WASHINGTON — Fallen super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff is out of prison now but still doing penance. On Monday afternoon, he performed the Washington equivalent of donning a hair shirt: He appeared before the liberal advocacy group Public Citizen to field questions from reporters and campaign-finance-reform activists.
“If somebody told me a number of years ago that I’d be sitting in this room, in this building, talking to all of you,” Abramoff told those assembled in Public Citizen’s Dupont Circle brownstone, “and not have cuffs on or something like that, I would probably not have believed them.”
Yet there he was, looking up at a picture of Ralph Nader — “my entire political career was in some way or another opposed to Ralph Nader” — and offering to do what he could “to help those I frankly disdained and those I couldn’t stand, including those in this building.”
The disdain was mutual — and it endures. Public Citizen President Robert Weissman, tasked with introducing Abramoff to the lions in the den, did it like this: “Jack is someone who doesn’t need an introduction and I won’t give him one.”
But the Naderite group was smart to host Abramoff. He has the potential to blow the whistle on the real scandal: Much of what he did was, and remains, perfectly legal.
“I was involved deeply in a system of bribery — legalized bribery for the most part; illegal bribery, unfortunately for me, somewhat,” he said Monday. “And that system, which I took advantage of, which I also took for granted as do many who are still in it, still to a large part exists today.”
Abramoff has written a book, done hundreds of interviews and become a blogger for the anti-corruption Republic Report. He points out that there’s little financial benefit to him in this (he owes $44 million in reparations). For all appearances, he has shed his black fedora for the proverbial white hat of the reformer.
That doesn’t excuse him for his elaborate efforts to buy lawmakers and staffers or for the millions of dollars he essentially stole from Indian tribes. But he does make a better case for reforms than the liberal activists ever could.
Consider his argument for term limits, for example. “I was against that as a lobbyist,” he said. “Frankly, I was against it because once you buy a congressional office you don’t want to have to repurchase that office a few years down the line.” And the longer lawmakers remain on the job, he argued, the more likely they are to have a price tag: “Most people start slipping into a corrupt — they fall into the miasma.”
Consider, too, his case for ending the revolving door between K Street and the government. Abramoff described his practice of “featherbedding” — making job offers to chiefs of staff in Congress. “I started to notice pretty quickly was the second I said that to them,” he said, “they were so incredibly complimented, that they from then on anything I asked was just absolutely granted.”
As word of the job offers spread, “it seemed 90 percent of the people I dealt with up there wanted to come work for me.” Often, “they planned to go with me in a year or six months but from that entire period of time they really worked with me anyway. ... That was an incredible way to control a congressional office.”
Consider, as well, Abramoff’s explanation of how lawmakers are bought. “What you need to do as a lobbyist is not buy votes,” he explained. “What lobbying is about in large part is becoming friends with them,” raising money for them, and providing them with “a stream of goodies that led to an ability to ask them back for a stream of goodies the other way.”
His criticism has apparently struck a nerve on K Street, because the American League of Lobbyists has been trying to rebut it. “I’m not even sure you could qualify Abramoff as a lobbyist,” wrote Paul Miller, the group’s president. “I would call this a criminal.”
Abramoff was a criminal. But much of what he did was typical. “If they think what I’m saying is an exaggeration, that what’s going on Capitol Hill is nothing like what I’m saying and that I’ve made all this up — OK, what can I say,” he told the Public Citizen crowd. “Hopefully people will realize I am speaking sincerely and honestly.”
Finally, Abramoff appears to be telling the truth.