Allan Powell: Confessions of a lobbyist

May 04, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

A less paunchy and suave Jack Abramoff is now making his appearance on talk shows and book signings. His newly published book, “Capitol Punishment,” is a surprisingly open and candid account focused on his life as a lobbyist. The dust cover boldly avers that his story contains, “The hard truth about Washington corruption from America’s most notorious lobbyist.”

While watching Abramoff in action on television when reading his book was a roller coaster event. It ranged from the high point of a smiling, completely regenerated person to a replay of his former life of deceit and chicanery. I was also conflicted about contributing to his bank account by buying his book. This was balanced by the realization that here was a firsthand account of the mind-set and style of a successful lobbyist in return.

There are two facts of life that must be kept in mind as one reads this book. First, Abramoff was imprisoned for fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy. This calls for caution about accepting his interpretation of all events reported. Second, he was politically dedicated to a far-right ideology. That was the lens through which he saw the world. He was a strong admirer of Tom DeLay, Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist.

Jack Abramoff evokes some local interest because he served his time at the minimum-security prison on the fringe of Cumberland, Md. In 2006, he was sentenced to six years punishment but actually served only 3 1/2 years.

Abramoff entered the political arena as the 1970s came to a close, when he joined the College Republican movement and later became chairman of the National Committee. His Republican values and interests remained evident when he joined a prominent lobbying firm, Preston Gates, in 1994. There he earned the reputation as the intrepid leader of Team Abramoff — “the roughest, toughest street-smart killers” in the lobbying trade.

Hiring “Team Abramoff” was an expensive deal. He reported that, “Like most other lobbyists in Washington, the Greenberg group (his new employer) were used to charging clients around $10,000 a month.” After he arrived at the firm, it was not unusual to receive $100,000 a month or as much as $150,000. Moreover, he is quite candid about their style of doing business: “We also brought our lobbyist tool bag to Greenburg, filled with baubles, trinkets, and other goodies for those we were lobbying and the firm loved it.”

One of the “goodies” liberally shared with congressmen and their staff members was tickets to football, baseball, basketball and hockey games. We must take Abramoff’s word for it, but he estimated the total bill some years came to $1.5 million. Always colorful, he was pleased to point out that, “we also had a staff of former jocks who loved to go to the games with Hill staff, which made our investment worthwhile, as the jocks were our best lobbyists.” There can be little doubt that “Team Abramoff” pulled out all of the stops.

Abramoff was a formidable opponent in one-to-one encounters. He gives a remarkable account of his face-to-face hassle with Sen. John McCain in 1996, when he lobbied against changes in the Indian Child Welfare Act and declared that, “This victory was especially sweet for me because it defeated John McCain.” As chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, McCain held considerable power over legislation regulating and taxing the various Indian tribes. Most of these tribes brought in huge sums of money from their gambling casinos.

An income earned from lobbying for Indian tribes was a major source of income for Abramoff’s firm. The Choctaws of Mississippi and Alabama, the Coushatta tribe of Louisiana, the Chippewa tribe of Michigan, the Jena tribe of Louisiana, the Tigua tribe of Texas, the Agua Caliente tribe of California, and the Iowa Sac and Fox tribes were his clients.

This proud combatant faced a new reality and carried a profoundly different demeanor when he made a statement before a judge in January 2006. “Your honor, words will not be able to ever express how sorry I am for this, and I have profound regret and sorrow for the multitude of mistakes and harm I have caused. All of my remaining days, I will feel tremendous sadness and regret for my conduct and for what I have done. I only hope that I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and from those I have wronged or caused to suffer. I will work hard to earn that redemption.”

He is a bright and talented person who now can make a contribution to society. We should now wish him much success.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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