Transcript

K Street Reaction to Abramoff

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 5, 2006; 1:00 PM

K Street Confidential columnist Jeffrey H. Birnbaum was online at 1 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 5 to discuss the growing corruption scandal centered around former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and what repercussions this may have on the relationship between the lobbying industry and Congress.

A transcript follows .

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Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Hello everyone! I write the K Street Confidential column and today we're going to talk about Jack Abramoff, the street's most notorious denizen. So, without further delay, fire away!

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Bethesda, Md.: Could you explain in a nutshell the involvement of senior Bush administration officials such as David Safavian in this corruption scandal? Also, is the connection of Karl Rove to Abramoff (through Susan Ralston) simply circumstantial or was there additional wrongdoing there?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: I'd go with circumstantial in answer to your second question. Ms. Ralston in my experience is terrific and highly skilled person who Karl Rove is lucky to have as a co-worker.

As for Safavian, in a nutshell, a government employee can't do official favors for outsiders in exchange for gifts or trips. Prosecutors think that's what Safavian did however. He doesn't think the same.

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Bethesda, Md.: It was my understanding that there exists a cap on the total amount of money an individual can donate politically during an election cycle (about $37,000), outside of a PAC. How did Abramoff work around this?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: The limit per person these days is higher than that, in the range of $100,000 and as far as I know Abramoff hasn't been accused of breaking that limit.

It may be one of the few rules he didn't break, if you believe prosecutors.

In any case, a lot of the donations came from his clients, including Indian tribes and not from Abramoff himself.

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Washington, D.C.: Comment: If there is a potential benefit to the Abramoff situation, it's the opportunity for my profession to fully disclose what a lobbyist is and what we do. Based on my experience with members of my association and those outside of lobbying, the average person thinks a lobbyist is a person who take three hour lunches, present a check before every meeting with a Member of Congress and not much else. Abramoff and his cohorts make it more difficult to change that perception.

We, as a profession, have a big job ahead of us. If we want to continue to advocate on behalf of those who can't or won't, we need to increase our visibilty and show why lobbyists matter in the legislative process.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: You know what? I think you're right.

Our system of government was designed to be lobbied. It needs input from outsiders so that it works well.

The problem is that the groups that have the most money are able to buy more access and power than everybody else.

That's gotten truer in recent years and the public seems to know that.

The pendulum is swinging and I'm afraid it will lop off a few more lobbyists' heads before it's done.

Also, expect a lot of lobbying legislation this year, as you suggest. Most lobbyists I know actually welcome more disclosure as you do. Maybe that will temper the public's anger at lobbyists and Washington generally.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Jeffrey! From the people you talk to all the time, are there any specific fears after the Abramoff case against the lobbyist profession?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Yes. Lobbyists think that Congress might overreact (shocking isn't it?) and crack down too hard on lobbying. More disclosure would be welcomed but all sorts of first amendment arguments are sure to be made if actual limits on lobbyists activities are attempted. Watch the sparks to fly this year!

In particular, John McCain wants a pretty sweeping bill but the leaders of his party in the House and Senate are preparing more tepid measures. It ought to get ugly (and fun to watch) before it's over.

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Hillsdale, Mich.: You've covered the lobbying scene for a long time - do you think the Abramoff scandal really will force changes in lobbying practices, or will it blow over?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: It will force changes and it will blow over--until another scandal takes its place. This is a cyclical sort of thing.

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Long Beach, Calif.: I watched the hearings with Senators McCain and Dorgan grilling Italia Federici. Do you believe her take on her dealings with Abramoff?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: We report, you decide. (I can use this phrase as a longtime Fox New contributor, by the way.)

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Jaded, N.Y.: I'm just as excited as everyone else that the underbelly of politics and lobbying has been exposed, but what do you think the odds are that, after all is said and done, everyone who is found guilty will just be pardoned? or are we really going to see justice here, or is it politics as usual? Thanks.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Judging by the outrage that President Bush has expressed about Abramoff's activities (and the money he just returned that had come from Abramoff) I'm not betting on pardons for anyone involved.

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Fairfax, Va.: Republican congressional leaders are already moving to propose corrective legislation to persuade the public therefore there isn't any need to find out the political context of the Abramoff story. Are any Democrats pushing for Congressional investigations about the political agenda Abramoff and Delay's schemes represent, or will they allow congressional Republicans to portray what has happened simply as plain old graft which both parties engage in? And will the media work to get the full story out, including what Delay was trying to achieve politically through his use of Abramoff as an operative of the Republican party?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: We in the media always are working hard. I'm not kidding. For the Post, we've been at it seriously for many months, and we don't plan to stop.

Democrats would certainly like to investigate all of this in Congress but they aren't in charge and won't be able to unless Republicans say okay.

Some of that's happened already and more will soon. The GOP is as eager as any group to distance itself from the Abramoff affair and condemning it through hearings is a TV-savvy way to do so.

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Chicopee, Mass.: Can you tell us anything about the Guam scandal in which the Bush Administration removed the U.S. federal attorney, a Mr. Black, at the time Black was investigating corruption involving Abramoff's client, which happened to be inside the Supreme Court of Guam. On the advise of the Republican party in Guam, Bush removed Black and appointed their recommendation as prosecutor in Guam and the case was then quietly closed.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Sorry, don't know much about it, but I'll check.

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Washington, D.C.: The amounts given by tribes to Scanlon's "public relations firm" are staggering. Has there been any investigation into what the tribes thought was being done with those funds and what accountability the tribes demanded for use of the funds?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Yes, that's all part of the ongoing probe and we'll be hearing a lot more from the tribes in the months ahead. Clearly, they were duped by Abramoff and Scanlon. The tribes' anger has been an important incentive for the two lobbyists to cop a plea.

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Alexandria, Va.: I'm very curious about the Congressional spouse angle on this story. I think this will really interest people. Can you talk about what the "giving jobs to congressional wives" plays into this scandal?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: We need to see exactly who gets whacked on that one. What we do know is that the wives of Reps. Tom DeLay and John Doolittle, for example, did work for lobbying firms or for Abramoff himself--or both. The question involved is whether those jobs involved actual work or whether the positions were just another way to funnel gifts and money to the wives' lawmaker spouses. More to come on this one, for sure.

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Florida: Will the investigations also look into the 'contributions' that Abramoff (& all his & DeLay's related entities) have made over the years to Congressional members' own or 'pet' charities/foundations/nonprofits which employ family members, friends, former staff of Congress members, or use them as 'paid consultants' -- another way that congress members and their families get the money filtered back to their personal bank accounts or personal benefits. No one has even mentioned how this is done on a daily basis.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Charities are central to the probes. In Abramoff's plea in particular, he used the Capital Athletic Foundation, which was supposed to be a nonprofit, do-gooder charity, to provide trips to lawmakers as a way of lobbying them. That's a no-no and he got caught doing so.

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Arlington, Va.: Mr. Birnbaum,With all due respect, 99% of what is referred to as "lobbying" is bribery, pure and simple. You can call it influence peddling or whatever, but the bottom line always remains the same:

Things of value are given to legislators in return for desired legislation. This is bribery, and all the fancy word-twisting and semantics won't alter the truth. The majority of people understand this, are you paid to present the untruths of an alternate universe?

Many thanks,

Angry in Arlington

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: What you are describing is one of the biggest fears on K Street. That the legalized bribery of campaign donations might be seen by prosecutors as illegal bribery. Contributions are named as part of the quid pro quos in both the Scanlon and Abramoff pleas, which has sent a chill down the spines of many lobbyists. We'll see how far that new definition goes with the indictments that are sure to come. In the meantime, lawmakers and lobbyists will be a lot more careful about what they say when campaign funds change hands.

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Mexico City, Mexico: From what you know, how many Abramoff's are there around? Too many or is he just a bad apple?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: He's certainly a bad apple. And I suspect there are other Abramoffs. I'm sure there are in fact. He is different in kind to most lobbyists, I think, but also different only in degree to others. The system has gotten too saturated with money in recent years and Abramoff exists because things in general have gotten out of hand. There couldn't be an Abramoff, or rather it would be less likely for an Abramoff to surface, if the system was more pristine to start with, in my view.

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Silver Spring, Md.: You sound impressed that the president gave back $6,000 of the $100,000 he got from Abramoff. Could you tell me why we should be?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: It's a start and proof that politicians are worried politically about the fallout from Abramoff as well as the legal problems they could face even with campaign donations given within the legal limits. That's a pretty big deal whether the number itself is large or not.

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Woodbridge, Va.: From the second paragraph of your "News" story --

"Jack Abramoff represented the most flamboyant and extreme example of a brand of influence trading that flourished after the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives 11 years ago."

And what exactly did Clark Clifford, Tommy Boggs etc represent? If you are going to editorialize in a news story (and what Post reporter doesn't), you might also comment on the fact that when Clinton put the Lincoln bedroom up for sale, Janet Reno turned a blind eye to obvious abuse. From Howard Baker in '73 to Alice Fisher in '05, Republicans have been much more willing than Democrats to hold their own leaders to a higher ethical standard.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Can't put everything into every story. The piece you're mentioning was also labeled an analysis and didn't pretend to be a news story. These are distinctions we care a lot about here at the Post.

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Ashland, Mo.: Two questions: (1) Does the media tend to overestimate the impact of stories about scandals in Washington as evidenced most recently by the public's reaction to President Clinton's problems and President Bush's wiretapping?

(2) Can't Mr. Bush take credit for aggressively prosecuting these cases? He could start with Enron, which his administration refused to bail out, note his cooperation with Mr. Fitzgerald and the resignation of Mr. Libby, the prosecution of Rep. Cunningham, and the aggressive investigation of the lobbyist scandal. In all these instances, he can argue he is not protecting anyone but letting the chips fall where they may, including Mr. Rove if he is indicted.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: (1) yes

(2) yes

Things in Washington are never as bad--or good--as they first appear.

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Kennesaw, Ga.: Good afternoon, Jeff.

Among the many notable things about the Abramoff scandal's spreading stain is the many Congressional staffers said to be candidates for indictment. It's notable for me because I was a Congressional staffer myself in a past life; I'm quite sure no lobbyist I ever dealt with considered me important enough to bribe.

Evidently something about Washington has changed if this has. For a staffer to be worth bribing -- offering significant inducements in exchange for specific actions -- he has to be able to deliver his boss. To me, that means his boss has to be either a staff-dependent doofus (and there are plenty of those on the Hill) or must be aware of the relationship between the staffer and the lobbyist seeking favor.

I'm not sure which possibility is more unnerving, but to most people it is probably the idea that Congressional offices can be organized as criminal conspiracies. Based on what you know now, can you say whether this is the kind of thing that went on in the offices of Congressmen like DeLay and Ney?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: I've always thought staffers were very powerful people, especially leadership aides. Former Sen. Bob Packwood, now a lobbyist, proudly says that he lobbies staffers because they often know better than their bosses the substance of legislation that his clients want to impact. As for offices turning into criminal conspiracies, I will wait for the first lawmaker to be indicted in an Abramoff related matter until I can answer for sure.

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Washington, D.C.: I'll disagree with the reader who said that it's an inherently dirty job. Like any profession, there are the dregs who drag the rest down. But I can tell you that when I worked on the Hill, I saw parents who lobbied for safety issues for their children, patients lobbying for money for research programs, small business owners lobbying for tax relief, foreign-born citizens lobbying for attention to the plight of their people back at home... (Surely, the reader wouldn't call that 'dirty.') And even when it is corporate-based, all of those companies asking for changes in the law still employ the rest of us. It's not a perfect system, but like you said, to be truly representative, the People need to be able to express their voices. Abramoff and his ilk may be the purging that the industry needs to get back on track.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Below, another thoughtful view. I present it without comment except for my thanks.

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Alexandria, Va.: Not to drag a very old (and smaller) scandal back into the light and hurt anybody anew, but in the 80's, when I first arrived in Washington, I worked as a temp for a charity and one day stuffed envelopes with the wife of a certain attorney general, and -- not to go into detail -- was quite unimpressed with her and later found out that there was talk that she was being paid a whole lot for not doing much. I believe tongues were wagging that her position was an inappropriate political reward of some kind. A mostly different situation from what we are discussing today, except that in my experience this cronyism involving a political spouse is not new.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: To the victor goes the spoils. Twas always thus, though maybe it shouldn't be and maybe things have gone too far these days.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Whatever happened to that Soderbergh production K street? It aired on HBO a few times but stopped all of a sudden. Did the Senate shut it down because it hit too close to home?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: I believe that it stopped because it was unwatchable.

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Long Beach, Calif. : Can we start spelling "K"orruption differently now?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Maybe we should start a contest! Any other suggestions!

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Washington, D.C.: In a case of political corruption, the rule is "follow the money." While we know about political contributions reported to the FEC, how much is really known about the monies funneled by Jack Abramoff through other lobbying firms and Abramoff-controlled entities, including Grassroots Interactive and the Capital Athletic Foundation? Or through other organizations like Americans for Tax Reform?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: We know a few things and we may learn more if lawmakers or staffers-turned-lobbyists are indicted. But, in general, the money trail is very difficult to follow because of flimsy disclosure laws. My colleague Sue Schmidt has done a great job of trying to give a feel for the answers you seek in the stories she has written over the past year or two.

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Atlanta, Ga.: I do not understand why the politicians are returning or gifting away Abramoff's donations. Were these donations illegal at the time they were made? Can the Justice department NOT prosecute someone who returned or gifted away the donation on the basis that they no longer have or used the money. Or is this just another ploy by the pols to claim moral rectitude? The whole affair is sickening!!

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Certainly it's a ploy designed mostly to show voters the integrity of the politician. It's hard to think that voters buy it, though. It's even less likely that prosecutors will care, either. If the money is tainted with bribery, the indictments will flow whether the money is returned, shed or kept right where it was.

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Greenwich, Conn.: Mr. Birnbaum,

The press is suggesting that the Abramoff scandal will primarily affect Republicans. I understand that a total of 220 congressmen have received money from Jack Abramoff, either directly or indirectly, and an entry on Daily Kos noted that 20 of 25 congressmen and senators who took more than $20,000 from him are Republicans.

Is there any additional information illuminating how many Republicans versus Democrats have received cash from Abramoff? And are there any figures detailing what percentage of Abramoff's cash went to the Republicans?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: The Post has published a few things on this subject. Many of the lobbyists (about a third of them) that Abramoff oversaw were Democrats and gave money to Democratic lawmakers. Abramoff directed roughly a third of the Indians' giving to Democrats, too. Whether any wrong-doing was involved with those Democrats, we have to wait and see. We know that the Justice Department is looking as at Democrats as well as Republicans. In general, though, I think it's useful to think of the Abramoff caper as mostly a Republican problem. Most of the funds went to Republicans. The Republicans are in the majority in the House and Senate. If incumbents are hurt by the scandal, then the GOP has the most to lose. Certainly Republican congressional leaders are approaching the issue as if the problem is mostly theirs--which is very wise with a midterm election coming in November.

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Houston, Texas: Happy New Year Mr. Birnbaum,

Wondering if Abramoff's plea song will bring any financial recovery to the Indian tribes, have any impact on DeLay, Fitzgerald's investigation, or info on Cheney's secret energy meetings?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Happy New Year to you.

The Indians will be getting tens of millions from Abramoff and Scanlon.

As for the impact on DeLay, it could be huge, but Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) looks like he'll have to deal with prosecutors first, if the Abramoff plea document is to be believed.

I don't think Fitzgerald's Plame probe or Vice President Cheney will be touched by the Abramoff affair, at least directly.

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K St.: What does this all mean for the future of lobbying firms? Are the lobbying practices of Abramoff's former firms going to take a hit as a result of the mess he created?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Yes. As Vin Weber, the former congressman turned lobbyist says, lawmakers will be allergic to lobbyists for at least a little while. Expect more distance from formerly friendly congressional offices for now.

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Arizona Bay, Ariz.: In response to a question about Bush giving back $6,000, you said "It's a start and proof that politicians are worried politically about the fallout from Abramoff as well as the legal problems they could face even with campaign donations given within the legal limits."

Plain and simple they are worried about FALLOUT, not about what is right and wrong and good and bad for the average american person. How much of a "democracy" do we live in nowadays?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Enough of a democracy to allow your voice to be heard here. Cheers.

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Baltimore, Md.: Are other lobby shops now looking over their shoulders? While Abramoff was breathtakingly indiscreet, I doubt if he is the only one who engaged in blatant influence peddling.

From your reporting, do you know how wired in Abramoff was to the rest of the DC lobbying world? Does he have secrets to tell?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: He has lots of secrets to tell and is expected to tell them all if he wants to keep his prison term to just 10 years. Other lobbying firms are sure to fall into the net but which ones aren't clear yet. This is likely to be a very big and very wide-ranging scandal.

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Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Let's say I'm a politician sans scruples who doesn't care where his money comes from. It's discovered that I have Abramoff cash in my kitty. I decide to get rid of it and hopefully, the stench that goes with it.

Why do I give it to charity? It didn't come from charity. It came from Jack!

Shouldn't I be required to give it back to the donor?

Is anyone fooled by this silly deception?

And what's America come to when Jack can't get his hard-earned booty back?

Finally, shouldn't this illegal or unethical bribery money go back to the IRS or the Treasury as part of the ongoing criminal investigation? Shouldn't it be seized awaiting the conclusion of the judicial process now unfolding? If it belongs to Abramoff shouldn't he be required to fork it over as a part of his guilty plea arrangements?

Look, I'm just a Vietnam Era Draftee/Veteran and, I'd like to think, an honorable professional electrical engineer. If I can't understand it, it's likely that other decent, hard-working Americans won't either.

Thanks much. HLB

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: No, I don't think many people are fooled. Still, no one would appreciate even the gesture if the money went back to Abramoff. Charity is a good-hearted alternative.

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Bethesda, Md.: Could you explain the distinction between what is being labeled bribery in these recent scandals, and the millions of dollars the petroleum industry pays to Congress members to keep our national energy policy rooted in the 1950's (and reap billions in subsidies during a time of record profits)? I suspect many people are wondering about this.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: To bribe someone, a person must give something in explicit exchange for an official act. Prosecutors think that otherwise legal campaign donations might fall into this category--which is a big change. But giving money to influence legislation generally is considered okay with the law even if it is unseemly. Such are the rules of the road.

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Annapolis, Md.: Re: Woodbridge's comment, "From Howard Baker in '73 to Alice Fisher in '05, Republicans have been much more willing than Democrats to hold their own leaders to a higher ethical standard." Does this mean we can expect Bush/Cheney impeachment proceedings to begin any day now? Just hoping...

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: No impeachment. Didn't work out so well the last time, both sides agree.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I agree that there are both uses and abuses of lobbyists. It isn't as if the average citizen reads all the details of the bills before congress, or harangues staffers about specific language, loopholes, etc.. But....access to the hill is pretty limited, and if you don't have any money or a darned big constituency to hit somebody over the head with, then you are pretty much out of luck. Also, there is a big difference between talking about the details of a bill with a staffer and paying for a round of golf at St. Andrews!!

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Thanks for the comment!

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Orono, Maine: I am baffled by the fact that this scandal is big news. The corrupting influence of money in American politics has been obvious for a long time. In 1906, for instance, Upton Sinclair labeled the Democrats and Republicans as "rival sects of grafters." It was as true then as it is now.

Ok..off the soapbox. Should we expect that this time around Congress will really get serious about cracking down on special interests? Or are lawmakers simply going to throw up another smokescreen, promising action and taking half-hearted measures until the furor blows over?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: I'm betting on a tough minded bill, but lawmakers' regulating themselves? I could be wrong again.

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Alexandria, Va.: "Republican Party officials said yesterday that President Bush will give up $6,000 in campaign contributions connected to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. . . . The court appearance in Miami came a day after Abramoff pleaded guilty before a federal judge in Washington to defrauding Indian tribe clients of millions of dollars. . .. "

What I haven't seen yet is any pledge by anybody to donate all that money to a good Indian charity -- something to alleviate poverty or help educational efforts among those defrauded tribes. I haven't even seen it suggested -- and yet donations to heart or cancer charities is, in this case, inappropriate in my opinion. The tribes have been played as a bunch of stooges, lining people's pockets, and if I were them (not necessarily their leaders dealing with Abramoff, but the citizens of those tribes), I'd be pissed. As is so often the case, all of the focus is on the people who've done the wrong, rather than the people who have been wronged, and it is very frustrating to witness.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont) said he'd give his tainted loot to an Indian charity.

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Arlington, Va.: Here are more:

The Supreme "K"ourt

"K"apitol Hill

"K"lintonesque Scandal

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Thanks!

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You know: This could all be fixed in an instant with public financing of campaigns.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: It could but I don't think voters want to finance politicians' campaign with their hard-earned tax dollars.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I'm sorry, but the president cannot take credit for the Abramoff prosecution and the Cunningham resignation. This stuff went on for years right under his nose, involving his allies in the house, and the inner circle of the far right. It is odd that he is willing to throw Delay and Ney to the wolves, but I think that they might have learned a lesson from the Plame fiasco: Get the hell away from people with stink all over them! We've got enough problems!!

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Another voice heard from. Thanks for writing.

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Long Beach, Calif.: Should K street attorneys be allowed to help draft laws? I've read that without them dong all the work, the laws would never get written by staff members, who would rather eat pizza and watch the lobbyists write their own tickets. TRUE, or urban legend?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Urban legend. I'm sure lobbyists help a lot--that's their job by the way--but staffers tend to be very serious people who do their jobs well.

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Bethesda, Md.: Will Congress revisit any of the legislation that Abramoff's clients successfully purchased? Or do we just go on and pretend that it was the result of some democratic process?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: I vote for pretending.

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Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Thanks all! I had too many questions to answer them all. But let's do it again soon. Read Washingtonpost.com to find out the next chat, probably Jan. 23! Cheers!

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