This might raise your eyebrows: Jack Abramoff, the notorious former lobbyist who spent almost four years in jail and owes $44 million in restitution, is touring the country talking about ethics and about reforming the business that made him rich and famous, and then left him an infamous felon.
At the apex of his power as a lobbyist, Abramoff had a couple of Texas connections: his close relationship with then-U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and the Tigua Indians of El Paso, who wanted his help with federal gaming laws. DeLay's fall from the post of U.S. majority leader paralleled Abramoff's. The lobbyist, it turned out, was working against the Tiguas and other clients, helping their opponents in an effort to sustain the gaming battles — and his employment. He was convicted of mail fraud, conspiring to bribe public officials and tax evasion.
During a visit to Austin that included an appearance at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business, Abramoff stopped by the Tribune offices for an interview. An abridged transcript follows.
TT: If you played within the rules, how successful would you have been?
Abramoff: Pretty much 99 percent of what I did was within the rules; the problem is the rules. Playing within a moral framework, maybe, versus the legal framework in Washington. In other words, if I were not using money to bribe people, and not using tickets to games like lobbyists do, it would be very hard to be successful, unfortunately, in Washington if I am up against lobbyists who are doing that. And in the major lobbying efforts, they are doing that.
They’re holding fundraisers, they’re bringing in big money, they’re using their boxes at the sporting arenas to hold fundraisers which gives them permission around the gift ban, and it’s very tough. Most lobbyists don’t avail themselves to these kinds of financial gratuities and things like that, but they are not competing in the big-dollar lobbying stakes. They’re working on smaller, marginal issues, sometimes against each other, and they are able to carve out a little existence there. But at the upper echelon of the business, without using money, right now, it’s hard to compete, and that’s the problem.
TT: What should we infer about the lobbying business from the Jack Abramoff example?
Abramoff: I sent 850,000 emails during the time I was a lobbyist, and there was a road map, finally, for the reform community and for prosecutors and for others who were interested in this to see actually what happens. For the first time, they got a look inside as to what's going on, and I think the inference is that there is a segment of Washington that plays like this. I didn’t innovate anything. I didn’t create anything. I may have done more of it, and I may have gone over certain lines in the sand that really you don’t need to go over, but for whatever reason I did go over them.
The problem isn’t people who are breaking the law. There aren’t a lot of them. The problem is the people who are keeping the law, the problem is the law, and that’s what needs to be changed.
TT: You have three or four reforms, if you could just briefly run through those.
Abramoff: No. 1, to eliminate or severely reduce the amount of money that the special interests have in politics by creating a credit which would help fund elections. Citizens could use a voucher to make political contributions, and candidates who take them would thereby pledge that they won’t accept the big PAC money and all the rest of it.
No. 2, to prohibit lobbyists and special interests — their clients, basically — from using financing to raise money and to ensure that the gratuities continue to flow. None of that, it’s got to get cut off.
To close as best we can the revolving door between public service and cashing in, and in doing so, by the way, both of these, to redefine what it is to be a lobbyist. When someone can run for president who is clearly lobbying, and claim that he was a strategic adviser or a history professor or something like that, it really points up the problem.
Next, we are looking at term limits to try to limit the amount terms that members can stay there. Over time, we find that virtually everybody, in some way, starts to engage in the corruption. They would cry that, "No one is going to buy my vote for $2,000 or a ticket to the Redskins game or something like that," but the truth is they are recipients of what are, in essence, bribes. And over time they break down — even those that are good in the beginning — break down.
TT: The implication in all of this is that on some level the system is for sale.
Abramoff: Yes, the system is absolutely for sale.
TT: So is the moral problem or the ethical problem on the lobbying side?
Abramoff: To start with, it’s on the congressional side. Those are the people who make the rules. The lobbyists are taking advantage of what are basically a bunch of rules that are created for people to take advantage. Don’t forget: Most lobbyists come from Capitol Hill.
When I was lobbying, 90 percent of the people I encountered wanted to work for me, because they want to make more money, and they want to transition to the quote "easy life." So it’s a big problem, these are the people who have to make the rules, and so naturally, it seems, they are going to be making rules that benefit them financially while they are there, and when they leave, so these are the kind of rules that have to be changed.
TT: Would you limit terms of just members? One of the standard constructs here is that if you limit terms of members, what you do is empower the lobby and the staff.
Abramoff: My preference is to limit the upper staff’s term also. The secretary I don’t think is necessary, but someone who is a chief of staff I think should have a term limit, a legislative director, someone who has real power within an office. Because in many cases the staff actually have equal power to the congressmen within their offices.
TT: So if I’ve worked hard all my life and I’ve made a bazillion samolians, and I want to start playing in public life. Why should I be limited?
Abramoff: Well, I differ a little bit from the rest of the reform movement. I feel that you shouldn’t be limited unless you want something back.
The minute you want something back, though — the minute you say, “Oh listen, congressman, by the way, I know I raised 100,000 for you, my company is having a real problem with the government” — at that moment, you should be disqualified from participating in the system other than in a de minimis amount.
There are some of course on both sides of the aisle who just want to see a better country, whatever their version of a better country is, and to me those people shouldn’t be limited. However, those who want something back are making a choice. If you choose to do that, you have put yourself into a different category.
TT: What stopped you? Would you still be doing what you’ve been doing?
Abramoff: Yeah, unfortunately I would be. I didn’t recognize I was doing something wrong.
TT: You didn’t go through a warning barrier or something?
Abramoff: No, I wish I had stopped, obviously, because maybe because my life would not have been as hellacious as it became, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t have stopped, I’d still be there today.
Abramoff: Yeah, I think I was blithely persisting in what I thought was the way the game was played. I guess my problem was that the ends justified my means.
TT: Why should we listen to you?
Abramoff: I have been behind doors, and been in rooms that most Americans haven’t. I’ve been in this, I did this, I was at the tip of the spear of this, I know what they’re are capable of, I know what they are doing, and I know how it does indeed pervert our democracy.
There’s really no way to look inside my heart, of course. Frankly, I don’t get a lot of benefit from this other than a marginal good feeling, that I’m maybe doing the right thing making some recompense.
I owe a lot of money in restitution. The reform business is not a big money business, and I have to support a family of five, but this is important to me to try to undo some of what I did.
TT: I was going to ask are we going to see Jack Abramoff in the halls of Congress like that lobbying for new reforms.
Abramoff: No, no, I don’t think my presence in Congress is desired by anyone, including me.
What I am doing is applying those skills that I have from the past to try to empower this effort to get to success. And I’m speaking and on TV and doing as much as I can to push the effort and to make people aware of this. I want people to know what’s going on. That’s why I wrote my book, to show them it’s much worse than you think.
TT: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Abramoff: I don’t know. It’s hard for me to think 10 years ahead. To be honest with you, it’s hard to me to think a year ahead. Once this happened to me, I kind of take each day as it comes. This is what I’m doing now. I’m doing other things to try to make money. I’m going back into the motion picture business and trying to launch some projects there and working assiduously and creating some nonpolitical entertainment things and some other ideas as well. So I’m trying to take each day as it comes. My life has taken some rather unexpected turns. I have a family of five children, a lovely wife, a father, a brother and sister, and I try to spend as much time with them as I can, especially having been taken away from them for so long.