November 14, 2018

Contrite and destitute: The new Jack Abramoff

“Former lobbyist and Washington insider — fell into the abyss, working to repent and repair.”

That economical bio — just 91 characters, including spaces — appears at the top of Jack Abramoff’s Twitter feed, and it only hints at just how hard it is to size up this new man.

Abramoff is an easy fellow to demonize. Once considered one of Washington’s most powerful lobbyists, Abramoff claims to have had some measure of influence with 100 different members of Congress and the Senate. He invited lawmakers and their staff to eat and drink for free at the two restaurants he owned, helped raise buckets of money for their reelection campaigns, even took them on international golfing vacations. He also cultivated relationships with high-ranking officials in the executive branch.

In return, those officials helped advance policies and laws favorable to Abramoff’s clients — whom, it was later found, were being fraudulently charged by the lobbyist. Furthermore, as shown in e-mails uncovered by the Department of Justice’s investigation, Abramoff used a variety of derogatory terms to refer to the Indian tribes that were his paying clients, paying him in the tens of millions of dollars.

Bad guy, that Jack Abramoff.

But Abramoff says he has changed since pleading guilty to criminal charges of conspiracy to bribe public officials, fraud and tax evasion in January 2006. He did his time — spending three and a half years in federal prison and, unlikely as it may seem, Abramoff has now become a very public advocate for reform. Last year, he published a memoir titled “Capitol Punishment,” in which he outlines a reformist agenda. And that is the message Abramoff has been spreading in speeches across the country and in televised interviews; he is scheduled to appear in Los Angeles at American Jewish University on April 1.

I met the former lobbyist at a Coffee Bean in Beverly Hills. He was wearing a blue and green anorak to keep out the late-February chill and, to my eye, he looked nothing like the Washington insider he used to be.

“When I come ask a congressman to help me, who’s my buddy, who I play golf with, who I do this with, who I do that with, what do you think he’s going to do? He’s going to try and do it if he can,” Abramoff said. “And even if he doesn’t do that one thing, he will do something for me — and he shouldn’t do that. That is an un-level playing field. That is bribery.”

Abramoff believes corrupt lawmakers — and the lobbyists who seek to influence them by improper means — don’t see anything wrong with what they’re doing. He should know — he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong, either.

“You’ll hear from Congressmen, ‘A $2,000 contribution isn’t going to buy my vote.’ ‘A meal isn’t going to buy my vote,’ ” Abramoff said, the table between us bare but for his laptop computer. “But we learn, in fact, from the Talmud that they’re wrong.”

Abramoff, 53, has been an observant, Orthodox Jew since he was 12, so it’s not surprising that he points to a talmudic source as part of his new campaign against bribery of public officials. But while he was showering legislators with gifts, Abramoff believed he wasn’t on the wrong side of Jewish law, as the Torah restriction on bribery focuses only on judges.

“Legislators,” Abramoff said, “I never thought or considered them to be judges.”

He later found Jewish commentators who do equate bribing lawmakers with bribing judges, but Abramoff said that, generally speaking, it’s difficult to pinpoint why what lobbyists do is wrong. Even those who don’t live and work inside the Beltway, he said, shrug their shoulders at the thought of a lobbyist buying a meal for a lawmaker.

“But having a restaurant where congressmen can come and eat sushi to their hearts’ content, drink wine and then leave without a bill? Over and over again?” Abramoff asked, rhetorically. “Put him on a Gulfstream, fly him to Scotland to play St. Andrews and Carnoustie and all these places, you know? Raise a bunch of money for him? I think we’re getting into the trouble zone here.”

Abramoff lived in that zone for years. In addition to offering freebies at Signatures, his restaurant in D.C., each year he gave away $1.5 million worth of tickets to local sporting events. In 2002, Abramoff took Bob Ney, then a Republican congressman from Ohio, to Scotland for a golfing vacation that cost more than $130,000 — and that wasn’t the only international golfing junket Abramoff funded. (Ney later pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit fraud and falsifying documents and served 17 months in prison.)

“There isn’t one big crime there,” Abramoff said. “There never was.”

Still, there are reasons to feel some sympathy for Abramoff. His mother died while he was in prison, and, unlike many prisoners, he wasn’t allowed to attend her funeral. He sat shivah alone in his cell.

In his absence, his wife and five children lived a life of penury. “She didn’t even put the air conditioning on,” Abramoff said. “She couldn’t afford it.” Even now, Abramoff is attempting to pay off a $44 million court-ordered restitution, which, he says, ensures he remain all but penniless for the rest of his life. 

And yet, Abramoff says he considers himself very blessed, noting that his wife did not leave him, unlike 80 percent of men who spend two years or more in jail.

According to Abramoff, what he did was — and remains — routine for most lobbyists in Washington, in spite of a bevy of new laws passed in an effort to limit the improper influence of lobbyists. Indeed, were he not the one whose reputation and business were destroyed by scandal, Abramoff said he’d likely still be doing the same things he always did, and he might even be among those trying to silence his call for reform.

“They don’t want me talking about this stuff, and I understand why,” Abramoff said. “They’re making money off of it, like I did.”

Abramoff wrote “Capitol Punishment” in 28 days — “minus the Sabbath days, of course,” he was quick to add — and the book includes a good deal of Abramoff’s personal history and a smattering of self-justification. But much of the attention it has received has focused on its concluding chapter, titled “Path to Reform,” in which he lists a few proposals to eliminate bribery of government officials, as much as possible.

To shut the “revolving door” between Capitol Hill and the K Street offices of D.C.’s biggest lobbying firms, Abramoff writes, Congress must institute a lifelong ban on legislators and their aides becoming lobbyists.

“Once I offered them a job, they worked for me,” Abramoff said, referring to the legislative staffers he lobbied. Congressional chiefs of staff, Abramoff said, make anywhere between $90,000 and $185,000 depending on their boss’ seniority. Abramoff says 40 lobbyists in his shop made at least $300,000 a year. Many of them had been staffers on the Hill; as lobbyists, they didn’t have to worry about their bosses getting re-elected.

“You’ve got to ban it,” Abramoff said. “They can’t be allowed to cross the line.”

Abramoff also proposes barring lobbyists from giving gifts of any amount to any lawmaker, and prohibiting lobbyists and special interests from giving any political donations. That’s not to say that Abramoff, a lifelong Republican who describes himself as a small government conservative, is advocating publicly funded elections.

“I think that would breed more corruption,” Abramoff said. “People who don’t know the lobbying world don’t understand that as soon as you have ‘publicly funded fill-in-the-blank,’ we go after the money. There’d be people running for office all over the country to make a living. There’d be no way to control it.”

Abramoff also advocates instituting strict term limits for representatives and senators.

“As a lobbyist, I was against them,” Abramoff explained. “Of course I was against them. Why? Because once you buy a congressman and their office, you don’t want to have to rebuy that office in six years. It’s inefficient. You want somebody in there until they die.”

Even if these reforms could be enacted, though, Abramoff doesn’t harbor illusions about whether lobbyists will find ways around them.

“You’re not going to ever solve these problems entirely,” Abramoff told me. “There is no cure-all. It’s just going to be an ongoing fight.”

These positions may not be winning Abramoff any friends on K Street, but the reforms he’s proposing have won him some fans on the political left, including documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. He and Abramoff met when both were scheduled as guests on the same TV show.

“He was on first,” Abramoff said, “and as he came off, I was going on, and he grabbed me and gave me a big hug and said, ‘God bless you. Your book is amazing.’ ”

“I thought, ‘Wow,’ ” Abramoff said. “Incredible.”

Abramoff will appear at American Jewish University in conversation with Dr. Robert Wexler on Sun., April 1 at 4 p.m.