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.