By Ruth Marcus
Thursday, May 5, 2005
If Job isn't the first biblical figure who leaps to mind when you think of Jack Abramoff, maybe that's because you're not Jack Abramoff. The Book of Job tells the story of a "blameless and upright" man who did well by doing good ("three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen . . . and very many servants") before God tested him by taking it all. Flash forward a few millennia, move the story from the land of Uz to the District of Columbia, substitute lobbying clients for camel and skyboxes for oxen, and -- miracle of miracles -- the Book of Jack.
In a pair of self-pitying interviews published this week, the fallen lobbyist described his travails as if -- like Job's -- none were of his own making. "All of a sudden, in an almost Jobian fashion, my whole world collapsed," says Abramoff, an Orthodox Jew who seemed to flaunt his piety (the Christian right loved it) the way other lobbyists flash their Rolexes.
Abramoff cops only to being "an aggressive advocate for people who engaged me," as he put it to the New York Times Magazine -- more successful than his less-scrutinized colleagues but no sleazier. "I can't imagine there's anything I did that other lobbyists didn't do and aren't doing today," Abramoff told Time magazine.
All of which raises the age-old question: Why is this lobbyist different from all other lobbyists?
Because as much as he'd like you to think otherwise, Abramoff is -- or, more precisely, was -- different, in degree and in kind. He's hoping that people are already so disgusted with lobbying and lobbyists that they can't distinguish between the quotidian seaminess of a flawed system and the multiple ways in which Abramoff exploited, twisted and undermined that system to enrich himself and those around him.
Abramoff, as he says, did things that other lobbyists do -- but on a scale so egregious that he managed to make his fellow lobbyists look like a bunch of Nader's Raiders. He served as a one-stop-shopping political operation for congressional conservatives in general and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in particular.
Abramoff was abetted -- encouraged even -- by the pay-to-play mentality honed by DeLay. But even within the parameters of the unabashed money machine assembled by the GOP majority, Abramoff's full-service operation stood out.
On his end of the tacit bargain, Abramoff directed copious streams of cash from his clients to the campaigns of his congressional allies and into the coffers of conservative think tanks and personal charities. He entertained members of Congress at his restaurants and in his four skyboxes. He served as combination concierge-financier for their lavish trips (some circuitously, and perhaps inappropriately, underwritten by the client-funded outside groups). He hired the key staffers of key lawmakers, and while the revolving door may be an immutable fact of Washington life, Abramoff spun it with particular vigor.
In turn, Abramoff profited from his close association with DeLay and others in the newly ascendant GOP majority. The pitch wasn't subtle. "He has access to DeLay," DeLay's then-chief of staff, Ed Buckham, told the National Journal in 1995. (Abramoff later helped Buckham launch his own lobbying shop.) DeLay himself testified to Abramoff's effectiveness: On a 1998 trip to the Northern Marianas, where Abramoff clients were lobbying furiously to preserve the territory's exemption from minimum-wage laws, DeLay called Abramoff "one of my closest and dearest friends, . . . your most able representative in Washington."
With endorsements like this, Abramoff raked in big fees, particularly from Indian gaming tribes. If the totals were breathtaking -- the tribes paid $82 million over three years to Abramoff and his collaborator, former DeLay aide Michael Scanlon -- so too, says Abramoff, was the payout. "My clients used to refer to me as the most profitable slot machine in the whole operation!" he proclaimed proudly to the Times.
But Abramoff also went far beyond the bounds of normal behavior -- even for a lobbyist. He hid from his law firm partners some of the millions he was taking in. Unlike other lobbyists, he dipped twice -- once in his law firm take and again in money he received from Scanlon. He and Scanlon used nonprofits they set up as personal piggy banks to finance their activities. He helped get one tribe's casino shut down -- and then hit up the tribe for $4.2 million in lobbying fees in an unsuccessful bid to get it reopened. He paid the tab for congressional travel on his own credit card, despite ethics rules to the contrary. He invested -- at first behind his law partners' backs -- in a Florida cruise ship line whose previous owner ended up being killed in a gangland-style slaying.
And even as he squeezed his clients ("Can you smell money?!?!?!" one e-mail to Scanlon reads. "We need that moolah," says another), Abramoff disparaged them ("those moronic Tigua," "we need to get some $ from those monkeys!!!!" ) in e-mail after contemptuous e-mail. Abramoff explained this language by saying that "in the heat of the locker-room atmosphere of the lobbying world," he "sometimes . . . resorted to language more common to a drill sergeant or a football coach."
In the Times, he compared himself to the patriarch Jacob, who -- in Abramoff's biblical spin -- put on his brother Esau's clothes as "a more effective means of communicating with Esau."
The analogy fits -- better, perhaps than Abramoff intended. In fact, Jacob didn't need to communicate with Esau: He had already bilked his starving brother of his birthright for a bowl of pottage. When he disguised himself as Esau, it was to trick Isaac, his blind and dying father, to obtain his blessing. But Jacob ultimately demonstrated the capacity to feel regret and shame for his behavior -- emotions that seem, so far, to have eluded Jack Abramoff.