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“Jack Abramoff – he’s scum.” – Paul Begala, CNN Crossfire.
“The most evil lobbyist ever to be operating in Washington.” – Margaret Carlson, Capital Gang.
“He’s a creep and we hate him.” – Congresswoman Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio).
“Lower than pond scum, parasite with no redeeming qualities.” – Eric Baerren, The Morning Sun (Michigan).
“And I hope he goes to jail and we never see him again. I wish he’d never been born.” – Senator Conrad Burns (R-Montana).
Okay, so they hated Abramoff.
But he did his time in jail. And now he’s out. And out with a new book – Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist (WND Books, 2011.)
Abramoff was sent off to prison in Cumberland, Maryland for three and a half years.
He was an evil lobbyist, an evil lobbyist for Native American tribes.
And he pled guilty to tax evasion and corrupting a member.
But his big game was inside the beltway lobbying.
Legalized bribery he calls it.
It’s legal, but it’s bribery nonetheless.
And that’s the game that almost everyone on K Street plays.
Day in and day out.
Abramoff pled guilty to illegal activity.
And he became the whipping boy of the chattering classes.
“I happen to know the answer to that question – plenty,” Abramoff told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “A lot of them contacted me while that was going on. And they said – I don’t understand. You are in trouble because of that?”
But put aside the illegal activity that Abramoff pled to.
What about the legal bribery?
The stuff we allow, day in and day out?
The bread and butter of Washington, D.C.?
“One of the most effective ways for us to control a Congressional office is to offer the chief of staff a job when they decide to leave Capitol Hill,” Abramoff said. “And for the time they remained as the chief of staff, we were in control of that office. He or she wasn’t going to allow anything to happen that wouldn’t featherbed where they were going later. They went out of their way. They overperformed in many cases. It is really an incredibly corrupt aspect of what goes on out there. There are a lot of reasons why the revolving door has to be slammed shut. But that alone is a good enough reason.”
The chief of staff is being paid $100,000 on the Hill. When they leave for K Street, they will be paid $300,000. Isn’t that the career path of most chiefs of staff?
“Yes,” Abramoff said. “Ninety percent of the people I encountered up there had that in mind.”
And you told Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes that maybe you had control of 100 members’ offices through that kind of corrupt arrangement?
“Yes, that and other things,” Abramoff said.
But you felt that controlling the chief of staff through a promise of future employment was more important than handing out tickets to a Redskins or Wizards game?
“Each of these things plays a role,” Abramoff said. “Each of them has their impact. Redskins tickets, golf, meals. But jobs is the biggie. It’s a huge thing. That’s when they are looking at what they are going to do for the rest of their life.”
Before he was indicted, when he was whipping boy number one in DC, he was called before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
He repeatedly took the Fifth Amendment as Senators he had attended fundraisers with and dished out cash to, lashed him in front of the television cameras.
“As I sat in the witness chair, the senators fired question after question at me,” Abramoff writes in his book. “Actually, few were real questions. Most were just insults. ‘How could you, as a Jewish American, do these things?’ ‘Don’t you have any shame?’ ‘This is the worst abuse of Native Americans since Custer.’”
“The worst part for me was the hypocrisy of the whole thing,” Abramoff writes. “Most of these Senators had taken boatloads of cash and prizes from my team and our clients. I stared stonefaced at (Senator Ben Nighthorse) Campbell as he hurled invectives at me. I wondered how he’d react if I reminded him about the twenty-five thousand dollars in campaign checks I delivered to him during our breakfast meeting at the 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. That’s what I wanted to hear. We left arm in arm. . .Each member of that panel had the same skeletons in their closet I did or worse. But no one was grilling them.”
In his book, Abramoff proposes a number of reforms, including slamming the revolving door shut.
If you work on Capitol Hill, or at the White House, you cannot then go to work on K Street.
Engage in public service and then go home. Washington is a pit. Get out.
He would then prohibit any campaign contribution from any lobbyist or federal contractor.
“No lobbyist, no company or person who hires a lobbyist, no person who has their hand out for taxpayer money, for contracts, or any kind of relationship other than the normal citizen relationship with the government, should be permitted to give one dollar in political contributions,” Abramoff says.
“And that same group should be totally forbidden from conveying any gratuity or favor or anything that could engender a relationship of gratitude among public servants. A complete gift ban, including a glass of water. Nothing can come between them.”
“In addition, if Congress passes a law, it has to apply to them. If they pass an insider trading law, it has to apply to members of Congress.”
More than three years in prison hasn’t changed Abramoff’s politics though.
He remains a conservative libertarian at heart.
But a free market conservative – not a corporate Republican.
“I’m on the right as a spectator at this point,” Abramoff says. “But we on the right are not beholden to corporate interests. You have to understand that there is a difference between free market conservatives and Republicans. Free market conservatives are not in favor of corporate welfare and crony capitalism. They are just not.”
“With these reforms that I propose, I find that the establishment Republicans, the corporate Republicans are vehemently opposed. They don’t want to ban the corporations from giving any money of any kind. They want them to be able to play in the process.”
“Whereas free market conservatives, traditional conservatives, are 100 percent in favor of this. I’ve been on more than 100 talk radio shows since this started a few weeks ago. And there is not one example of somebody supporting the corporate types.”
Russell Mokhiber edits the Corporate Crime Reporter.