The Abramoff Effect
Would Jack Abramoff be depicted as the arch-villain portrayed in the media if he were a Democrat? Maybe, but having the Washington Post latch onto you means you are not one of them. Abramoff was certainly not. He made his way as the new breed of conservative activists in college at Brandeis as a freshman in 1977, where he organized a handful of Republicans into a potent political guerrilla strike force. From there he ascended to the presidency of the national organization of the College Republican Union, rising to lead the Reagan-influenced Citizens for America.
He changed course to attend George Washington Law School part-time while he pursued a career in film production. Now he says he is returning to film-making after three and one-half years in jail for his shenanigans as a star K Street lobbyist. He says what he did is what everyone else did -- and he's right. He just did it better than anyone else.
He went beyond the usual lobbyist protocol of giving lavishly to campaigns and individual senators and representatives by spending over one million dollars a year on tickets and box seats to entertainment and sports events. Golf outings were important venues to transact business -- and to learn the true character of his enemies and associates.
His most effective ploys were to offer congressional staffers high-paying jobs to work for him when they left government service -- and to enlist an army of private company executives to bombard state and federal offices demanding they to cease harming entities they did business with. This was highly effective with casino clients and, late in Abramoff's career, for the TYCO conglomerate that was facing a $4-billion retroactive tax bill.
His ten-year reign as a lobbyist from 1994 to 2004 -- becoming the most successful name in the industry -- included representing the American territory of the Marianas, under siege by the U.S. government to install the minimum wage that would destroy their booming textile industry. But Abramoff's highly successful representation of Indian-owned casino interests, afraid of losing hundreds of millions of dollars to new taxation and the machinations of rival tribes, tied the noose that would eventually hang him.
On the side, Abramoff invested with college Republican buddy Adam Kidan to purchase the Miami-based SunCruz floating casino business. Kidan's shady dealings in the transaction tainted Abramoff and accounted for a large chunk of his prison sentence. Yet Abramoff's out-of=office activities also included investing millions in a Jewish academy, donating large sums to charities, and helping out friends and employees in need.
And herein resides the moral construct Abramoff relied on to justify his moral indiscretions. He sincerely felt that what he had to do to generate income was justified in order to fund his generosity. For example, not divulging that he owned half of a consulting firm he convinced an Indian tribe to hire. And he entertained politicians, government officials, and congressional staff free at his Signatures restaurant in the District (which started out as a effort to create a first-class kosher eatery).
In the end, it was angering Senator John McCain, who comes over as a temperamental lightweight (thus verifying what Americans thought of the Arizona senator in the 2008 presidential campaign), that brought down Jack Abramoff. He was hauled in front of McCain's Senate Indian Affairs Committee, where he faced an inquisition of questions, many from members who were recipients of Abramoff's largess.
He pled the 5th to each question, assuming his agreement to co-operate with the feds would help him when push came to shove. It did not, and Abramoff served full time for federal corruption charges and for his involvement in the SunCruz affair (which became sensationalized by what appeared to be a mob hit on the original owner).
How then to lasso the dozens of fast-moving parts that personify Jack Abramoff? He decided on his own when he was ten years old to become an Orthodox Jew, although his mother and father were assimilated. To this day -- and all during his lobbying career and stint in prison -- he keeps kosher and observes the Sabbath.
He is not a drinker, he has five children from his only wife, and he had no arrest record until his Armageddon with McCain. Abramoff has boundless energy and a brilliant strategic mind, and he achieved goals for his clients relentlessly. He often moved too fast to consider the enemies he made along the way, and the consequences of the moral lapses he felt were necessary to succeed.
Abramoff's book Capitol Punishment (WND Books) is well-written and engrossing and worth the read to gain an understanding of the way things work in Washington. It also serves as an interesting history of the conservative movement that swept in Ronald Reagan and continues apace today.
Readers meet grandees such as Newt Gingrich ("arrogant and haughty"); the annoying John McCain; Tom Delay, whose career was negatively affected by his association with Abramoff; Christian political activist Ralph Reed; Grover Norquist (who wants to reduce the federal government to the size where it can be strangled in the bathtub); Ronald Reagan, everyone's hero; George W. Bush (always seemed to be enjoying himself and possessed a remarkable memory for names and faces); Karl Rove (more powerful impact on the 2010 elections than anyone); and even Imelda Marcos, who called on Abramoff to act on her behalf as she faced prison.
Abramoff believes that the recurring yet ineffective new rules to bring morality to the political process are useless and end up creating more cunning methods to circumvent the system. He suggests the elimination of campaign contributions and all gift-giving by lobbyists or any person or entity (unions, for example) with a vested interest in the outcome of legislation. That elected officials and staff be "barred for life" from lobbying after leaving government service and term limits be imposed to prevent the cronyism prevalent today in Congress. And oddly, a return to the election of U.S. senators by state legislatures, which was changed to popular voting in 1913.
Jack Abramoff has learned his lesson. He admits he broke the law. But fortunately, he is not a changed man. He is simply changing sides.