MARGARET WARNER: Jack Abramoff's decision to plead guilty and cooperate in a probe of illegal influence peddling on Capitol Hill has put Washington's large and powerful lobbying industry on edge.
Along the city's famed lobbyist's row, K Street, and elsewhere around town, there's concern that Abramoff may generate a backlash that threatens the key to their trade: Access to public officials.
In announcing Abramoff's guilty plea on Tuesday, Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher tried to draw a bright line between what's legal and what's not in the lobbying business.
ALICE FISHER: Lawful lobbying does not include paying a public official a personal benefit with the understanding, explicit or implicit, that a certain official act will occur. That's not lobbying; that's a crime.
MARGARET WARNER: Yet with some restrictions, lobbyists are permitted to try to influence government officials on behalf of their private clients using many of the same inducements Abramoff used: Free meals, tickets to sporting events and trips.
The Washington lobbying industry has grown dramatically in recent years. According to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan research group, the number of registered federal lobbyists has roughly doubled in the last five years to more than 34,000, and their bills have skyrocketed, too.
In 2004, corporations, labor unions, trade associations and interest groups spent more than $3 billion lobbying federal officials, up from $1.6 billion in 1998.
There are legal restrictions and House and Senate regulations that govern lobbying activities, but the center says enforcement has been lax. Since 1998, it says, at least 14,000 lobbyist disclosure documents were never filed as required at the Senate Office of Public Records. The laggards included 49 of the nation's 50 largest lobbying firms.
The Abramoff scandal has prompted some lawmakers to call on Congress to toughen the lobbying rules, but many of the members who would vote on proposed changes may be on their way to becoming lobbyists themselves.
In 2004, there were 250 former lawmakers and more than 2,000 former congressional and executive branch staffers registered as lobbyists, many with big lobbying and PR firms. Others joined private law offices with big lobbying shops, including prestigious firms like Patton Boggs and Akin Gump. Others joined corporate trade associations, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association. Others still lobby for public interest groups, like the Sierra club and Common Cause.
MARGARET WARNER: So was Jack Abramoff one bad apple or a poster boy for what's wrong with Washington's flourishing lobbying business?
For that we're joined by two former congressmen-turned-lobbyists for corporate interests: Larry LaRocco, a senior partner at Fleishman-Hillard, one of the world's largest lobbying firms -- he's a former Democratic congressman from Idaho; and Scott Klug, managing director for public affairs at Foley & Lardner, a law firm based in Madison, Wisconsin, with a lobbying shop in Washington which he oversees; he's a former Republican congressman from Wisconsin.
Also with us is Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, a Washington base of a good government advocacy group -- she's a former state senator in Maine and she, too, lobbies for Common Cause.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Ms. Pingree, is the Abramoff case typical or an aberration for the lobbying business?
CHELLIE PINGREE: Well, I think many of these activities have been going on in Washington for a very long time. But the scale, the scope, the amount of money that was being spent, there are a tremendous number of people nervous in Washington right now because this is going to touch many, whether it's members of Congress or staffers or people working in the private sector. This has got a very broad reach.
MARGARET WARNER: How typical do you think it is, Larry LaRocco?
LARRY LaROCCO: Well, Jack Abramoff was a lobbyist on steroids. I mean, this was somebody who had just taken it to lengths that nobody anticipated.
MARGARET WARNER: You mean the amount of money, the lavishness of the entertainment?
LARRY LaROCCO: The intricacy of the strategies and the web that he --
MARGARET WARNER: The shell charity groups, all of that.
LARRY LaROCCO: All of that. And this is not typical. And there is going to be a timeout in Washington, D.C., and that's probably appropriate. And I think there's going to be the appropriate review by Congress to review all of this.
And many former members of Congress, even Speaker Gingrich has said you know, this is time for review and let's take a look at this, and maybe there's a larger problem.
MARGARET WARNER: Scott Klug, we heard the assistant attorney general imply that there was a very clear line between what's legal and what's not legal in the lobbying business. Based on your experience both as a congressman and now as a lobbyist, running a lobbying shop, how clear is the line between what's legal and not legal?
SCOTT KLUG: Well, let me say, first of all, I think that what you have seen over the years is these kind of scandals come in waves. There was Abscam, where members of Congress were actually bribed in an FBI sting, in a sort of phony immigration case.
When I first got elected to Congress, there was the House Bank scandal, where a number of members were indicted, including the former speaker of the Ways and Means Committee -- or the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski, and now this one.
And so I think you need to sort of look at it in a time line over the last 30 or 40 years, and there are sort of these outbursts.
I do think there is a huge gray area and that there is a difference, it seems to me, between taking a member of Congress out to eat with six guys from the Wisconsin Farm Bureau to talk about dairy price supports issues versus some of the stuff that's alleged in the Abramoff case where they're flying to Scotland and to play golf for the weekend.
So I do think there is a distinction. But I think there's a whole gray area that's not very clear. For example, one of the things that's now been raised in the Abramoff case is the role of spouses and to the degree that spouses can hold jobs as lobbyists and whether spouses were actually hired by Abramoff's organization.
So I agree with your two guests, that this is a review that's long overdue in Congress. And I think there's been some loopholes out there in the last ten years that Abramoff and his gang sort of drove semi trucks right through.
MARGARET WARNER: So what are the biggest loopholes, Chellie Pingree?
CHELLIE PINGREE: I mean, I think this will be the perfect climate for a tremendous amount of reform.
MARGARET WARNER: On what specific things, where do you see the problems? Is it the $50 gift ban, is it the way the travel restrictions work, is it the fundraising?
CHELLIE PINGREE: It's a little bit of everything. We think that the gift ban should just apply to everything, that there is such a fine line between when the dinner costs too much and when you're getting influence and access.
MARGARET WARNER: It's a $50 limit.
CHELLIE PINGREE: It's a $50 limit. But, frankly, once you have this kind of opportunity to influence people in a special way, or you're taking them on a trip, the climate changes and the leverage of the kind of influence that a lobbyist has is altogether worse.
But if you stand back for a minute, and not only look at the revolving door and, you know, the kind of influence pedaling that's going on today, a lot of this has to do with just the free-for-all of raising money. I mean, most of these incidents started with a campaign contribution.
Now there's all kinds of things that go on that work but to be a member of Congress today, you spend most of your time raising money. And you're looking for any source you can possibly find. And people cross the line all the time.
And the line between when somebody made you a campaign contribution and also discussed something that you might be interested in, and when there's an implicit agreement that, well, he helped out me with my campaign, I probably can help you out on the floor.
MARGARET WARNER: Did you have that experience as a state senator in Maine?
CHELLIE PINGREE: Oh, you know, when people say that these are isolated incidents, and I think of my experience just as a Maine state senator, not even a member of Congress, you're dealing with these kinds of questions almost every day in one way or another.
You're constantly asked to raise money, constantly asked to go to fundraisers and you're crossing a line all the time when you're discussing what somebody needs, and what you're going to do.
And the real point is, you know in your heart when you're crossing over this line. You know, it's about the rule. But people know all the time they're doing this.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Larry LaRocco, on the fundraisers, and Jack Abramoff used to host them at a restaurant he owned, but, for instance, Fleishman-Hillard, I assume -- do you host fundraisers for members of Congress?
LARRY LaROCCO: Absolutely. Absolutely.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, is there any -- to use the assistant attorney general's words -- any kind of implicit understanding that there might be some official act in return?
LARRY LaROCCO: No. I mean, not in the way that we host fundraisers. We do it for people that we agree with, people that we've had contact with, and people that our clients need to meet. But --
MARGARET WARNER: So is that the test, in other words, if you feel the person is already your friend, that is, he represents -- he votes the way your clients like him to vote, then you don't consider it a quid pro quo?
LARRY LaROCCO: Absolutely not. And this is the way things have been going on for a couple hundred years. We have great transparency for these types of events. It's where there is no transparency.
But keeping the theme that was just mentioned here, the campaign contributions, and when members of Congress seem to think that they can put everything under the campaign umbrella, that everything they do is related to the campaign, so that they have a PAC or a leadership PAC and then they draw on that like a slush fund, that's when it's going too far.
And there was an unbelievable story that was written in The Washington Post the other day about how Tom Delay used this, you know, for lavish treatment of himself and his family. And you know things are bad when you take a corporate jet to your arraignment. You know that's when you are -- that's when you are totally tone deaf to what's going on in Washington D.C. -- that's when you need a timeout.
MARGARET WARNER: Doug Klug, give us a story from your personal experience about how gray the line is, and particularly in this fundraising area.
For example, I read today, I think again it's from the Center for Public Integrity, something like 70-plus congressmen since 1998 have had as the head of their campaign committee a registered Washington lobbyist who lobbies for private interests.
Now, isn't that just a huge conflict on its face?
SCOTT KLUG: You asked about a gray area and kind of an example. Let me tell you the problem if you make the ban too tough and sort of too into the details. In the mid 1990s, I took a trip at the invitation of the British government to look at some privatization issues in England. And I took my son along at that point, who was I think 11-years-old. And I paid for him to tag along on this trip with me.
And one of the things we looked at was the privatization of a coal mine in sort of South Central England. He couldn't go in the coal mine because he was too young. And so the folks from the business that we were visiting took him out for the afternoon and they took him to get lunch, and he toured a castle.
And as we left, they gave us a big package. Got back to the hotel, opened up the package, it was a rugby ball from the local rugby team, a blazer from the local rugby team and a knit cap. Under the lobbying rules and the gift ban rules in effect at that point, I had to find out how much that stuff cost, I had to call the British embassy and write them a check to reimburse them for this stuff.
If you write a zero gift ban for example as we have had in Wisconsin for years, technically if you visit a local high school, talk to the high school football team before a game and they give you a sweatshirt, you have to give it back to them.
So I think there's a wide sort of discrepancy between the kind of corporate aircraft abuse which Larry was talking about that I think frankly should have been banned 15 years ago; I think there's a wide gap between spouses of members of Congress being employed by foundations and 501-C-3s, and being appointed by lobbyist organizations, versus a member of Congress who's going out for a hot dog and tickets to the Orioles baseball game. I don't think that really leads much to corruption.
So I think when we do this, we have to do it the right way -- to look at the big items, the huge scandals. But at the same time I don't think you want to interfere with your ability for Larry, when he represented Idaho to go meet with the folks who represent the forest industry in Idaho. That's kind of silly; that's part of your job.
MARGARET WARNER: But you, Chellie Pingree, Common Cause does advocate just eliminating all gifts, is that right?
CHELLIE PINGREE: We do.
MARGARET WARNER: That includes entertainment, in other words, you can't have a dinner worth more than $50 but it doesn't include tax or gratuities. Or if you stand up the whole time, it doesn't count, I gather. If you're at the bowling alley, it's okay.
CHELLIE PINGREE: And also an end to travel paid for by, you know, the 501-C-3's that are supposedly allowed to do it. But we saw in many of these cases --
MARGARET WARNER: That's a charitable group?
CHELLIE PINGREE: Right. A charitable group, but there was lobbying money coming in through the back door, and again, it's challenging, because you want members of Congress to get out and see the world and know more about their districts and do many of those things. Yet on the other hand, again, in some of my experience when is the travel was paid for, and, yes, you were doing something where you were going to learn something, half of the other people on the trip were also lobbyists representing a variety of corporations.
And so then they have this opportunity to talk to you in a way they never do in other places. Then you are about to take a vote. One of them calls you up and says remember that time, you know, we were in Bermuda, and we had that great conversation. By the way, how's your daughter? How's everything going? And before you know it, you're feeling kind of like you owe them something and maybe you ought to take this vote. It's a fine line. When you step back, what you really have to say is: Does the average citizen have that access? What kind of extra leverage does this give? And at this point in time what dramatic steps have to be taken to make sure the public gets its faith again, because right now it's a pox on both your houses.
They feel members of Congress can't be trusted and lobbyists can't be trusted either.
MARGARET WARNER: Since we don't have time to get into what Congress is going to do, let me just ask you, Larry LaRocco, briefly, in the meantime, after the indictment and plea on Tuesday, what impact has the Abramoff scandal had on the way the lobbying business does business?
LARRY LaROCCO: Well, I think there is going to be a time-out on both sides. I think lobbyists are going to make sure that they're following all the rules individually, in every organization, every trade association, every law firm, every lobbying firm. They should be going over the processes and all of the forms they're filing.
And likewise, every office in the Congress should make sure that they know where their staff is going and what they're doing and that they're doing it right. There will be more desk side briefings, more briefings based on facts.
MARGARET WARNER: You mean, over coffee rather than drinks and a steak?
LARRY LaROCCO: I think so.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. We have to leave it there. Thank you all three very much.