Latest update: January 4th, 2013
In 2005 and 2006, Jack Abramoff’s name was all over the news – for the wrong reasons. A high-powered Capitol Hill lobbyist – and an Orthodox Jew to boot – Abramoff found himself at the center of a federal corruption investigation that ultimately landed him in jail. Among other things, Abramoff was accused of conspiracy, bribery, tax evasion, and attempting to defraud his clients of tens of millions of dollars.
Today, Abramoff is a free man. Out of prison since 2010, Abramoff today is committed to reforming the lobbying industry that he helped tarnish. In 2011, he wrote Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist. The Jewish Press recently caught up with him.
The Jewish Press: What is Jack Abramoff doing today?
Abramoff: I have my own radio show Sundays evenings on XM radio, and I travel the country speaking about politics, what goes on in Washington, and my past.
I’m working on a book on gridlock in Washington. I’m also working on television programming on the lobbying business and am trying to move forward some motion picture projects – I used to be a movie producer. One film is sort of like “Lord of the Rings” and another one is an animated feature similar to “Shrek.” Both of them have biblical backgrounds and undertones.
Finally, I’m working on efforts to reform the political system and helping other good causes as well.
What’s wrong with the system as it’s currently constituted?
The system is basically set up in a way that people who come in with money can buy outcomes. I’m working with reform groups – groups I used to oppose – to come up with some solutions to solve this problem.
How do people “buy outcomes”?
By giving politicians campaign contributions, taking them out to dinner, taking them to a ballgame, etc. If I’m asking you to do something for me for money, that’s bribery – even if it’s [often] legal. Ninety-nine percent of what I did as a lobbyist was legal. It was only one percent, or even less, where I went over any legal line.
Your lobbying firm reportedly spent a million dollars a year buying congressmen tickets to various sporting events. Is this common practice in Washington?
No, I did things bigger than most people. But whether you’re giving away six tickets or 60 tickets, the essence is the same.
You have publicly stated that you were morally blind as a lobbyist. How do you account for that blindness?
I didn’t take the time to sit down and analyze the system. I just jumped in. I was into winning the fights I was in, and I felt the ends justified the means, so I went off track.
Incidentally, most people in the system today don’t consider it immoral. Most congressmen who take these contributions don’t feel they’re being bribed.
What goes through a congressman’s head when a lobbyist buys him a ticket to a sports game? Doesn’t he know the ticket comes with strings attached?
They think I’m their friend, and I thought I was their friend too. In other words, I was just taking my friend out. So, my friend happens to be a congressman and I happen to be asking my friend to help me out with something. Their attitude would be, “Well, if [the favor] is not something I would normally object to, what’s the problem?”
You think to yourself, “I’m his friend and I would do this anyway.” There are all sorts of excuses you come up with to convince yourself it’s not a bad thing. In fact, you [tell yourself], it’s a good thing because you’re going after worthy goals that would otherwise not happen if it weren’t for your relationship with this congressman.
What worthy goals are you referring to?
I thought the clients I represented had worthy causes. I only took clients if I agreed with their cause.
How many lobbyists are there on Capitol Hill?
It varies. You get a count anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000. The top tier is under 100.
In your book, you offer a number of proposals to reform the lobbying industry. Can you detail some of them?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, removing the ability of lobbyists and special interests to use money in the political system is one of them.
Another one is to close the door between public servants and the lobbying industry. The people lobbying firms hire usually come from Capitol Hill [e.g. staffers to congressmen]. I used to hire people prospectively, offering them a job whenever they could take it up – in a year or so. I noticed that what would happen was that these people would start acting like they were working for me [even though they were still employed by congressmen].
The only way to resolve this is to prevent staffers from actually getting the job for a few years. I have other proposals, but I think these are the kinds of reforms that are likely to obtain support on both the left and the right, and until something is supported by both the left and the right, it’s not going to pass.
What’s the difference between a lobbyist trying to influence a congressman’s vote through money and a Super PAC, for example, doing the same?
There’s no difference. They can give as much money as they want as long as they’re not asking for something in return.
Isn’t it un-American, though, to restrict free speech? Under your proposed reforms, someone who donated a million dollars to a congressman’s reelection campaign would not be able to discuss politics with him at a private dinner. His table talk would have to be restricted to family, friends, and the weather.
It’s completely fair and completely American to say that if you want to have the right to do some things, you have to give up the right to do other things. For example, if you want security clearance in America, you have to give up the right to free speech.
Nobody’s forcing you to lobby the federal government. If you make that choice, it’s 100 percent fantastic. You just can’t do everything else you wanted to do. It’s not only not un-American, it’s very American and it’s very necessary because right now Americans feel strongly that the system is rigged against them. And one of the ways in which it’s rigged – and I know this firsthand having been on that side of it – is that people with unlimited resources, such as I had, can in essence get anything they want out of Congress.
You told “60 Minutes” in 2011 that you believed, as a lobbyist, that you were smarter than Congress – that no matter what reform bill Congress might pass, you would find a way around it. You are currently a reformer yourself. What makes you think lobbyists won’t find a way around your reforms?
Every human law will contain a loophole that someone will find eventually. So it’s not the kind of thing that’s going to get solved with one set of laws. It’s a constant process. But the changes that we propose were born from me contemplating, “What are the kind of things that I would really have a tough time getting around if I were still a lobbyist?”
So while I don’t for a minute presume that these rules are going to last forever, they’ll do a lot of good and will change a lot of things for a while.
An acquaintance of yours claims you can “sweet talk a dog off a meat truck.” What would you say to someone who doubted your sincerity and claimed all your reform talk is disingenuous? Someone who argued that Jack Abramoff is all about Jack Abramoff and is promoting reform today because that’s the only way he can get back in the spotlight and the center of things?
That kind of comment frankly almost doesn’t merit a response. It’s so ridiculous. I think, first of all, people need to judge me by what I do, not by what they think is in my heart. Unless they’re HaKadosh Baruch Hu, they don’t know what’s in my heart.
And I’m not asking people to believe me. I’m not asking for anything out of this. I’m just saying what needs to be done. If they doubt my story in my book – which is told against my own interest – or if they doubt these things are going on, then they’re either naïve or part of the system.
If they doubt that the reforms I’m proposing will be effective, then come up with better reforms. If they think I’m trying to get in the spotlight, what good is it for me being in the spotlight? I don’t earn any money really off of anything like this.
Israel’s foes sometimes portray the Israel lobby as an all-powerful force that controls Washington. As a former insider, what’s your impression?
America’s support of Israel is, in part, because pro-Israel forces are organized. But it generally flows, not from the so-called Jewish lobby – frankly I fear there are more Jews lobbying against Israel than for Israel – but rather from the over 150 million Christians who believe strongly in the state of Israel. Otherwise there’s no way in the world this country would be supportive of Israel.
You reportedly became frum at age 12 after watching “Fiddler on the Roof.” Is that true?
It helped me. In those days, the early 1970s, there was no perceptible ba’al teshuvah movement. Where I lived in Beverly Hills, there were Jews, but the Orthodox were far away from us. I had no exposure to them. One of the first exposures I had was seeing “Fiddler on the Roof.” It was literally one of the only times in my life I had seen traditional Jews. It wasn’t the only thing that impacted me, but it certainly had an impact.
It didn’t have the impact the author of “Fiddler on the Roof” intended, by the way. Shalom Aleichem was anti-frum. He’s probably rolling around in his grave somewhere.
How did matters proceed after watching “Fiddler on the Roof”? Did you go to yeshiva?
No, I wanted to, but I wasn’t allowed. It wasn’t until I went to college that I was among frum people. I went to Brandeis. There actually weren’t too many frum people there either, but that’s where I could be more openly Orthodox.
As an Orthodox Jew, were you concerned about the chillul Hashem your arrest in 2005 caused?
Of course, I was absolutely concerned. I was mortified, but unfortunately I wasn’t in control of it at that point.
When did you do teshuvah? At what point did you cease being a ruthless lobbyist and start becoming a reformer?
It wasn’t until after my career ended and I started to sit down and analyze what I was involved in. I started to look at it honestly without having any skin in the game any longer. It was a process. It took months to come to those conclusions [about my behavior]. They weren’t quickly-reached conclusions and they weren’t conclusions that I didn’t fight against, but I came to them anyway.
About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and holds a Masters degree from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies.
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