Oscar-winning filmmaker shares the backstory of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff—the subject of the documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money.
Tavis: Alex Gibney is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose previous works include “Enron,” “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” and “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which took home the Oscar for best documentary in 2008. His latest project focuses on the rise and fall of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Here now, a scene from “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.”
Tavis: It’s good to have you on the program.
Alex Gibney: Great to be back, Tavis.
Tavis: I want to start with a quote that I read attributed to you, I believe, in “The New York Post.” I don’t believe everything I read; you tell me if I got it right or if they got it right or not. But I read a quote where you suggested that you think that Abramoff was more of a zealot who was led into corruption because of his idealism. Why is it all that as opposed to he’s just a crook? (Laughter)
Gibney: Well, that’s a good question, but I just think that’s the arc of his character. His partner in crime, Michael Scanlon, I’d say was much more like a crook. He was in it strictly for the money.
I think Abramoff was a zealot who had these kind of hardcore, right wing ideas. That’s what led him into lobbying from being a movie producer and some other things. But along the way he got caught up in the money and the power, until the next thing you knew it was over for him.
Tavis: The distinction I’m making, though, Alex, is his idealism leading him into lobbying is one thing. I’m just trying to figure out how that idealism leads him to being a crook. Because if a brother had done this, he’d just be a crook.
Tavis: It almost sounds like a justification for how he got led and pulled into this, as opposed to just saying greed took over.
Gibney: Well, I don’t think it’s an excuse, but I think what it is, it’s a mechanism for how corruption works. I’m really interested in how corruption works, and sometimes people who think they’re good believe they can’t do anything bad, and it’s that kind of end justifies the means idea that leads them into corruption, which is not an excuse for it; it’s just the way it works psychologically.
Tavis: To the clip we saw a moment ago when people started distancing themselves from him, give me the back story to how he got to know these folk in the first place who suggested later that they didn’t know who he was.
Gibney: Well, he became – he was a right wing ideologue. He came up through the College Republicans and was very close to two people, one of whom is still very powerful in Washington, a guy named Grover Norquist. Also a guy named Ralph Reed, who’s with the Christian Coalition. It was kind of the unholy trinity, and in 1994, when the Republicans took over Congress, suddenly Jack was thrust into the middle of this and he had a lot of very powerful connections.
That led him to have a lobbying business which was very powerful. He was connected to money, and what’s the one thing that politicians need? It’s money. So that gave him entrée further and further and further up the food chain, right on up to George W. Bush, and also most importantly, Tom DeLay. But it was that money that gave him access in addition to his conservative credentials.
Tavis: When you say, “Up to George W. Bush,” the “up” is defined as what?
Gibney: (Laughs) Well, he was close to the president. Not a close friend, but I mean in a sense of having access with the president of the United States. George Bush denies he knew him; that’s impossible. He was sitting on the dais with George W. Bush as one of his biggest fundraisers. He was responsible, actually, for raising all the money that defeated John McCain in the famous 2000 primary in South Carolina that catapulted Bush into the White House.
Tavis: Abramoff, for those who don’t recall the story or who have never heard of Jack Abramoff, like George Bush, (laughter) Abramoff is in jail, but what did he do?
Gibney: Well, there are a lot of things that he did that went beyond lobbying that got him in trouble. He was involved in a fraudulent scheme to buy a casino on Florida. He forged a $23 million bank transfer – something you don’t want to do. There were kickback schemes he was involved in, where he was telling people, “Oh, don’t pay me to lobby for you, but pay this guy, Mike Scanlon. He’s my partner.” Then under the table he’d get money kicked back.
But I think the big thing was lobbying is a kind of system of legalized corruption, but you’re never supposed to have a quid pro quo. You’re never supposed to say, “I’ll give you this money if you do this on this bill.” But Jack had so many – it seemed like he had so many congressmen in his pocket that that became a kind of pattern of abuse, which then ultimately led to criminal charges.
Tavis: If you had said what you just said now on K Street, that lobbying is a sort of legalized corruption, they’d be throwing eggs at you. What do you mean by “legalized corruption,” for those lobbyists watching right now?
Gibney: Well, legalized bribery is a term that I heard from a former senator, the guy who had Barack Obama’s seat, Peter Fitzgerald, before Barack Obama. He basically said look, it’s a system whereby you want to have your influence felt, and the best way to have your influence felt at a time when campaign expenses are just going through the roof is to supply people with a lot of money.
He described it this way in the film – a guy comes in to see him who represents a particular company. He wants a favor. He wants a rider put in a bill that’s going to actually result in a cash benefit to his company, and the senator nods, and 15 minutes later somebody from his company calls the political office of the senator and says, “Hey, how about we have a fundraiser for you?”
So the message is clearly communicated without there being a quid pro quo. But that’s how it’s done.
Tavis: How much – I know this is not covered in the film, but how much does this relatively recent Supreme Court decision about endless corporate spending impact what Abramoff and others like him have done?
Gibney: (Laughs) Well, it makes him a small-time player. Jack was a larger-than-life figure, and so to understand lobbying, you can watch this larger-than-life figure play around, but it’s peanuts compared to what’s about to happen with this tremendous amount of corporate money which is going to flood into the political system, because the Supreme Court basically said that corporations are the same as citizens in terms of their right to have free speech.
Tavis: So you think the problem’s going to get worse?
Gibney: It’s going to get worse before it gets better. I think in a way, it has to get worse before it gets better. We are so fundamentally flawed, we’re making such bad decisions as a country because our congressman and senators are utterly manipulated by the money, and that’s going to get worse.
Finally, we’re going to have to get angry enough to say, “Stop. We want our country back.”
Tavis: We get angry enough to act, and acting means doing what, exactly? How do we want this process fixed?
Gibney: In my view, you have to limit both the money raised and the money spent. You have to have some form of public financing, or at least radical limits on the amount of money that people can give, so you democratize the process.
At the same time too I think you need more openness about how the money gets to these people. One sort of amusing comment that somebody made to me was maybe if we can’t get public financing done, we can pass a law that mandates that every person in Congress has to wear a NASCAR jacket, and emblazoned on the NASCAR jacket (laughter) are Goldman Sachs -
Tavis: All the logos, yeah.
Gibney: – yeah, Merrill Lynch, Pfizer, Merck.
Tavis: Are you hopeful that we’re going to get any traction – I want to get back to Jack in a second, but are you hopeful that we’re going to get any traction on this issue in the short run? I ask that because President Obama, to his credit, when he was a senator in Illinois and when he became a United States senator, the one issue that he was always consistent on, as I read his record, was the issue of campaign finance reform.
When he runs for president and realizes he can raise all this money, to your point about democratizing the process, if the Obama people were here right now they’d say, “Well, Tavis, we did democratize the process by allowing all these everyday Americans to give small amounts of contribution. We didn’t take all the big corporate money; we took a bunch of little contributions.”
Yet in the process he did a 180 on accepting the public matching funds, which you referenced a moment ago. So the point of all this is whether or not he is the right person to advance the conversation about campaign finance reform, given that during the campaign he himself did a 180 on public financing.
Gibney: Well, I’m fine if he advances the conversation. I think anybody’s the right person to do it, and he certainly was saying the right things. But I think you point out quite rightly not only did he opt out of public financing because he wanted to get elected, but also in addition to the many small contributions there are a lot of pretty powerful corporate bundlers that gave to his campaign as well.
So the problem is a pragmatic one. You can say the right thing, but then how do you do the right thing if doing the right thing means not getting elected? That’s what we have to fix.
Tavis: President Obama raised a lot of money because of the sheer power of his charm, his personality, his charisma. I am not comparing him to Jack Abramoff, but as I read your story Abramoff raised so much money and was able to do this in part because of the sheer power of his charm, his charisma, his personality, yes?
Gibney: Well, he was a good salesman. Jack is a very charming guy. But I think the reason he was able to raise so much money is basically he got one congressman in particular, Tom DeLay, who’s a very powerful guy, to allow him to use him as a kind of marketing tool.
So DeLay would say, “Okay, sell access to me,” and people needed access to DeLay because he was such a powerful guy in the government. So they’d pay Abramoff in order to get access to DeLay, and in turn Abramoff would raise a lot of money for DeLay, and so it was a kind of a perfect circle of influence peddling.
So yeah, he was a charming guy, but it wouldn’t have worked if DeLay hadn’t said, “Use me to get the money.”
Tavis: You visited him. He’s still in jail now. He’s due out this year?
Gibney: He is. In fact, in June, I believe, he’ll be in a halfway house.
Tavis: Right. You went to see him, though, since he’s been incarcerated?
Gibney: I did.
Tavis: The visit and the conversation was like – what’d you see? What’d you take away?
Gibney: What was interesting to me, going back to your point, he is a very charming guy, great storyteller, good sense of humor. He seems to be very contrite. He seems now to believe that lobbying is an ugly business.
Tavis: Prison has a funny way of doing that to people. (Laughter)
Gibney: It does. Also, I think Jack has a – his great talent was always telling people what they want to hear, so I can never be sure whether he was being sincere or whether he was just telling me what I wanted to hear. But there was one thing that we were able to agree on, which was I think that – I told him, I said, “I think what you did, a lot of what you did was just horrifying. Even some of the legal stuff you did I think was horrifying.
“But I do think that you were scapegoated. That it was very convenient for people to say, ‘Oh, Jack Abramoff’s in prison, all the problems are over now.’” I think that’s exactly wrong. I think Jack was not a bad apple; he was spectacular evidence of a rotten barrel.
Tavis: Finally, to that rotten barrel, what do you make of the fact that he is the one sitting behind bars, and all the folk who people paid to have influence, access – influence with or access to are not behind bars?
Gibney: I agree, and one of the most frustrated people about that, I can tell you, us Jack Abramoff, because he’s been spending a lot of time giving information to federal prosecutors, and he’s very frustrated that a lot people that he knows a lot about are still not in prison like he is.
Tavis: His name, Alex Gibney. The piece is called “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.” Alex, good to have you on the program.
Gibney: Great to be here, Tavis.
Tavis: My pleasure.
Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm