It’s not every day that a veteran Washington insider — one who, at the zenith of his career, was the city’s highest-paid lobbyist — writes a 300-page account of his political triumphs, serial lawbreaking and unethical conduct, all of which ended in his imprisonment for fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy. Abramoff’s status as perhaps the premier modern symbol of Washington’s corruption by monied interests makes his reflections on the events surrounding his disgrace especially tantalizing.
The book’s aim, according to its dust jacket, is to pull “back the curtain on K Street,” show “the dirty underbelly of America’s government” and prescribe reforms meant to undercut the political influence of private, monied interests. It achieves these goals in part, confirming in a highly personal narrative what some reporters on his trail (myself included) unearthed in the mid-2000s, while adding some fresh accounts of how he manipulated the legislative process.
But the curtain is pulled back only partially. When it comes to his own role, Abramoff leaves out some embarrassing details, making a reader suspect that there is still more to tell. And his sensible yet improbable prescriptions — which Abramoff says occurred to him while he was doing time at a minimum-security federal prison in Cumberland — are undercut by the pride with which he recounts his lobbying victories. We are left with an odd mixture of candid revelation, defiant celebration and score-settling, all stuck to a postscript of avowed remorse.
A child of Beverly Hills and an aggressive high school football player, Abramoff cut his political teeth in the college Republican movement in the late 1970s alongside well-known movement conservatives such as Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist. We were “immature well beyond our years,” Abramoff writes. To win election as chairman of the College Republican National Committee, for example, he had Reed distribute “scurrilous pamphlets” about his opponent. “I didn’t pause to consider niceties,” he writes. He helped President Ronald Reagan sell higher military spending to Congress, then became a filmmaker before joining the powerful lobbying firm Preston Gates in 1994.
There, Abramoff says, “our idea of a successful day was obliterating our clients’ enemies.” He was not an advocate for his clients, but a warrior. His ethos was “fight-to-the-death,” and the Capitol Hill veterans who worked alongside him on what became known around town as “Team Abramoff” were “the roughest, toughest street smart killers.”
This style made for a ready alliance with Rep. Tom DeLay, the Republican House majority leader from Texas nicknamed “the Hammer.” Abramoff calls DeLay, who was convicted of money laundering last year, “one of the cornerstones of my career” and “a real mentsch.” Abramoff says admiringly of Mike Scanlon, a DeLay aide he hired: “He knew how to bury the hatchet — in his opponent’s head.”
Reed, who allied with Abramoff in covert campaigns to protect the gambling revenue of Indian tribes and Internet firms, is not presented here as a baby-faced Christian Coalition leader fighting for conservative principles. Abramoff details how Reed — an exceptionally poor sportsman in golf, he notes — was handsomely paid to craft cynical appeals to religious conservatives and African American churches; his aim was to enlist their support in supposed efforts to stop the expansion of gambling in Southern states, in order to protect tribal gambling monopolies.
“Not only should Ralph not have denied taking the money, he should have been proud about it,” Abramoff writes in a passage at odds with his avowed regrets.
Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and author of the famous pledge that many conservative lawmakers have taken against raising taxes, is similarly depicted as an advocate for hire, who collected substantial fees from groups such as the tribes and companies such as Microsoft that sought to avoid federal levies or regulations.
Abramoff’s swift rise demonstrated that there’s a seductive charm, in a town built mostly on compromise, in brashly telling potential clients that they can get everything they want, like promising to fulfill a child’s dream. Abramoff says he won clients who paid 10 times the average lobbying fees because he was more determined to win than his rivals and delivered everything they wanted.
This appeal reeled in Marcos, the casino-rich Indians, textile magnates and politicians in the Mariana Islands, Russian oil and gas executives, and the Tyco corporation,he writes. The book confirms for the first time that the Russians gave a foundation controlled by DeLay $1 million, despite the Russians’ claim in 2005 that they had no knowledge of the transaction. (Abramoff attributes the gift to a golf bet the Russians made, and deliberately lost, with DeLay in Moscow. Others have said it was a successful bid to gain DeLay’s support for a financial bailout to Russia, a claim DeLay denied.)
Abramoff’s lobbying methods were typical of the industry — he wined and dined lawmakers and hired their staff — but he loathed getting half a loaf and consistently skirted the rules. Eye-popping payments of up to $150,000 a month made perfect business sense for his clients, Abramoff writes, because his efforts gained them outsize rewards. The Saginaw, Mich., Chippewa tribe’s payments alone brought a return of more than 10,000 percent, he contends, because he protected their gambling revenue and secured earmarks. Ultimately, the Senate launched a probe of the fees that became his undoing, but Abramoff defiantly writes that his overall efforts saved “the tribes hundreds of millions, if not billions.”
He dismisses his numerous critics by claiming that they were engaged in “a bloodbath of slander” or bent on the destruction of his clients. He slams The Washington Post in particular for its “vitriolic attacks.” He said the paper was “thrilled to have another angle of attack” when it published a 2004 article by me about Abramoff’s diversion of funds from an avowed sports charity to pet political causes, a short-lived religious school for his kids and an overseas golf trip.
The Washington lobbying industry is sustained by the illusion that campaign contributions are merely a way of recognizing political kinships, rather than a reward for legislative action or inducements for favorable treatment. In his portrayal of the legislative process, Abramoff repeatedly trashes this polite fiction.
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.