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Ex-Lobbyist Abramoff Visits Raleigh to Talk Government Corruption and Reform
By Bryan Warner
Published: Feb. 10, 2012
RALEIGH - Taking the stage at William Peace University on Thursday night, Jack Abramoff noted that it had been more than 25 years since he last set foot in Raleigh, then campaigning for President Ronald Reagan as chairman of the College Republican National Committee.
In the two ensuing decades, Abramoff rose to become one the top lobbyists in the nation, earning millions of dollars along the way, until being sent to federal prison on fraud charges in 2006. He had become a poster child for what critics saw as a corrupt system in Washington, D.C., where money buys access to elected officials, who in turn shape public policy to favor a few narrow, wealthy interests.
Photo: Brent Laurenz
A quarter-century since leaving Raleigh, Abramoff returned this week, having been released from prison in 2010 after serving 43 months of a six-year sentence. In a Q&A session with the Peace University audience, Abramoff recounted his sharp ascent through the ranks of Washington’s elite, as recorded in his recently published book “Capitol Punishment.”
Some of the night’s 150 attendees may have expected the boogeyman to step to the podium, given Abramoff’s reputation. Instead, they were met with a rather soft-spoken man who professed to have seen the errors of the very political system in which he had once so lucratively thrived. Nowhere to been seen was the larger-than-life, hubristic version of him as depicted by Kevin Spacey in the film “Casino Jack.”
Abramoff related his first taste of behind-the-scenes horse-trading in the nation’s capital. A year after drumming up support among college students for Reagan’s re-election bid, he transitioned into a post within the administration, running the president’s “grassroots lobbying” operation.
The job essentially consisted of keeping congressional Republicans in line with Reagan’s legislative agenda. But one day Abramoff was summoned to the office of a Texas Democrat who promised to deliver 13 votes for a weapons system touted by the president -- if a proposed naval base would be located in the Lone Star State. Taken aback by the ploy, a naïve Abramoff called the White House, which promptly took the congressman up on his offer in order to secure passage of the weapons program.
That experience, Abramoff says, soured him on lobbying and sent him packing to Hollywood, where he spent several years producing forgettable B-grade action flicks.
Then, in the wake of the GOP avalanche of 1994, Abramoff was approached by a neighbor -- a lobbyist at a Democratic-leaning firm -- who said he was looking for someone who could win over what he deemed the “right-wing kooks” who had taken control of Congress.
Abramoff took the job and rapidly made his mark in Washington, handing out choice Redskins tickets to key players on Capitol Hill and currying favor with the promise of a lobbying job awaiting politicians after their time in office, offering a salary that could prove far more lucrative than their congressional pay.
“I thought I was a moral lobbyist, I thought I was a good lobbyist. Why? Because my clients always won,” Abramoff told the audience at Peace. “To me, that was the metric of morality. It wasn’t the consideration: ‘How does this affect the country?’”
However, Abramoff did not assign blame solely to himself, saying, “While I was 100 percent guilty, the system, I ultimately came to believe, was also 100 percent guilty.”
It was during his stint of 1,299 days in federal prison that Abramoff said he had an epiphany. He decided he would determine what reforms would truly have threatened his way of lobbying at the apex of his power -- and try to enact them.
“I thought, What are the things I would have put down what I was doing and gone to the Congress and said ‘Don’t support this?’” Abramoff said. “And I wrote them up. From that list I chose things that I thought the right and the left could agree about.”
Among the reforms put forward by Abramoff Thursday night was a lifetime ban on lobbying for former members of Congress, pointing out that he had been one of the few in his firm that had not worked previously on Capitol Hill. He also called for a ban on gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers and expressed support for congressional term limits.
“Once you buy a congressman, you don’t want to have to go buy it again,” Abramoff said of his former mentality as a lobbyist. “You want that person to stay in there until the undertaker takes them out.”
From there, Abramoff’s proposals parted ways with more progressive reform advocates. He downplayed prospects for public campaign financing as a means to curtail the influence of money in politics, saying it was a “nonstarter” because of Republican opposition. He argued that special interests would simply find a way to manipulate a public financing program.
Citing the skyrocketing costs of senatorial races, he came out in favor of repealing the 17th Amendment, which established the direct-election of senators, and said state legislatures should instead select members of the U.S. Senate. He also called for trimming the federal government as a way to fight corruption, claiming that if the size and power of government were reduced, the incentive for special interest meddling would also fade away.
To those who doubt the sincerity of his turn as a reformer, Abramoff said to look at his actions as proof of his metamorphosis. He contended that ultimately the message was not about him but about cleaning up a system in which it is rare to find a member of Congress “who over time does not descend into some form of the corruption.”
“You think corruption’s gone with me? When they locked the door of the jail on me, it’s not like everything became pure,” Abramoff said. “I’m not a hero. I’m a villain in this. I’m trying now to make recompense.”