RALEIGH — A crowd of North Carolinians stepped into the mind of a master government manipulator last week when notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff came to town.
Those familiar with Abramoff’s past might have found his soft-spoken, nervous demeanor surprising. The infamous influence peddler became the poster boy for political corruption in Washington, D.C, during the first years of President George W. Bush’s second term.
But since leaving federal prison in 2010, Abramoff has become a crusader for draining the corruption swamp — and an apologetic one, too.
“In the course of wanting to win, in the course of pushing the envelopes, I pushed over lines in the sand that I stopped caring about. And ultimately, I allowed the ends to justify the means,” Abramoff said during an appearance Feb. 9 at William Peace University in Raleigh meant to promote his new book, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist.
Abramoff was sentenced on state charges in 2006 and federal charges in 2008 arising from his lobbying activities — defrauding Indian tribes in connection with casino operations, bribing elected officials, and evading taxes. The scandal, which observers have dubbed the most significant since Watergate, reached all corners of the executive and legislative branches of government.
Road to perdition
Abramoff’s road to becoming one of the most successful lobbyists on Capitol Hill began when the Republicans reclaimed control of Congress in 1994. His next-door neighbor, a managing partner in a law firm that advocated for Microsoft’s interests, solicited him to become a lobbyist for GOP causes.
“Over a period of 10 years, I figured out the lobbying business — unfortunately for me, a little too well — and built what wound up being a pretty large lobbying practice,” Abramoff said. “Slowly but surely, I slipped into a quagmire, personally and systemically.”
Abramoff said that he built his practice into a powerhouse of 40 lobbyists, reaping billions of dollars in benefits for his clients and earning tens of millions of dollars for himself.
“The irony is that I thought I was a moral lobbyist, I thought I was a good lobbyist,” Abramoff said. “Why? Because my clients always won, and if they didn’t win, I’d give them their money back. To me that was the metric of morality.”
Abramoff faced the beginning of the end when the U.S. Justice Department launched a probe into his conduct. His emails — about 850,000 written during his decade-long career in lobbying — were subpoenaed and became front-page news.
“I became the poster child for that old adage, ‘Don’t write anything in your email that you don’t want to read on the front page of the Washington Post,’” Abramoff said.
Abramoff says he spent 1,299 days in federal prison. While there, he caught a vision to work toward repairing the system. Not to clear his name — a feat that he says is impossible — but to make a positive difference.
“Most people show up [in Washington] wanting to do good,” Abramoff said. “They want to reform the system, they want to be OK. But the system ultimately gets to them.”
On specific reforms, Abramoff recommended repealing the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which established that U.S. senators be elected by popular vote rather than selected by state legislatures.
“These races have become targets and magnets for people like I was, to come in with big money,” he said. “If the senators are elected as they were originally intended to be — by their state legislators — you are removing massive federal corruption.”
Abramoff said that public financing of campaigns isn’t practicable because Republicans will never agree to it, and that a three-party system isn’t feasible, either. But he did promote a ban on lawmakers serving as lobbyists after leaving office, and he backed term limits.
“Term limits is important because it’s rare, if not impossible, to find a member who over time doesn’t descend into some sort of corruption,” Abramoff said. “Even if they are convincing themselves that they are OK, in essence they are taking money from lobbyists, they are getting involved with special interests, they are putting through programs that are spending money in ways that are probably inappropriate.”
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.