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Rise and Fall of Jack Abramoff

December 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, who is Jack Abramoff and why are so many people in Washington whispering his name? Well, for one thing, he’s a prominent, 47-year-old, former Republican lobbyist, and the central figure in what could become a really big Congressional corruption scandal.

For nearly two years, he has been investigated by a multi- agency federal task force interested in his relationships with several prominent members of Congress, their aides, other government officials and assorted businessmen. He also faces a trial soon in Florida on related fraud charges. Here to explain the rise and fall of Jack Abramoff and what’s at stake in this case is Washington Post reporter James Grimaldi.

James, welcome.

JAMES GRIMALDI: Hi, how are you?

RAY SUAREZ: Washington is full of lobbyists. What’s so exceptional, what’s so different about the way Jack Abramoff operated?

JAMES GRIMALDI: Well, Jack Abramoff really created probably a lobbying empire beyond what has been seen in Washington before beginning, as long as ten years ago. And he had a wide-ranging entertainment program, we’ll call it, in which he wined and dined legislators at his downtown restaurant. He took them to supporting events at his skyboxes at the local arenas and stadiums. He took them on overseas trips and he also made campaign contributions, hired many congressional spouses and spouses of aides in Congress and now could be in the middle of one of the largest bribery scandals the Capitol has seen, depending on where the story goes from here.

RAY SUAREZ: Sky boxes and trips are often a feature of these kinds of stories. Was it a matter of degree in Jack Abramoff’s case? Was he just doing more of it in more places all at once?

JAMES GRIMALDI: Well, some look at it that way. I think the prosecutors really, Ray, will look at whether this is a quid pro quo situation. And when they stumbled upon thousands of e-mails that seemed to indicate that there were trips and meals and tickets and contributions that were made in exchange for official activities, that’s when this became a story that went beyond what we’re used to seeing in Washington, or at least what we knew about.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of members of Congress have been named as recipients of his largesse or associates of his. Who are some of the biggest names?

JAMES GRIMALDI: Well, Tom DeLay is probably the biggest name that’s been mentioned. He was described — he described Jack Abramoff as his — one of his closest and dearest friends. Our investigation showed that they may not have been personal buddies but they certainly were political allies. And Tom DeLay actually took a trip to Scotland with Jack Abramoff that came right before a vote that was unusual for Tom DeLay. He voted against an anti-gambling bill that one of Jack Abramoff’s clients, actually a couple, wanted to kill. And most of the Republican caucus actually voted for that bill. Mr. Delay says that there was no quid pro quo. He said that he voted against that bill because it had loopholes in it.

Some of the other members that are being looked at are John Doolittle of California, Bob Ney of Ohio who was engaged in helping Jack Abramoff purchase a casino cruise line down in Florida. He did this by inserting certain comments in the Congressional Record well outside of his Ohio district that seemed to bolster the purchase of that company by Jack Abramoff, and a couple of his partners.

RAY SUAREZ: The Abramoff links to Indian tribes seems to be one of the most prominent features of this story. Help me understand what the connection was and how so much money was running through Abramoff’s operation from the tribes.

JAMES GRIMALDI: Well, yes, he earned well over $80 million from the Indian tribes. And he began hiring these Indian tribes actually from a lot of other lobbyists and charging way more than they ever did. This is important to understand as you point out, and it begins with understanding what really fuels the Indian tribes these days. It’s those tribes that have casinos and casino gambling, and having a lobbyist in Washington is very important because these casinos are regulated by the Department of Interior, or quasi-regulated, they would say.

And Indian tribes who gain recognition through the Department of Interior are then able to open casinos. So we’re talking about basically quasigovernmental agencies, they would say sovereign entities that could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars. Jack Abramoff tapped those clients and used those really as the cornerstone to build his lobbying empire.

He had been, for example, signed many of the lease agreements with FedEx Field and some of the other sports venues for these sports suites that he then used to bring lawmakers in, lawmakers would have fund-raisers at these sports sky suites, would come for tickets, you know, to watch the games, and that sort of thing.

So the tribes really are central to the case. They are also central to the investigation because what the Justice Department is also looking at, and they have one person who has pled guilty to this, is conspiracy to defraud the Indian tribes because a lot of that money actually went to things that the tribes never intended. At least that’s what one person has pled guilty to. The other half of that is a conspiracy to bribe lawmakers and governmental — government officials.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, two Abramoff associates Michael Scanlon and Adam Kidan have already pled guilty and made a deal with prosecutors. It’s said that a deal with Abramoff himself is close and could be wrapped up over the weekend. Who should be worried about Jack Abramoff ready to plead guilty and talk to prosecutors and tell them what he knows?

JAMES GRIMALDI: Well, having Jack Abramoff cooperate with a government investigation could be potentially devastating to any number of governmental officials. We haven’t talked about the number two official at the Department of Interior who Jack Abramoff befriended between a go-between and who Jack Abramoff and his law firm Greenberg Traurig offered a job.

If you have Jack Abramoff cooperating with the Justice Department, he will be able to say, I wrote this e-mail and it means this or that. He can actually put some testimony behind these e-mails and documents to show any quid pro quo that the government would want to allege, in other words, that these gifts these favors, these trips, these donations, these jobs were all in exchange for particular government actions.

RAY SUAREZ: James Grimaldi, thanks for being with us.

JAMES GRIMALDI: Thank you, Ray.