Disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who says he once made $20 million in a year before going to federal prison on public corruption charges, wants to produce movies and a reality television show. And he would like to help reform the political system he exploited for years.
Abramoff, at the center of an influence-peddling scandal that helped cost the Republicans their House majority in 2006, spent 3 1/2 years of a six-year term in prison and now is looking to help clean up the lobbying system he corrupted in the nation’s capital.
He also wants to make a living, noting that he is broke and still owes $44 million in court-ordered restitution to several Indian tribes he swindled, his former law firm and others.
“I was involved deeply in a system of bribery, legal for the most part, but some illegal,” Abramoff said during a speech Monday at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, a man he says he spent much of his career fighting. He told a crowd of about 100 what’s wrong with money in politics.
“I was never the Satan the media made me out to be,” he told The Washington Times after his talk.
Abramoff, who has written a book called “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist,” wants to rehabilitate his image. He made a fortune lobbying by providing gifts and favors to congressional and executive branch officials who helped his clients. He also was charged with defrauding the Indian tribes that paid millions of dollars for his help on gambling issues.
Now a convicted felon, he said he was “trying to do whatever I can to earn a living,” adding that it is “hard for a felon in America to make money.” He said he has been asked to do lobbying but turned down those offers, and he has made only a few thousand dollars from the sales of his book.
“If I sell as many as copies as they have sold of the Bible, I may be able to make some restitution,” he said.
Abramoff said he is working on a reality television show focusing on corruption in Washington, hoping it “gives insight into what goes on in this town.” Producing such a show would not be a stretch: Abramoff grew up in Beverly Hills, Calif., and produced a movie in the 1980s before he became a lobbyist.
He said he also would like to produce a couple of scripts he wrote before he went to prison, both action-fantasy dramas and not related to politics.
Abramoff pleaded guilty in January 2006 to charges of conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud, agreeing to cooperate in an ongoing investigation into influence peddling on Capitol Hill. He admitted to U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle that he had taken part in a scheme involving the “corruption of public officials,” saying he gave campaign contributions and funded lavish trips and other items “in exchange for certain official acts.”
As part of a plea bargain, Abramoff - in seeking to avoid a 30-year prison sentence - agreed to cooperate with the federal investigation. Two years later, he was sentenced to six years in prison on his guilty plea in the Washington case and a related plea on charges brought on a separate case in Miami.
While the Washington probe ensnared 20 others, including one member of Congress, former Rep. Bob Ney, Ohio Republican, as well as congressional and executive branch staffers, lawyers and lobbyists, it never reached the level expected after allegations of a pay-to-play scheme surfaced.
Abramoff said prosecutors were not able to charge more members of Congress because of the speech or debate clause, which protects members from having their official actions used against them. Of former Rep. William J. Jefferson, who was convicted of bribery in an unrelated case, Abramoff said that if he had placed his bribe money in his office freezer instead of his home freezer, the Louisiana Democrat would still be in office “enjoying his money.”
He told the Public Citizens group that to clean up the system, lobbyists or any special interests that benefit from the federal government should be barred from making campaign donations. He said his ability to raise millions of dollars from his clients helped him make friends in Congress.
Abramoff also said Congress should ban the revolving door, barring members and their staffers from going to work as lobbyists. He said 90 percent of the people with whom he dealt on Capitol Hill wanted to come work for him and that offering staffers jobs “was an incredible way to control a congressional office.”
He said he spent $1.5 million a year for tickets to sporting events and concerts he gave to people he wanted to influence. He also said bribery takes place over time and he would provide “a stream of goodies and then ask them back for a stream of goodies the other way.” He also called for term limits for members of Congress.
Abramoff said he made from $5 million to $20 million a year lobbying, although he was not sure how much money he made overall in his lobbying career. An estimate, he said, would be from $50 million to $80 million. He said he and his wife gave 80 percent of the money to charity and community causes, adding, “We didn’t live extravagantly.”