WASHINGTON (AP) - Jack Abramoff can’t say he wasn’t warned.
When the now-notorious lobbyist was a rising star as Republicans expanded their power in Washington, a concerned senior partner in his firm warned against his win-at-all-costs approach to business. “At the rate you’re going,” the boss said, “you’re either going to be dead, disgraced or in jail in five years.”
Abramoff writes in his autobiography, out Monday, that the line rang in his ears for the next decade, including the 3 1/2 years he spent in a federal penitentiary paying for his bribery of public officials and other crimes before his release last year.
The 52-year-old’s name has become a synonym for Washington corruption. The influence-peddling schemes he masterminded ultimately resulted in conviction of 20 people and changed federal lobbying laws.
But Abramoff says the reforms aren’t tough enough to keep special-interest power in check and, from his insider perspective, he lays out what more needs to be done.
He writes in “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist” that there still are plenty of corrupt lobbying practices that are perfectly legal.
“Virtually everything that I did people are still doing,” he said Monday in an interview on CBS’s “Early Show.” Abramoff added that if he hadn’t gotten caught, he would probably still be operating the same way.
Abramoff is now out of the lobbying business, but the father of five has returned to the home he shares with his wife in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Md., and is promoting the book, including an interview aired Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” Authorities have said in court filings they are looking into using the book proceeds to help repay a $23 million restitution order to his victims.
Abramoff became a lobbyist in 1994 after the Republican takeover of Congress, when firms were eager to hire help with conservative credentials. Abramoff was the former two-term chairman of the College Republican National Committee and executive director of President Ronald Reagan’s grassroots lobbying organization, Citizens for America, and rode the Republican bandwagon of power in the House.
He was especially close to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. He writes that the two bonded over their adherence to religion; Abramoff is an orthodox Jew, DeLay a born-again Christian. Abramoff got his clients to donate generously to DeLay, helping build the No. 2 House Republican’s power and giving himself an ally in a high office.
He built relationships with other congressional offices by collecting campaign cash for those who helped his clients. He charged high fees, but they were his ultimate undoing. He often charged $150,000 a month instead of an industry standard closer to $10,000 a month. It’s a practice he defends in his book because of the results he says he delivered.
The Washington Post in 2004 began a Pulitzer Prize-winning series investigating the tens of millions of dollars that American Indian tribal clients were paying Abramoff and his business partner, former DeLay spokesman Michael Scanlon, who provided grassroots organizing services.
It eventually was revealed that the two men were secretly kicking back profits to one another worth more than $20 million, and the Justice Department pursued felony charges.
Both pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with an investigation that would lead to the conviction of other lobbyists on Abramoff’s team, congressional figures including Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney and officials in the Bush administration.
Many of the lobbyists were convicted for winning favors for their clients after taking public officials out for meals at fancy restaurants and giving them tickets to sporting events and concerts. He ran his own restaurant on Pennsylvania Ave. between the Capitol and the White House that became a hangout for Ney and other Hill figures. Abramoff had skyboxes at all the Washington area venues and says the firm acted like Ticketmaster to Capitol Hill. The reform law passed in response makes it illegal for lobbyists to give those gifts.