Infamous former lobbyist Jack Abramoff claims to be a changed man. After making millions of dollars manipulating the system, Abramoff, who was once chairman of the College Republican National Committee and close friends with ex–House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, is now working with liberal lions like Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig and good-government groups to reform the practices that made him immensely wealthy and influential—and ended up sending him to prison for 43 months. As the author of the book Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist and the host of a radio show on XM Satellite Radio, Abramoff has made it his personal mission since his release to spread the word about his past wrongdoing in an effort, he says, to make up for his misdeeds. City and State’s Morgan Pehme asks Abramoff if all lobbyists are dishonest, how the system can be improved, whether it’s naive to think that it can be and why anyone should trust him given his history.
Is the system of lobbying in our country inherently corrupt, or is our government populated by corrupt people who take advantage of a system that is vulnerable?
I think the system is corrupt in a very refined way. It’s not crudely corrupt like it used to be, where it was not at all a bother to anyone that someone would walk into an office such as Lyndon Johnson’s when he was the Senate majority leader and hand him a sack of cash. That was the old days. Now it’s much more refined and more polite, but it’s certainly corrupt. … I don’t think the people view themselves as corrupt. I didn’t view myself as doing anything wrong in that respect, and that’s the problem: that it’s commonplace to engage in, in essence, bribery. … And so I think most people in the system are good people, but they are in a system that itself in its core is corrupt—and certainly many, many, many take full advantage within the boundaries of the law, and some, like I, go over the law, over the boundaries. It’s not necessary to go over the boundaries, but even within those boundaries there’s tremendous capacity for corruption and for acting despicably.
Does legislation ever get passed in Washington on its merits?
Well, very few pieces of legislation get passed in Washington, and this has been the case since the parties became much more hardened into their ideological positions. I’m not certain it’s a bad thing, by the way, because I’m not certain that much of what they want to do to the country should be done. … I have a controversial opinion about this, though for me, everything I do is controversial—but my view is I hope they don’t get along. When they get along, we all suffer. When they get along they pass taxes and spending and dumb invasive rules and criminal laws and all sorts of other stuff that basically make us miserable as a country. There’s very little they do that really solves problems. … Most things that they pass are basically political plums for their favored interests and this is true on both sides, so not doing things is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. … Are any good laws passed? Yeah, things can get passed, but the problem is they get passed but if they’re a “moving train,” as it’s called—a piece of legislation that’s going to get to its destination—there are all sorts of folks looking at that to try to throw some things into some of the boxcars when nobody’s looking, or if it’s something that’s reform-oriented they’ll water it down so much that it really is meaningless.
Is lobbying at the state level any less tainted than at the federal level?
In some cases it’s better. In some cases it’s worse. Some states like Kentucky have put in as a consequence of the scandal some fairly draconian measures to keep a strict regime. In others, like Georgia, it’s legal for lobbyists to give any gift they want to a legislator.
For lobbyists who want to avoid the path that you went down and do their job in an honest and respectable way, what advice would you offer?
If the playing field gets leveled, then it’s very simple … just learn what the rules are and don’t break any of them. … Try not to do something you don’t want to read about on the front page of the paper. Until the playing field gets leveled, it’s the same advice, but there’s also unfortunately a reality there, which is you may not be able to compete with the guys that are playing by those rules but don’t care what they read in the paper, because it’s legal.
It seems like there isn’t any incentive to play by the rules, because then you’re going to be left behind.
That’s one of the reasons these rules have got to get changed. If something is legal, how do you explain to someone who is aggressive that it’s perfectly legal to avail yourself of this, but it’s not polite? Polite? In American politics? In Washington, D.C.? Unfortunately our politics is long past the polite stage. So that’s how the rules have to be changed. We can’t rely on people’s decency and common sense. If it’s legal, it’s legal. If it’s not illegal, it’s not illegal. Now, a lot of people still don’t do it, even though it’s legal—most lobbyists don’t do it, by the way—estimates of how many lobbyists there are varies wildly, but it’s anywhere from 10– to 30,000—say it’s 10,000—of the 10,000 certainly less than 10 percent are engaged in active giving of money. … But if I came up against a lobbyist like that in a lobbying effort, I’d smash their skulls in; it wouldn’t even be fair. It would be like the New York Giants playing some kindergarten kickball team. That’s a problem. That’s the problem.
How would you address the people who question your motivations, pointing out that you’ve been very adept at exploiting systems to your own advantage, and now that you’ve come out of prison and you can’t go back to your old employment, you’ve switched sides to the reform effort once again for your own gain?
Should it matter to me whether you trust me? Why? I’m not selling you something. I guess I have a book out there. Fine, so don’t buy my book. … Otherwise, what am I going for here? There’s no money in this. Am I going to build a career of fame based on my reform efforts? Show me anybody else in the reform movement who has done that. … I’m doing this because I think it’s right. I’m doing this because I need to do it. I was part of that system. Once I realized that I was wrong, once I realized that the system was wrong … I decided … I’ve got to try. We might not make it. The odds are we won’t. The system’s been going for 100 years and so overcoming it is unlikely, but at least I wanted to say I did everything I could, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
To read the full text of this interview, including Abramoff’s plans to defeat incumbent members of Congress, check out cityandstateny.com.
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