Over the weekend, Jack Abramoff disputed one of our blog posts.. Since the convicted former lobbyist neither responded to our call for comment before publication nor called us afterwards to point out what he said was our error, we decided to catch up with him Monday night at the National Press Club to ask a few questions.
It was an intriguing evening that featured the disgraced ex-lobbyist trying to out-reform the reformers as well as a potentially explosive allegation that Abramoff had a potential business partner in the Washington press corps.
The setting was a panel on campaign finance reform that drew more than 100 people, and that began with a moderator's plea for civility and a beefy security guard taking a conspicuous position at the front of the room.
Abramoff appeared unruffled by the presence of a small group of Native Americans, there to represent tribes he bilked, staring implacably at him from the front row. (A court has ordered partial restitution of the more than $45 million in fees that Abramoff and business partner Michael Scanlon collected from casino-owning tribes.) Describing himself as a "recovering lobbyist," Abramoff called his appearance on stage with longtime reformers Nick Penniman of United Republic and Lisa Gilbert of Public Citizen "improbable" and acknowledged that he is unlikely to have reformed had he not been caught. "I am very ashamed about that," he said.
He held forth about his ideas for reforming what he describes as "a system that in essence is based on legalized bribery" and offered the strictest possible definition of what that means for relations between members of Congress, their aides and the influence industry.
"I mean if I take a staffer and give him a cup of coffee, that's a bribe," said Abramoff, who spent more than three years in prison for offering far more to Capitol Hill's power brokers.
Abramoff seemed less surefooted when Tom Rodgers, a Native American lobbyist who helped bring him down, questioned the ex-lobbyist about his relationship with the Washington press corps. Rodgers wanted to know whether Abramoff had ever paid a "mainstream" reporter for favorable coverage (Abramoff has admitted paying writers at think tanks), taken reporters gambling, or worked with a reporter to try to buy a Capitol Hill newspaper. Abramoff he couldn't remember paying journalists, though he said he would have if he could have gotten stories for his clients. He also couldn't remember whether journalists ever joined him or Scanlon at the casinos. He acknowledged an attempt to become a Capitol Hill news baron, by starting up a new publication or buying Roll Call or The Hill, but added that "I don't remember" whether a reporter was involved. "Do you have a name?" Abramoff asked Rodgers. "I do, but that's their job," Rodgers replied, nodding towards the Press Club audience, which included working reporters.
Since being released from jail, Abramoff has written a book and made appearances around the country to promote it and his newfound reformer's zeal. By his own estimate, he has been on more than 300 radio talk shows. He hints that the Justice Department didn't get to the bottom of the mess with the investigation that put him and ex-Rep. Bob Ney in prison and caught up dozens of congressional staffers.
"I know things about the system. I know what I did and what others do," Abramoff said. But he has been vague about details. One of his key targets has been Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, which launched one of the early investigations into Abramoff's operations. In a blog post for United Republic last month, Abramoff named Grassley as one of the senators he says he bribed to kill a measure taxing one of his clients, the Tyco Corp. In a second blog post over the weekend, Abramoff disputed the Sunlight Foundation's fact-check of that account.
Questioned by Sunlight at the Press Club event, Abramoff said he erred in suggesting in his original post, that the lobbying push came in 2004, when the tax bill was moving through Congress. "In 2004, I wasn't lobbying. I was hiding, basically," said Abramoff, who left his law firm, Greenberg Traurig, in March of that year after the Washington Post reported on the exorbitant fees that he and Scanlon collected from the tribes. Abramoff did not appear as a registered lobbyist after June, 2004.
Still, elements of his timeline remain puzzling. An NPR reporter who interviewed him earlier this year said Abramoff bragged of having taken "the fight out of" Grassley with campaign donations. But the Iowa Republican persisted in offering amendments to reinstate the Tyco tax well into 2004. The Tyco levy ultimately was removed from a larger tax bill when House members of a House-Senate conference committee refused to agree to it, and senators folded. If that acquiescence is what Abramoff meant by taking the fight out of Grassley, he was taking no credit at the Press Club.
"I was done by 2004," he said. In fact, he insisted the only reason the Tyco tax bill moved was that his disgrace removed him from the scene, leaving it safe for members of Congress to pass bills his clients opposed. "Everything I stood for. . . was undone in 2004," Abramoff said.
Pressed to provide details as to what he did to influence the senators whom he said he bribed, Abramoff said: "I believe any good thing I did for a member of Congress or a staffer to get them to do something for a client is a bribe if its financially valuable. So it's in that context. So I might not be able to prove to you that I had someone over to my restaurant eating for free, but you've got to trust me I did."
Abramoff said he ran Signatures, the downtown restaurant he owned, "like a cafeteria" and that members of Congress "ate themselves sick." At the time, lawmakers were barred from accepting any meal worth more than $50.
The boyish charm and self-deprecating humor that made Abramoff one of Capitol Hill's top-gun lobbyists was on full display. He called his decision to wear a now-infamous broad-brimmed black hat to one of his court appearances "my political wardrobe malfunction." He ad-libbed jokes about the cell phone ring tones that periodically interrupted the event.
And he repeatedly insisted on his the sincerity of his hope of "maybe helping the country" by taking aim at the influence industry he once dominated. It's not enough to focus on the kind of blatant wrong-doing that landed him in jail, Abramoff said: "What we have to focus on is what is legal and okay to do that is corrupting."
At least some members of the audience came away less-than impressed.
"If he were an Indian, he'd still be in jail," said Jay St. Goddard, chairman of the Montana Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council. "So now he gets to continue on, to become rich and famous by writing a book. What does that say about our system?"