(NJ) – The problem, Jack Abramoff says, is that public officials don’t think they’re being bribed.
If a defendant, at the start of a trial, were to walk up to a judge’s bench and drop off a pair of tickets to the judge’s favorite team, there’d be no question — that’s a bribe, Abramoff told a crowd of more than 300 at the Morris Museum Monday afternoon.
But when lobbyists deal in favors, in tickets, in expensive meals, in golf games and — perhaps most damningly — campaign contributions, Washington insiders tend to think everything’s fine, Abramoff said. They’re mostly good people who don’t see the trade as anything inappropriate, he said.
“I’ve yet to encounter anybody outside of the beltway who thinks this system is working,” Abramoff said. “There, they think it’s working perfectly.”
The man who served 43 months in prison for his efforts to buy influence and legislation told the audience plainly: Congress most certainly remains for sale.
His presentation, sponsored by Fairleigh Dickinson University, comes with scarcely more than two weeks until Election Day, and packed the museum’s meeting room to capacity. Abramoff recounted his own life story, including his early political history as a College Republican National Committee national chairman, and his work lobbying Congress to support President Ronald Reagan’s initiatives.
It was during that time, Abramoff said, he had his “first brush with corruption.”
Reagan’s administration was short six votes it needed for an MX Missile project, Abramoff said. But a Democratic congressman from Texas called Abramoff to his office, and offered him 13 “yes” votes — for a price, he said.
The congressman wanted money for a naval base in his district, Abramoff said. He wanted Abramoff to get on the phone with the White House and make it happen.
So, Abramoff said, he called his administration liaison — then-White House Communications Director Pat Buchanan. And in a few minutes, Buchanan arranged for the naval base, he said.
“It was like being in a bad version of a Frank Capra movie,” he said.
But that was nothing compared to the excess in which Abramoff was a willing participant years later, after he left a career making movies and returned to Washington to join Preston Gates & Ellis, and then Greenberg Traurig.
By Abramoff’s own account, he went into lobbying with noble aims — to support clients whose interests aligned with his own small-government, conservative, Republican ideals. He’d use connections, influence and resources to advance those aims.
And lobbying in itself, Abramoff said, isn’t the problem. It’s a good thing that citizens, or their representatives, can petition the government. But when special interests use lobbyists to manipulate and shape the process through their own massive power, things go wrong, he said.
“The problem is bi-partisan,” he said. “There is some better and worse, some good and bad in both parties, but the problem is bi-partisan.”
And his team of 40 or so lobbyists, under his direction, became obsessed with victory, Abramoff said. So they’d push through legislation through any means they could, usually targeting Congress, not the White House (It’s easier to sneak something trough when 10,000 things are happening,” he said.”).
Abramoff would take clients to expensive dinners at restaurants he owned just for that purpose. He’d take them for golf — and fly them to exclusive courses to do it. In that time, he said, he only failed in one legislative battle.
“If you find somebody who’s never losing, something’s wrong,” he said.
And the problem got larger and larger, he said. The very legislators who might regulate the process hope to become lobbyists themselves, Abramoff said, so there’s isn’t much incentive to reign lobbyist in.
And when the dominoes all started falling down — a Washington Post article exposed many of Abramoff’s practices, Sen. John McCain subpoenaed 850,000 e-mails, and the Department of Justice began its own investigation — they uncovered messages and practices that were frequently on the wrong side of the law.
Abramoff said he’d never before thought of what he did as illegal or immoral — “Instead of six tickets to the Redskins, I have 72 tickets, so what?” he said. But in reviewing the same e-mails onto which investigators seized, Abramoff said, he began to see a problem.
“The me I thought I was wasn’t me,” Abramoff said.
There have been reforms since Abramoff went to prison, but they’re toothless, he told the crowd. One new rule would keep a lobbyist from taking a legislator to lunch — unless that lunch is classified as a fundraising event.
So the lobbyist just brings a $5,000 check, he said.
“Is that really better,” Abramoff asked?
Abramoff, whose book “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist” was published last year, said he and others are pushing for legislation they believe would do far more to reform the lobbying process. It would ban campaign contributions by lobbyists, keep Capitol Hill workers from taking jobs as lobbyists for at least a set period of time, and it would require legislators to be subject to the same regulations that put on others.
But getting those measures passed, he said, will take a long time, maybe several election cycles — because, he said, those inside the system often earnestly believe there’s no problem. Connect them to lie detectors, he said, and they’ll confidently answer that they’re not being bribed.
And a threat to withhold financial support doesn’t mean much when other interest groups are ready to offer it instead, he said.
“It’s going to require us beating members of Congress,” he said.