Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Part 1

In part 1 of a two-part conversation, the former lobbyist shares his thoughts on being referred to as an “orthodox Robin Hood” and discusses the conflicting feedback he’s receiving for writing his book, Capitol Punishment.

Jack Abramoff’s activities as a Washington power player landed him in federal prison. But, after serving his time, he’s determined to help end the corruption of the system he played so well. Abramoff began his political career as an undergrad at Brandeis, where he helmed the Massachusetts’ College Republican group and was elected as national chair. He honed his skills as head of President Reagan's grassroots lobbying organization and, after a stint as a film producer, built one of the most prestigious and profitable lobbying practices in the U.S. He tells his story in the new book, Capitol Punishment.


Tavis: Jack Abramoff was one of the most well-known lobbyists in Washington, becoming a master of a system that traded money, gifts and favors for political on Capitol Hill. But in 2004, his high stakes world came crashing down. After pleading guilty to federal charges he was sentenced to four years in prison.

The book about his ordeal and the shady system that he says still exists in Washington is called “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth about Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist.” Jack Abramoff, an honor to have you on this program.

Jack Abramoff: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: When I say “honor” I mean by that that it’s – I appreciate you sitting down to talk about what you did, in terms of your taking responsibility for it, and what this system is still doing, even as we speak.

Let me start by asking what at least appears to me to be a rather obvious question, which is why we, the reader, the American people, should believe you, why we should take you seriously, why any of this should be given any real regard.

Abramoff: Well, at the end of the day, unfortunately, I was behind certain closed doors in Washington that most Americans don’t get to be behind. I regret that I was behind them. But I saw in those rooms things that – and I did things in those rooms that I regret and that I regret is going on for this country, and I felt that when I was in prison, I’d already come to the epiphany that what I had done personally was wrong, that the system was wrong.

But I came to believe that I had to really speak out and talk about it because so much of what was wrong and is wrong is still happening, and nobody’s doing anything about it. Hopefully, by bringing it out in a book and talking about it, get people angry enough that they go and do something about it.

Tavis: Beyond the obvious, which was getting caught, tell me more about this “epiphany,” the genesis of this feeling of remorse.

Abramoff: Well, when my scandal started, I was probably at the top of my game. I was one of the leading lobbyists, if not the leading lobbyist, in Washington. I had the largest single practice in Washington. An article came out in “The Washington Post” kind of attacking me and my practice.

My initial response to that article – it’s kind of humorous to look back on it – was to wonder whether or not I should post it on our firm website. It was actually, we exchanged emails, the leadership of the firm and I, and finally determined that because the headline and the picture weren’t necessarily what we’d want that we wouldn’t post it. But we thought it would just blow over. We figured Washington has ADD.

Tavis: Let me jump in right quick. You thought to post it because it underscored how good you were at what you did.

Abramoff: Yeah, right.

Tavis: Okay.

Abramoff: It went through our pricing system, which other articles in “The New York Times” and “The Wall Street Journal” had gone through that as well, and I didn’t really think much about that, frankly. I thought it could have been a lot worse.

Then the days continued from there and the attacks continued, and Senator McCain got involved in attacking me, and all of a sudden it didn’t seem like it was going to go away immediately as I thought it would. It kept going and going.

But my attitude then shifted to I think what’s rather typical, and what’s unfortunately typical for a lot of the men that I was in prison with, which is why are they picking on me?

Tavis: Mm-hmm.

Abramoff: What did I do that’s really any different than everybody else is doing? Maybe I did more of it, but ultimately, it was the same stuff. That kind of attitude is not a positive attitude. That’s an “I’m a victim” attitude. I had that for a few months until I finally sat down and started re-reading all of the – not all, but a lot of the 850,000 emails that I had sent over the course of my career, and I decided to take an honest look at it.

Instead of being defensive, instead of saying everybody’s out to get me, to say am I missing something here? And in fact I was missing a lot, and I was rather shocked at the fact that I was involved in a system that’s probably not so good, and that I myself had gone over lines that I should never have gone over.

So it was a process for me, Tavis. This epiphany didn’t happen in a moment, it happened over months, and it happened before I went to prison. By the time I went to prison – and going to prison is a horrible thing – when I landed there finally I had come to realize that all of that was wrong and bad and I was ashamed of it and sorry about it.

But I really wanted to kind of go away and get out of the public spotlight and go away and hide. But in prison over those many months, walking the walking track and thinking about it, I decided that I knew too much that could be useful, and that even though I would be sticking my head back out into a place where people would be throwing things at it, and they have been, I would do it anyway and try to do something good, make some recompense.

Tavis: You’ve said three or four things I want to go back and get you to unpack. Let me take them right quick one at a time. One, when you suggest now that people have been whacking at your head again, what kind of response have you been getting to this?

Abramoff: Well, it’s interesting. For the most part it’s very positive. I think people for the most part realize that I’m sincere in my contrition and sincere in my regret and wanting to do something to A, change my life, and maybe B, make a difference that’s positive. So I think that’s mostly the reaction.

There are some people out there who basically say how can we trust you, how can we know if you’re really sincere? At the end of the day, nobody can know what’s in my heart other than God, and they just have to see what I do. I’m now dedicating myself and acting full-time to try to turn around a system I was involved in.

The other reaction is from the system itself, from K Street and from Capitol Hill, and it’s been, for the most part, pretty negative. They don’t want me talking about these things that take place inside, so some of them have taken to saying, “Don’t listen to him, he’s a criminal. Don’t listen to him, he’s a felon,” as if that somehow disqualifies me from speaking about crimes that I committed.

On the other hand, some people have been amazing. They’ve quietly contacted me and said, “Please keep going. This needs to happen. You, for whatever reason, have been thrust into a position where people are listening to you. Talk about it. Keep going with what you’re saying.”

Tavis: You mentioned God a moment ago, referencing the fact that only God knows what’s in your heart, and you’re right about that. Dr. King, who I regard so much, once said that there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us, so that none of us are perfect.

But I, even before getting this book, have always wondered, once I really started to read more about you – this is my first time meeting you, but as I started to read about you and how devout you were in your faith and how you gave almost 80 percent of your money away, a lot of money given to charity, I kept trying to get a better understanding of this balance of good and evil that’s in you and me and all the rest of us, and how, with all the good that you were doing with your earnings, it was coming from such a bad place, so that the bad, the evil, ends up overtaking the good and you end up spending almost four years in jail.

So because I wrestle with that, when Kevin Spacey, of course, you know, the great actor was on this program to promote “Casino Jack,” Spacey and I had a conversation, really, about who Jack Abramoff really was. Take a look at this clip from that conversation.

[Begin video clip.]

“Tavis:” You’re trying to soft sell, you’re trying to spin Jack Abramoff as a modern-day Robin Hood in that scene?

“Kevin Spacey:” I think maybe in his own mind, he was sort of the orthodox Robin Hood, yeah. Yeah, actually, that’s a very interesting point, because when I started doing research for the role, let’s face it, Abramoff was painted as the devil incarnate, the evilest – yeah, there’s the famous picture.

“Tavis:” Yup.

“Kevin Spacey:” The evilest, greediest man that ever walked the face of the Earth, except that when I then tried to find out okay, what did he do with all the money, like, was there a Swiss chalet, was there a big boat, was there a jet, was there family vacation? No, he wasn’t even paying his mortgage.

So he was giving away a lot of the money, and he was trying to do things that I think maybe in his mind justified some of the things that he and Mike Scanlon did that were not, as they would say, “kosher.”

[End video clip.]

Tavis: So were you an “orthodox Robin Hood?”

Abramoff: (Laughs) Well, it’s hard for me to look back and say I’m a Robin Hood or any kind of positive character. I did things that were wrong and I’m somebody who maybe wanted to, like all folks who have religious belief, they want to be a saint, but I’m a sinner, and I’m somebody who tripped over where I was going and maybe headed in directions I didn’t want to go in but I went in them anyway.

I own up to the things that I did that are wrong. Being somebody who wants to be religious doesn’t make me perfect and doesn’t make me necessarily any better than anybody else. It maybe makes me better than I would have been if I didn’t have that level.

Tavis: Was the charity, the philanthropy, a cover? Was it trying to compensate for the evil, for the wrong that you knew you were doing? I’m just trying to understand what was driving the charity, driving the philanthropy?

Abramoff: Well, no, it wasn’t. I was doing charity and had my whole life, since I was a little boy, because I feel that it’s right and I felt it’s right. I felt that God gave me resources to do things, and I have to tell you that while I was in the middle of my career I didn’t think I was doing evil. That’s part of the problem, by the way.

In my religion it’s actually better to know you’re doing wrong and try to improve that wrong than to think philosophically that what you’re doing is right and in fact it is wrong. I guess it’s sort of like if you’re on a voyage and your sextant is off on an ocean voyage and you wind up just 1 degree off, but then on your voyage you’ve crashed somewhere, and that wound up being with me.

I think the combination of working for clients whose causes I believed in, having nothing but victories but them, however those victories were attained, improperly or properly, making them a lot of money, making a lot of money for myself and giving it all away, probably reinforced in my mind that everything was just fine and impeded me from seeing the forest for the trees and really looking at who I was.

It really required, unfortunately for me, I wish it wasn’t the case, it required me being in the gutter, bleeding, before I finally took a look with truth as to what I was, what I did and what I was involved in, and when I did, I was not happy, but at least I was honest about it and I’ve tried to be honest since.

Tavis: Since you referenced your faith, and since Spacey used the term orthodox Robin Hood and then went on to make the joke that it wasn’t kosher, since he went there and you spoke on your faith, let me follow with this question, which just occurs to me now.

I’ve talked to a lot of friends over the years who happen to be Jewish, and I know something about this because I’m an African American and I know how I feel, just to be honest about it, I know how I feel when watching the news and I see a story that’s about to come up after the break, or they’re teasing a story about somebody who did something heinous in a certain part of town here in Los Angeles and I’m sitting here hoping and praying that it’s not a Black kid, that it’s not a Black man, because I get so tired of that collective guilt that we oftentimes feel because one of ours has done something that we’re not so proud of.

I’m not justifying it or saying that we ought to take that on, I just happen to because I love my people so much. I happen to take that on. So I wonder whether or not there is any guilt that you have felt over letting your people down. You’re an embarrassment to Jews, given what you did in Washington.

Bernie Madoff is an embarrassment to Jews, given what he did. Both of you guys are notorious. Since you raised your own faith, do you have any feelings or any processing of that?

Abramoff: Yeah, very much so. You’ve really hit it on the head. It’s been a constant nagging feeling that I can’t do anything about. You can’t unring the bell, and unfortunately for me, my image, which I built and others built for me, was extremely negative, and the fact that I was Jewish and orthodox came out.

The media dug into every part of my life. They even came up with articles about people I hit on the field in football; put them in “The L.A. Times” that I cleaned the clock of a linebacker. That became an article. So you can imagine about my religion.

So it was horribly embarrassing for me. I should say this, though – that the communities that I live in, both in Washington and in Los Angeles and elsewhere, have been nothing but unbelievably supportive of me and my family. We were big supporters of Jewish education, among other schools as well, not just Jewish education, and I think that there’s been an incredible outpouring of support for us, more than I deserve. My family deserves it, but I don’t.

But no matter what that support is, there is, in the back of my mind, the realization that I’ve committed, because of who I was, what I was, and what I became, what in Hebrew is called (speaks in Hebrew) which is basically a desecration of God’s name. That people should look and see a religious person involved in all these things and in that world, it really, unfortunately, was something that’s hard for me to live down.

Tavis: Since you recall and recount what the media said about you with such clarity and such remembrance, I wonder whether or not you ever felt, to your earlier point of why are they picking on me, that some persons in the media went too far, that it borderlined anti-Semitism?

Abramoff: Well, I try to not view things through a prism of anti-Semitism, because often, people will use that as a sort of knee-jerk reaction to any criticism of Jews. So I probably go the other way and I probably ignored things that I heard.

I didn’t hear really any overt anti-Semitism in my case. That’s not to say it wasn’t there; I just didn’t hear it. I frankly was so focused on what I did wrong that I didn’t really want to have mitigation coming in and saying, “Well, I did this wrong, but look how they’re treating me.”

The truth is there were things in the media that were outrageous, but they weren’t necessarily – I got blamed in some of the papers in Louisiana for Hurricane Katrina. Yeah, I was a good lobbyist, but I wasn’t that good a lobbyist, that I could do that. (Laughter) They said I took the money from the levees and got it to my Indian tribal client there, which was just not true.

So it kind of got out of hand, but it didn’t really get to where I saw credible people or other than kooks saying anti-Semitic stuff, and I didn’t really take into account the kook.

Tavis: I want to talk in a moment about your Native American clients. Before I jump to that, one last thing about the Spacey conversation. So this picture – maybe Jonathan can put it back up – but the infamous picture of you in the hat and the coat, you felt compelled, for obvious reasons, to even respond to that, to talk about that in the book.

Maybe again, people make too much out of it, but that is a Darth Vader-looking kind of picture. (Laughter) What were you thinking that day?

Abramoff: Well, I’ll tell you what I was thinking.

Tavis: (Unintelligible) the rain, is that it?

Abramoff: It was January in Washington, D.C., and it was raining, and I had, everywhere I went, the media, the paparazzi, let’s call them, were attacking me, and they were physical and they were nasty, and they would scream horrible things.

So I wanted to, on this day, where I was pleading guilty to crimes and realizing I was setting myself on a path that would land in prison, I didn’t want to deal with that. So I got up very early in the morning. My court date wasn’t for the later morning, early afternoon, but I got to the court at 6:00 in the morning.

When I left my house it was pouring rain, and I didn’t want to turn the lights on and wake up my wife or anyone, so I reached into my closet and grabbed a rain hat and a raincoat and then left, and put it on and marched into the courtroom alone, and nobody bothered me.

But I came out – there aren’t windows in the courtroom, and I didn’t know it stopped raining. I put on my hat and my coat to walk out. Nobody said anything to me. I frankly wasn’t focused on my sartorial splendor; I was focused on the fact that I had just pled guilty to crimes in a courtroom.

I walked out and immediately the media were there, and they started screaming, some of them were screaming “Boris Badenov,” some of them were screaming, “Mafiosi.” I thought at first, who are they talking to? I realized it was me, but I couldn’t exactly take my hat and coat off and throw it into the crowd, so I had to endure that 45 seconds of wearing it.

But that became ubiquitous in every coverage of me, and that became my wardrobe for life, it seems.

Tavis: You mentioned not wanting to wake the family. You have a wife, you have five kids.

Abramoff: Right.

Tavis: How do you talk to your kids about this, and how do you tell them that Daddy’s going away to the big house for four years?

Abramoff: Well, it was horrible. It was, again, like my coming to the realization of where I held, the realization of what was going to happen to me was over time, and it certainly had a devastating impact on my family, my kids, my father, my mother, may she rest in peace.

It was a horrible experience for us. My wife, I thank God, like every man, I married above myself, and in my case I married far – she’s far above me. She not only was there to support me and didn’t abandon me, but she bucked me up and bucked the kids up, and just I’m incredibly blessed and lucky to have her.

We would basically try to be honest with the kids and tell them what was happening and what was going on as we found out. We figured they were going to find out anyway, because everything about me was in the media. There were many teary nights and days at the house.

But in the course of all that, what was more important, I thought and my wife thought, was to try to give our kids perspective. They had a good life, and then all of a sudden their good life was gone. Their father, who to most of them was their best friend, was being taken away from them, and we didn’t know how long.

I didn’t even know how long until I was already in prison for 22 months, how long I’d wind up being there. So we would constantly try to refocus them. I remember one Friday night – we would have Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch dinner every week together as a family, with guests, usually, but once this started we stopped having guests, because everybody was so despondent.

I remember one Friday night, it was right after, I guess, we found out for certain I was going to have to go to prison, and it was during Hurricane Katrina, actually, and the kids were utterly despondent, with long faces, standing around the Sabbath table as we were going to begin our meal, and I was trying to think what to say to them and how to get them a little bit bucked up and just get through the meal, frankly.

So I noticed the paper over on the counter had a picture of a father who was clutching his daughter with a look of terror on their face, and they were inside the Super Dome, one of the many families whose everything was wiped out, and I said to the children, “Are you all right? What’s the matter?” They said, “What’s the matter? Our lives are over. We have nothing. We’re finished.”

I said, “Really?” I said, “Kids, yeah, we have some tough times coming and these have not been great times now, and our lives are going to be very different. But let me ask you a question – you see this fellow and his daughter? Would you rather trade with them?

“They don’t have a roof over their head; they don’t have food in front of them. They don’t even know where the rest of the family is. They don’t have any clothes other than what’s on their backs. Would you rather trade with them?”

We were all crying about that, but I tried to make the point, and I did, to them that no matter how bad it is for us, 90 percent of the world would trade places with us in an instant. And in fact even when I was in prison and even when I was in solitary confinement in prison, 90 percent of the world would probably say, “You know what? I’ll take that. I’ll take that (unintelligible) place.”

So having a perspective that what we had maybe before was more, but what we have every day is enough and is great and we have to be grateful for it, and that helped us get through it.

Tavis: And yet the story notwithstanding, which I appreciate your sharing, Jack, I would assume, though, that there is this – you tell me – I’m just assuming that there’s this feeling you have, though, of wanting to spend every day of the rest of your life trying to redeem yourself in the eyes of your own children. And if that’s not the case, then you tell me.

Abramoff: Yeah. Tavis, I never felt one day like that, because our kids saw what we did with our money. Our kids saw – they were with us. We had seven kids living in our house that weren’t our own who needed a place to stay. Our kids gave up their beds for kids who needed something.

So they knew what we were about and they knew what I was about. They knew I was in this political world and I was a big shot in this world, and that it was a rough world, but they knew that I was not an evil person. They knew I wasn’t the guy on TV.

They knew I made mistakes, but they knew it was something that I thought I was doing the right thing, which is, again, not necessarily good. I did sit down with the kids and explain to them what I did that was wrong, that I shouldn’t have done this, why these things are wrong, why they have to be very careful.

I think most of the lessons have taken. Maybe not every one of them – I’m very careful now about not breaking any laws, so when the kids drive with me they can’t stand it because I won’t go over the speeding limit. (Laughter)

But I think one of the lessons that I’ve gleaned from this of the many hundreds of lessons is you have to take rules and laws seriously, and I didn’t. I was arrogant and I felt that these things don’t apply to me. I’m after a greater goal. The ends justify the means.

So my kids got a graphic example of what happens when you behave like that, and I think those are the lessons. But in terms of feeling to redeem myself or feeling to somehow explain it to them, I guess maybe I have such great kids they never made me feel like I had to, and I think that they intuitively got some of it and the rest of it we explained to them.

Tavis: I’ve got two minutes left in this program tonight, and I’m glad I have another night with Jack Abramoff to really get into the other stuff, which is what he did and why he did it and who else was doing it and what’s wrong with the system and how the system ought to be fixed, the reform that he talks about in the book.

But before we close the program tonight, in terms of setting up the conversation tomorrow night, why were you a lobbyist? What I’m really getting at here is what did you think, what good, politically, did you think you were doing? Why were you in this game?

Abramoff: Well, I was a very political animal, and I didn’t want to run for office. Ironically, I didn’t want to run for office because I didn’t want my private life spilled all over the press. (Laughter) So I guess that strategy didn’t work.

Tavis: Ba-dum-bump.

Abramoff: Yeah, exactly. (Laughter) But I love politics and I was involved from the time I was a very young man in politics, and lobbying gave me an opportunity to engage in political combat on behalf of causes that I believed in. A lot of my clients were kind of underdogs, and I enjoyed beating the establishment on their behalf, and we never lost. So I got that extra-heady feeling of it, for better or for worse.

I got into lobbying kind of against my will at first. I frankly didn’t want to be a lobbyist, but I realized that in lobbying I could do things politically that were interesting to me and do some what I thought would be good. I’m not sure it all turned out like that, but at least that was some of the initial thinking.

Tavis: So tomorrow night we’ll pick up this conversation right where we’ve left off, with Jack Abramoff talking about, in fact, what he did do – what he did right, what he did wrong; again, who else was doing it and why the system was rigged in such a way that he could be so successful at what he was doing, and most importantly, what it is that we can do now to fix this system in Washington.

How do we get money out of politics, and both the Democrats and the Republicans are guilty of this even as we speak, as we all know, especially now with super-PACs engaged in this process. So again, a lot more to talk about tomorrow night.

The new book from Jack Abramoff is called “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth about Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist.” We’ll continue this tomorrow night right here on PBS. I’ll be back, and Jack, you’ll be back too.

Abramoff: Thank you.

Tavis: All right. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

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Last modified: July 3, 2014 at 6:36 pm