Jack Abramoff, Sans Horns
Monday, February 27, 2006
Most Washington journalists view Jack Abramoff as a black-hatted symbol of corruption who disparaged his own clients even as they made him incredibly rich.
Kim Eisler says he's a decent man who has been unfairly demonized.
For six years, Washingtonian's national editor has been chatting, dining and exchanging e-mails with the now disgraced lobbyist, undeterred even by last month's guilty plea to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials.
"There's been this explosion of hatred toward the guy, far in excess of what any other lobbyist has ever been confronted with," Eisler says. "I think the level of villainy is a little excessive. . . . He has a lot of good qualities that people don't know about."
Their friendship provides a glimpse of how even a spectacular scandal can look different when someone is acquainted with the person under fire, although why Eisler remains loyal to a man who stole millions is not entirely clear.
The relationship drew public notice when Eisler told a researcher for the liberal group Center for American Progress about e-mails in which Abramoff said President Bush had met him nearly a dozen times, joked with him and discussed his family -- thus disputing the president's stance that, despite a number of picture-taking sessions, he could not remember Abramoff. The researcher, Amanda Terkel, says she clearly identified herself when she called Eisler to ask about Abramoff, later e-mailing him for permission to post the information on the center's Think Progress blog.
Eisler says he confused the organization with the American Prospect magazine and that he regrets making Abramoff's life more difficult: "I guess I considered it a private correspondence. I feel like I slipped a little bit."
Washingtonian Editor Jack Limpert was "disappointed" about being scooped, says Eisler, who then wrote an item for the magazine's Web site. The magazine took it down after Abramoff called and, says Eisler, "was just hysterical" about the possible impact on his plea agreement to cooperate with federal prosecutors. Washingtonian restored the item days later when Eisler concluded that Abramoff had overreacted.
In the piece, Eisler quoted Abramoff as saying of Bush and the White House: "They will come up with excuse after excuse as to how and why he did not know me. I could have spent four months alone with him in Bolivia and he would not know me."
Eisler, who is married to a Washington Post editor, Judy Sarasohn, got to know Abramoff while researching a 2001 book on Indian casinos, some of which were represented by the lobbyist. "He was funny, engaging, candid," Eisler says.
Abramoff has admitted defrauding four tribal clients out of millions of dollars. In private e-mails, he referred to such clients as "stupid," "moronic," "idiots," "troglodytes" and "monkeys." Abramoff faces a prison sentence of 9 1/2 to 11 years and is required to repay the government and his clients more than $26 million.
Abramoff made the remarks about having frequently met Bush after Eisler, preparing for a planned appearance on MSNBC's "Hardball," wrote him that "a lot of this is going to deal with GWB's denying he knew you." Abramoff also told Eisler that he declined a presidential invitation to visit the Crawford, Tex., ranch in 2003 because, as an Orthodox Jew, he could not travel on the Sabbath.