He writes that he funneled money — as well as millions of dollars worth of sports tickets, private jet trips, restaurant meals and golfing excursions — to members of Congress when he needed favors, and he handed out more money when those favors were granted. The recipients did not earn his respect; lawmakers are “generally lazy” and overly dependent on staff susceptible to outside influence, he writes. “Members swim in a swamp of corruption, and thrive in it.”
He singles out a few lawmakers as particularly reliable allies. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) was “one of our most dependable Senate assets,” for example. Abramoff claims that “we plied his staff with every trinket we had. When we were done, they loved us.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was “very much a secret weapon in our lobbying efforts” who helped out after Abramoff’s “clients showered Reid and his staff with contributions, tickets to events, and every other gratuity imaginable.”
The downside of zealotry is often a galloping disrespect for the law. Abramoff’s conviction in 2006 brought a prison sentence of nearly six years, of which he served 31
2. The exposure of his activities, and his eventual cooperation with prosecutors, ruined the careers of several dozen other Washington officials, lobbyists and lawmakers.
To avoid more such scandals, Abramoff recommends that all those who lobby the government, receive federal contracts or otherwise benefit from public funds be barred from making political contributions or providing gifts to those in power. This would turn Washington upside down and end the careers of many if not most of his former lobbying colleagues and competitors. (No one should hold their breath on this happening.) He also calls the revolving door, through which government officials circulate in and out of private-sector lobbying jobs, “one of the greatest sources of corruption in government” and calls for a lifetime ban on lobbying by those who serve in Congress or on congressional staffs.
For all of its interesting play-by-play — marred in part by numbing accounts of his golf games with clients — the book skims the surface of Abramoff’s psyche. One explanation for his devotion to such hard-edged lobbying is that a habitual rule-breaker will always gravitate toward a profession where ethical norms are few and enforcement is largely missing. But there are hints of other compulsions, including a desire to outperform lobbyists with more cultivated lifestyles. (He writes with relish that his clients and tactics left the partners at Preston Gates squirming “at their wine and brie parties.”)
Even after a few years in prison, Abramoff appears unconvinced that he should be subject to the same rules as others. At one point behind bars, he writes, he violated a rule against circumventing the prison mail system by passing a note to visitors, in hopes of getting a Torah scroll from a local rabbi that he could use to organize a communal reading in prison. Abramoff writes in frustration that the “rabbi ratted me out” and says it was “a badge of honor” to endure another month in prison for having tried to obtain the scroll. He decries the prison’s punishment as “harassment.”
One of the book’s unintended themes is thus that redemption is particularly elusive for those who think they can lobby to get everything they want.
R. Jeffrey Smith
is the managing editor for national security at the Center for Public Integrity. A former Washington Post reporter, he shared the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting for coverage of the Abramoff scandal.