Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Part 2

In part two of his conversation with Tavis, the former lobbyist and author of Capitol Punishment explains what leads to corruption in politicians and the revolving door on Washington’s K Street.

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.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Back now with Jack Abramoff. His new book is called “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth about Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist.”

I appreciate him giving us not one but two nights on this program to try to get into what he found himself into in this cesspool that I call Washington politics, oftentimes, and what could be done now to fix the system, the broken system, where money and politics seem to be so intertwined in the nation’s capital and beyond.

Last night I closed our conversation by asking you what you were doing as a lobbyist and what your intent was and why you got involved in the process. From a political point of view, what was your end and aim, politically, with your lobbying efforts?

Jack Abramoff: Well, I was a Republican, and a conservative Republican, and one of the things I wanted to do in lobbying is to bring more Republican presidents onto Capitol Hill – I’m sorry, onto K Street from Capitol Hill.

They had a whole project called the K Street Project. I wasn’t really a participant in the sense that I got my job before they started that project, and I was at the beginning a supporter of it, but not necessarily all the way through.

But when I was a young man and I headed the College Republicans, we did a lot of work on college campuses, free market work. One of the things that disturbed me was that we had no money. We had literally no money.

I had Grover Norquist, who was my executive director with a Harvard MBA, being paid $1,000 a month as the highest-paid individual in the organization. Ralph Reed, who later went on to head the Christian Coalition, was paid $100 a month. That’s the kind of money we had.

I would go to K Street and ask them to help us, because we were being pro-free market, and well, I figured pro their interests, and nobody would ever help us. I never understood that.

So as a lobbyist I wanted to kind of reorient the K Street money back at least equally to both sides. Those were my initial goals, I think, as I entered.

Tavis: To your point now, that revolving door, if I can use that phrase, that you were admittedly trying to make revolve a little faster with regard to your interests -

Abramoff: Right.

Tavis: – still exists today. One of the things that is most arresting in the reading of this text from you is the relationship that you had to chiefs of staff for members of Congress. And oh, my, when I got into the relationship you had with them and what you were doing for them and what they were doing for you and that you’d promise them a job when they were off the Hill, where they knew they could make real money when they left Capitol Hill.

We’ve heard the president talk about this, and quite frankly, he’s being a little hypocritical about it right now, too, and the vice president, saying they weren’t going to hire lobbyists. Vice President Biden has done it recently; the campaign has done it, the Obama campaign has done it recently.

So they’re kind of violating their own rule about lobbyists, but that’s another conversation for another time. But you – I’ll let you tell the story of the relationship you had with chief of staff, members of Congress. You guys are basically writing legislation for them. Tell me more.

Abramoff: Yeah. I think that one thing is true on Capitol Hill as it is in major institutions – the staff is very important. What has happened in Congress is it’s evolved, or devolved, from the days of Daniel Webster, let’s just say, where he was a congressman, and others. They didn’t have a staff. They wrote their own letters, their own correspondence, their own speeches, their own legislation, and everything was fine.

Now they’re like mini-corporations, so the congressman is the chairman of the board, let’s just say, and you need to go to the congressman for certain things, but the staff run the show. That became very – that was evident to me almost immediately when I became a lobbyist, so I started focusing all of our efforts on the staff, both in terms of dealings and in terms of hiring.

I noticed when I hired them, as you talked about the revolving door, and one of the reasons I believe part of the reforms that are necessary is to shut the revolving door, I at first, when I’m building my practice, the first few people I hired I had to hire immediately. I needed them to come on board that week, because I needed somebody.

But after a while, as I built the team of eventually about 40 lobbyists who worked for me, I would hire somebody a year out. I noticed that once I made an agreement with them to come to work for me in a year, that year they were mine anyway, because they were featherbedding. They were preparing themselves to come work for me.

They were actually more vigorous in support of my clients than my own staff was, and they were doing things that even my own staff couldn’t think of?

Tavis: “How about I write this piece of legislation for you?”

Abramoff: Exactly. Or how about I just heard – “Jack, I just heard in a private discussion that your client may be included in this bill,” calling us early. All sorts of things.

They’re on the payroll of the people of the United States, in the Congress, and they’re working for the lobbyists. They were working for me, and I’m not the only one who’s doing this.

And it’s legal, is the biggest problem. One of the things that I say to people is 99 percent of what I did was legal. One can operate completely contemptuously and corruptly within the law, because the people drawing the lines of the law are the people benefitting from this – people on Capitol Hill.

So in this case, I would try to hire only chiefs of staff or legislative directors. I tried not to hire congressmen. I actually only hired one and I did it as a favor to the leadership, because congressmen had, for the most part, a sense of entitlement, they were lazy.

Not every one of them, of course. They were lazy, they didn’t know their own jobs and they frankly didn’t know the process. So I would hire chiefs of staff, because my staff, my lobbying operation, were a bunch of killers. They were razors. We never lost. I didn’t want lazy people on board, so I ignored the congressmen, as far as that went.

Tavis: You were found guilty specifically of what?

Abramoff: Well, I pled guilty to three things. One, that I didn’t inform my clients that some of the organizations that I recommended to them to do outside of Washington work, that I worked with doing those things, that I was sharing the profits of those organizations. That was fraud that I didn’t. I was obligated to do it, and I didn’t do it.

Number two, I diverted money that was due to me directly to some of the charities I supported, and by doing that, at a certain point of giving, you don’t get a dollar-for-dollar deduction any longer. So that wound up being tax fraud.

Then finally, I provided public servants, members of Congress and their staff, ongoing streams of goodies. Meals, tickets to ball games, golf, contributions, et cetera, to get them to do things for my clients, and that was services fraud, and those were the three things I pled guilty to.

Tavis: How does that last one end up being so prevalent in Washington, accepting these gifts?

Abramoff: Well, the biggest problem there, Tavis, and I had this problem too, and I’m not going to be a hypocrite and say that I saw this when I was there, is at the end of the day, when somebody who wants something from the government, either as a lobbyist – and I don’t mean lobbyist, by the way, as defined. I mean even the history professors who claim to be strategic advisers and things like that.

Anybody in the influence industry, when they or their clients or anybody getting something special from the government give money to a congressman or convey a financial interest to a public servant, that is a bribe. Now, it’s not talked about as a bribe and it’s dressed up very nicely, and we know a bribe is when you show up with a sack of cash and say, “Here’s $10,000 in cash, can you do this for me?”

But if I show up with 10 $1,000 campaign contributions and say the same thing, that’s not a bribe in Washington. Outside of Washington, everybody gets this, I’ve come to find, but inside Washington, that’s the way it’s done, and that’s the problem.

We have institutionalized corruption in Washington. It’s perfectly accepted, and it’s acceptable to virtually everybody, and that’s where things need to change.

Tavis: If lobbying in Washington today is essentially legalized bribery and normalized corruption, why do we allow it? Why does K Street even exist?

Abramoff: Most lobbying, most lobbyists, there are tens of thousands of them, are not engaged in this. Most of them are frankly trying to represent their clients by putting forth the merits of their arguments, et cetera, as a lawyer would in court.

The problem is since the playing field is so tilted by the money, by those few lobbyists, like I was, who have the capacity to bring resources to the picture that the others don’t, there’s just no way for them to win any of these arguments against a lobbyist like I was.

We never lost. We never really went up against people who had anywhere near the resources we did. So as a consequence, most of the lobbying is fine there. The problem is, though, that the people drawing the laws, 90 percent of them want to move to K Street.

Ninety percent of them, at least in my experience, want to be lobbyists, and so they want to featherbed and set themselves up such that they’re not going to make life too difficult. We need systemic change in Washington, and it is a foundational change, and that’s the kind of thing I write about in the book.

Tavis: I want to start talking about some of those changes now. With regard to this particular issue of this revolving door, working on Capitol Hill and then going to K Street, how do we solve that problem?

Abramoff: Well, my solution for that is that if you are somebody who worked on Capitol Hill or were an elected member of Congress, you can never go through the revolving door and draw a check in the influence industry.

Now, it’s unlikely that a proscription for the rest of your life will survive constitutionally; however, then we should make it for 10 years or 15 years. What we have right now is a joke. It’s basically a one or two-year layoff period, and I’ll tell you what happens, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

A senator will come off Capitol Hill and they’ll be barred from two years from lobbying in the Senate. So they’ll pick the phone up and they’ll call their buddy, the senator, their old buddies, and they’ll say, “Listen, I’m here at this law firm now. I can’t lobby you, but my new partner, Jack, can lobby you. Can he come up and meet with you?” So what’s the difference?

Tavis: So they’re of counsel.

Abramoff: They’re of counsel, or they’re strategic advisers, or – in fact, they get away with not even registering. The entire registration structure is ridiculous. After Gingrich came out and said he was a history professor or something like that instead of a lobbyist, I actually for the first time in my life went into the Lobbying Disclosure Act to look at what is the definition of a lobbyist.

I never actually thought I needed to do it when I was a lobbyist, because I figured, of course I’m a lobbyist. It turns out I’m not sure I was a lobbyist at the end of the day. It’s written with such loopholes, it’s absurd.

So people who basically are on Capitol Hill, they need to be barred from making that transition. First of all, it is the source of immense corruption, as I write about and we discussed. Number two, people resent it properly in this country. They don’t like seeing people come to do public service who are coming in as middle class folks and leaving as multimillionaires. People resent that, and I think it’s part of the reason that Congress is held in such low esteem.

Tavis: That law would certainly cover a lot more staff people than members of Congress themselves.

Abramoff: Right.

Tavis: How tough can we or ought we be on members of Congress specifically? I know they’re included in the answer you’ve just said, but take it a step further for me. With specific regard to lawmakers, what are we missing about locking them down on this issue?

Abramoff: Well, I think again, anybody up there needs to be completely locked out. If you choose public service – nobody’s forcing you to be a congressman. Nobody forces somebody – I’ve never seen anybody taken at gunpoint onto Capitol Hill, said, “Sit down in this office and start working here.” You do it voluntarily, and by the way, you acquire immense skills up there, which are very marketable skills.

Do your time up there, have your service, go home. Don’t stay in Washington. Washington could be a dangerous place, so get out and go do something positive.

Tavis: On this program just last week we did three nights of a conversation called “Made Visible: Women and Children in Poverty in America.” A three-night conversation about poverty specifically with regard to women and children who are falling fastest into poverty in this country.

As a part of that conversation, I can’t quote the source, and that’s why if you want to go to our website, PBS.org, and you can find the comment made by Dr. Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College for Women and one of the nation’s leading economists, but she pointed to a study that I’ve seen, I just can’t recall it right now, that finds that members of Congress come and do office worth one amount, what you just said a moment ago, and they leave 10, 15 years later, and they have tripled and they have quadrupled their wealth.

Now, we know what we’re paying them as, quote, unquote, “public servants.” But how is it that they legally come in worth $150,000, $200,000, and they leave worth triple or quadruple that legally. How do members of Congress increase their wealthy in that way, because I want to know how to do this?

Abramoff: (Laughter) Well, there are a lot of ways they do it, and I -

Tavis: But they do it legally, though.

Abramoff: Of course.

Tavis: How do they do it?

Abramoff: Well, first of all, part of what they do is they don’t apply every law that they apply to us to themselves. Of course, the insider trading has become very familiar to everybody, and that’s a source for a number of them increasing their wealth. Getting stock options, Nancy Pelosi was famously outed by “60 Minutes” getting friends and family stock options. That goes on all the while with everyone up there, perhaps.

Speaker Hastert, former Speaker Hastert, had property that he knew where they were going to put some infrastructure, and so he bought the property and he benefitted immensely.

So multiply that across the board. You’re talking about Congress, who’s dealing with trillions of dollars. They know where the programs are at, they know where the infrastructure improvements are at, and they’re clever. So in many respects, they do it like that.

There are other ways to do it too. Some of this is now starting to come out. They put their family on the payroll. They put all their expenses on the campaign payroll. Some of these campaigns are funding incredible lifestyles for their entire family, and this is money that they’re raising ostensibly to run for office, yet it’s somehow being accorded to them.

They live like oligarchs. They don’t live like us. They live like oligarchs. Senators, I wrote a piece about senator travel, how they travel. One senator wanted his own bottled water when he went overseas, and actually, I’m told, sent an airplane of the Air Force back to the United States to get his water, because he didn’t like the water they had for him.

This is what we’re dealing with, and this comes from arrogance. By the way, this comes from them being there over time. As a lobbyist, I was completely against term limits, and I know a lot of people are against term limits, and I was one of the leaders, because why? As a lobbyist, once you buy a congressional office, you don’t have to re-buy that office in six years, right?

Tavis: (Laughs) You want your ROI.

Abramoff: Exactly. Frankly, you want every one of them to stay there as long as Strom Thurmond. Die when you’re a hundred years old, have the undertaker take you out. That’s the ideal congressman to a lobbyist. Then you just maintain that relationship.

But the fact is, most of these members over time become corrupted. Not necessarily corrupt in the sense that they’re going to get a bag of cash that somebody’s going to give them, but in terms of the programs they’re putting through, some of them really aren’t the most proper programs. Some of the favors they make sure people have.

Tavis: All the pork.

Abramoff: All the pork and all the lobbyists who have given them money over the years and asking for favors, it invariably happens. I’ll tell you a quick story, if I can.

Tavis: Sure.

Abramoff: There was a congressman in 1994 – I became a lobbyist at the end of ’94 and the Republicans took over the Congress, 52 new seats, and they for the first time grabbed the House of Representatives.

There was one congressman from the South who we were told will not deal with lobbyists. He won’t talk to lobbyists – he was a freshman then. He won’t take money from us; he won’t take PAC money, et cetera. Okay, so you write him off. There are 435 congressmen, you can pick another one.

Next year, he gets – next time he gets elected, ’96, he gets elected in ’98. In ’99 I get a call from one of my staffers. Now, I had more tickets, probably, to all the sports venues than anybody in town. I spent a million and a half dollars a year on sports tickets just to give out to Congress and the rest of them.

So I get a call, and I had these great seats on the Wizards on the floor, like Jack Nicholson type seats, on the floor, and Jordan was playing that year. I get a call from one of my staffers, and he says, “Congressman So-and-So would like to take his son to the game tonight.” I said, “No, you’re making a mistake.”

Tavis: Not that congressman.

Abramoff: He doesn’t deal with us. He said, “No, I just hung up from them.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Yeah, he wants tickets to the game for his son and him.” I said, “Okay. But I’m going tonight with my son. Is he going to mind sitting next to me? I’m a lobbyist.” He said, “No, he doesn’t mind at all.”

So I get there, and there’s this congressman who six years before had said he was never going to do any of this, and the first thing he leans over and says, “So, Jack, tell me about your clients.” Now, that’s the beginning of a conversation, Tavis, that always ends with, “I’m having a fund-raising event next week,” and it did end with that.

Tavis: Wow.

Abramoff: I thought to myself, there it is. If that’s not proof, what is?

Tavis: What leads to their being corrupted? Is it the power, is it the money or is it just the time spent in Washington, being there too long, or all three?

Abramoff: All three, and it starts immediately, by the way. They’re elected in November. In December, new congressman and everybody comes to Washington to organize the caucuses and organize their leadership, and that’s where their leadership – both parties, by the way, do this, Republican and Democrat – the leadership says to them, “We need you freshmen congressmen, your first mission is to get reelected. That’s what we need you to do.

“We don’t need to go fight for your seat again, so get reelected,” meaning pay off your campaign debt – most of them have debt. Now, how are you going to pay off your campaign debt? Meet the lobbyist. I remember myself being introduced to many freshmen congressmen and saying, “What do you need? What do you need?” All of a sudden (unintelligible).

Tavis: So you put your hooks in them the minute they get there.

Abramoff: Right, before they’re inaugurated. Before they’re sworn in. Before they’re sworn in, that’s when it starts. Now, not for all of them.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Abramoff: Some of them resist it. But what I’m saying is over time, even they usually break down.

Tavis: We cannot have this conversation, at least I cannot, without talking about many of your Republican friends who happen to be in the banking industry, who happen to be on Wall Street, because if there is a revolving door in Washington, it ain’t just revolving from Capitol Hill to K Street. It’s a revolving door from Capitol Hill to Wall Street.

Abramoff: Right.

Tavis: From one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to Wall Street. Give me your sense – I didn’t get as much of this as I’d hoped to get in the book, and maybe it’s because you’re Republican and many of them are, and I’m not trying to demonize Republicans, because both the left and the right are in this game.

Abramoff: Right.

Tavis: But of late, of course, there’s been much more conversation about Wall Street, so is it really Congress? Is it really the lobbyists? Or can one make the argument that most all these guys are beholden to this money?

Abramoff: Well, I didn’t, by the way, include it because I didn’t lobby on those issues and wasn’t involved with them, and it is very much as you say, it’s Republicans and Democrats, obviously. Goldman Sachs and all of these other folks are on both sides.

I think that the problem that we see revolving out from the Congress into the industry, into Wall Street, a lot of them basically are government affairs people on Wall Street. They use their political clout, and that’s exactly the kind of bar that I think needs to be put in place.

Whether somebody shows up at a lobbying firm or you show up at a bank or you show up at a labor union, wherever you show up after you’ve been involved in Capitol Hill, you shouldn’t be doing it if you’re going to be using that influence on the street.

Now, if you happen to be in Congress, if you happen to be somebody who’s a financial genius, you’re going to go work in the actuarial departments or whatever, okay, fine. You’re not then in the influence industry.

My concern is that they use their public service to basically re-influence through the influence industry, and I think that’s what’s improper.

Tavis: But if Republicans and Democrats are all beholden to the lobbyists on K Street and they’re beholden to all this Wall Street money, if both sides are guilty of this, how do you ever get traction on getting this fixed?

Abramoff: Well, I’m working with a group called United Republic, and United Republic, I’ve become a senior fellow there. They’re pretty much a progressive group of individuals, but they’re on both sides, and we’re taking the approach that we’d like to draft legislation, and we’re working on it, by the way, that fits these things that we’re talking about today.

It actually makes draconian changes in the system. Then we intend to launch a political campaign this year where people are going to be requested, congressmen and challengers, to pledge that they will co-sponsor this legislation, that they will vote for it without amendment, including technical amendments, because that’s one of the tricks.

That they will vote at every juncture to move this bill through the process, and if they don’t do that and they violate their pledge to the American people, they will not run for office again.

Tavis: Now, simple question – why would anybody on Capitol Hill in their right mind sign that pledge?

Abramoff: Sign that? I can tell you why.

Tavis: All right.

Abramoff: Because if their challenger signs it, the challenger can stand up and say, “You basically refuse to pledge that A, you won’t take bribes, B, you won’t cash in, C, you’re not going to come home, you’re going to stay there for life, and D, you’re not going to pass laws that don’t apply to you. So you’re saying to us that you’re so imperious and you’re so arrogant that you’re saying you’re going to take bribes, cash in and do all these things? Why would anybody vote for you?”

It gives the challengers a weapon of immense power. I think a lot of them are going to sign on to it. They’re going to hate it, but the truth is America’s sick of this. I’ve been on tons of shows since my book has come out. I’ve been all over the country, speaking.

I have yet to encounter anybody outside of Washington who thinks that any of these things make sense. Every American understands this – left, right, center.

Tavis: I take your point, and yet I’ve had countless conversations on this program about super-PACs, where President Obama said he wasn’t going to do this. He chastised the Supreme Court sitting on the front row of the well of the House in his State of the Union speech last year. He chastised the Supreme Court sitting there for their decision on Citizens United.

He chastises them, says, “I’m not going to do it,” has done a 180. He’s playing the same super-PAC game as everybody else. I’m not saying this to demonize him; I’m saying it to get to your point.

Abramoff: Right.

Tavis: That everybody in defense of him says that he has to do this, because if he doesn’t do it, he’s going to get his clock cleaned by the Republicans and he can’t get reelected and get “serious” about campaign finance reform.

So the American people want the Republicans to play the super-PAC game, because they want to defeat Barack Obama. So what you’re telling me is that the American people are sick of this; what I’m saying is they’re not. If they were sick of it, they wouldn’t be supporting the super-PACs who are supporting Republicans.

If they were sick of it, they wouldn’t be supporting Obama playing the same super-PAC game so he can get reelected, because we don’t want the other guys to win. Everybody’s playing the same game, and you’re telling me the American people are sick of this?

Abramoff: Well, I don’t think most Americans are playing the super-PAC game. I think what you have is elites on both sides playing the super-PAC game.

Tavis: Yeah, but they’re being – when you talk to their supporters, who are voters, they say he’s got to play that game because he’s got to win.

Abramoff: Right, right.

Tavis: Or Republicans, we’ve got to play this game because Obama’s going to raise a billion dollars. He’s the incumbent.

Abramoff: I’ve got to tell you, Tavis, I also, I’m an all-in advocate for changing this system, like term limits, but I am against anybody term-limiting themselves until it’s the rules.

Unilateral disarmament in politics is not going to get you anywhere. It’s one thing to promise you’re not going to do something and then do it. Maybe the president did that; I don’t know, okay? What we need to do is get the laws changed. What we need to do is get something through.

I believe – look, who knows? All we can do is try. I believe that there’s enough anger out there, there are enough people in the media in terms of talk radio, in terms of TV, in terms of print media, who are angry about this, and I think that candidates indeed can be embarrassed into signing this.

What our hope is, frankly, is that we find six races – three Republicans and three Democrats – where somebody has signed it and somebody didn’t sign it, and then pour all of those who care about this into those races and defeat those who didn’t sign it.

It is only that which Capitol Hill understands. At the end of the day, you can’t say, “I’m going to take away your money.” There’s too much money. There was never a congressman who I said, “Look, I’m not going to support you, I’m not going to give you the money,” who knew he couldn’t go get more money.

But if they lose their office, that’s what they understand. That’s the coin of the realm, and that’s what America has to do.

Tavis: That’s a sad indictment.

Abramoff: It is.

Tavis: It’s real, but it’s a sad indictment.

Abramoff: Yup.

Tavis: The book is called “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth about Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist.” His name, of course, Jack Abramoff. I appreciate you writing the book, I appreciate the work you’re doing and I appreciate you sitting here to get grilled about this for two nights. Thank you very much.

Abramoff: Thanks.

Tavis: Glad to have you here.

Abramoff: Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you, Jack. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

COMMENTS

  1. Laurie
    April 5, 2012 at 1:02 am

    I believe America is now a plutocracy. It will be very difficult to take the country back, but books like Abramoff’s can help!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Please note that the WNET editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness. No solicitations or advertisements will be allowed. Users may link to other Web sites relevant to discussion, but most often links to commercial Web sites will not be permitted.
Last modified: April 5, 2012 at 3:23 pm