Abramoff’s ‘bribes’ exaggerated?


In addition to painting himself as a reformer of Washington, convicted felon and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff last week took up the mantle of unsolicited, sage dispenser of advice on how to be an effective lobbyist. In a blog post for United Republic, a money-in-politics watchdog nonprofit where he is a senior fellow, Abramoff criticized a lobbyist for telegraphing his plans.

To show us how it’s really done, the former Capitol Hill influence peddler told us how he and his team stopped Congress from imposing a retroactive tax on companies that shifted headquarters overseas to avoid paying U.S. taxes. But a review of the record, and interviews with a former colleague as well as with a congressional staffer to a key senator pushing the legislation, do not support his claims and suggest that, in this case at least, Abramoff may be exaggerating his clout.

THE FALLOUT: Read Abramoff's response and Sunlight's attempt to clarify the timeline.

The Tyco Corporation, a firm that had moved its headquarters to Bermuda to avoid paying U.S. taxes in a process known as inversion, hired Abramoff in May 2003, paying him $1.6 million. The firm wanted him to lobby against a retroactive tax on such companies — a levy that was being pushed by Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and the panel's top-ranking Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

Abramoff’s lobbying advice looks back to the summer of 2004, when the tax loophole-closing legislation had passed both the House and the Senate. Once both chambers passed the bills, Abramoff wrote, “we had to scramble to remove these provisions in conference.”

Abramoff divulged his strategy: “we plied our congressional targets…with all manner of contributions and largesse (in other words, bribes!).”  His targets were seven powerful senators: Grassley, Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Jim Bunning, R-Ky., Tom Daschle, D-S.D., John Breaux, D-La., and Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. Presumably, the ‘we’ Abramoff is referring to is his team of over a dozen lobbyists at his firm, Greenberg Traurig. Grassley was a particular target—Abramoff told NPR last month that he “went to every client I could and rounded up every check I could for him.”

However, it’s unclear what exactly this largesse entailed. Abramoff did not respond to a request for an interview to clarify his claims. A review of campaign contributions at the time does not show Abramoff and his minions showering the seven senators with campaign money. And, unlike former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and other lawmakers, the lawmakers in question did not receive Abramoff-arranged junkets, according to a review of congressional travel records.

From the time the Senate passed its bill until it became law in October, Abramoff himself, who gave nearly $100,000 to federal and state campaigns in 2003 and 2004, did not donate to any of the senators' campaigns; over the entire election cycle, he only gave to two of the seven senators’ campaigns, according to Influence Explorer. What’s more, Greenberg Traurig’s PAC and its employees and their family members gave a mere $19,641 to the senators’ campaigns and leadership PACs in that period. That cohort gave a whopping $1.7 million to federal campaigns and committees in 2003 and 2004.

If Abramoff  “went to his other corporate clients and asked them for donations,” as NPR reported him saying in January, it appears that not many of them said ‘yes’. After the Senate bill passed in May, his short list of clients, excepting Tyco, gave $15,500 to campaigns and committees of Grassley, Daschle and Lincoln, and almost all of that came from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, not exactly a corporate player. Those clients gave about $1.2 million at the federal level in 2003 and 2004.

If the former lobbyist meant he or his team plied all of Greenberg Traurig’s more than 100 clients, it’s not evident in Grassley’s campaign finance reports from the time. Grassley benefited from 277 PACs contributing to him from May through October but only six of those PACs were Greenberg Traurig clients: General Motors, Verizon, Humana Inc., Convergys Corporation, Tyco and the Mississippi Band of Choctow Indians.

Tyco’s PAC did flood the coffers of Grassley and his leadership PAC after the bills passed the Senate and the House, sending $7,000 his way from June through August 2004; that’s more than any other member of Congress other than 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., got from the company. But Tyco didn’t send any gravy to the other six senators mentioned.

Were these gifts bribes? Neil Volz, a former member of Abramoff’s team who was convicted of conspiracy, wrote in an email “we already had access to a lot of key offices but I would imagine we probably bought our way in to a few offices as well.” He added: “Still, for Jack to say those contributions are bribes seems to be quite an exaggeration.”

Volz noted that the lobbying included rounding up donations from Tyco’s team for a Grassley fundraiser, something Abramoff also mentions. But Volz credits a “traditional lobbying” effort too, including “flying in many, many employees of the Tyco operation to meet with their representatives.” He recalled the company employing several hundred thousand people, which allowed their team to reach a lot of lawmakers. In his post, Abramoff said getting Tyco’s employees to take up the cause was “futile.”

Abramoff claims he played a role in the bill’s outcome, crediting not only the fruits of his campaign contributions but also a sophisticated grassroots campaign, mobilizing Tyco’s vendors, who didn’t want to lose business, to call their members of Congress. What he fails to mention is the fact that he ripped off and duped Tyco. He recommended that his client hire the campaign consulting and public relations firm GrassRoots Interactive, but didn’t tell his client he controlled the company. Of the $1.8 million that Tyco paid GrassRoots Interactive, $1.6 million went to Abramoff’s bank account. Years later, Greenberg Traurig returned almost all of the money.

Moreover, Abramoff may be overstating his influence. He credits himself for “taking the fight out” Grassley “a little bit,” a claim that Grassley spokeswoman Jill Kozeny called "pure baloney," in an email to Sunlight. "Political activity involving Sen. Grassley in 2003 and 2004—and, fundraising is entirely separate from Sen. Grassley’s policy operation—did not result in Abramoff getting what he wanted from Sen. Grassley, as the public record shows," she added.

As evidence, Kozeny produced records of the conference where the House and Senate bills were reconciled showing Grassley ultimately offered an amendment to reintroduce the retroactive tax. It passed overwhelmingly among the senators. However, the House, voting 5 to 2, turned it down, killing it. Among those voting nay was DeLay, whom Abramoff lavished with gifts and foreign trips. DeLay resigned amid the Abramoff scandal in 2006.

Kozeny also points out that Abramoff was mistaken when he wrote that the House bill included the retroactive tax on companies like Tyco. Both measures included the tax, but unlike the Senate bill, which would have applied to inversions occurring after March, 2002, the House bill is less stringent, only going back to March, 2003. 


Update: 2/23/2012, 5:09 p.m. ET. The original post incorrectly stated that Abramoff contributed to two of the seven senators' campaigns after the tax bill passed the Senate. In fact, he gave to none; he contributed to the two senators earlier in the election cycle.