is this process like?
Abramoff: I certainly try to atone. I’ve been trying to atone everyday since I came to the epiphany that I was wrong. The first step in atonement is, first of all, realizing that you’ve done something wrong because many people, including the way many of the men I spent time in prison with, didn’t ever come to that first step. They didn’t even realize that they did something wrong and admit it to themselves, at least, if not to everybody else, at least to themselves.
The second step being having regret that, “Yeah, I did something wrong but I regret it.” That’s a very important second step. The third step gets more difficult, trying to somehow repair the wrong you did. With me, it’s very difficult to do that because how do I repair it? Part of it I am trying to do now. I’m trying to speak out and help change the system at least, that I was involved in. I’m trying quietly to help repair those that were involved in my situation. Where appropriate and legal, I can step in and help. I’m paying restitution financially in an immense amount to those who were wronged.
Strainchamps: That’s in the millions, am I right?
Abramoff: $44 million, yes. Yeah, it’s a lot. I mean I’m certainly going to be paying that for the rest of my life. But even if I weren’t paying it for the rest of my life, there won’t be a day in my life, and there hans’t been a day in my life, when I don’t think about these things, think about what was it about me that enabled me to do all these things to get into this world and fight those impulses that are deeply embedded. You know, changing a human personality characteristic is one of the most difficult things in the world and it requires constant vigilance and I’m trying.
Then finally, with us, in terms of finding the final step of penance and atonement, if you get put back into the same situation how do you behave? I don’t expect to be put back into the same situation. I’m not going to become a lobbyist again and I don’t expect anybody would want me to be a lobbyist again, certainly not those folks on Capitol Hill. So I don’t know what will be the test that eventually I’ll get where I’ll be able to resist going down the path that I went down but I hope it comes and I hope I pass that test.
Fleming: Jack Abramoff has written a book called, “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist”.