Click here to join POGO's Un-Do Influence campaign: a movement to end the undue influence that powerful corporate interests have on our federal government
By DANA LIEBELSON
When former lobbyist Jack Abramoff needed to get something done on the Hill, he had a tried-and-true strategy: offer a congressional staffer a job. Not right away, but six months or a year down the road—enough time to gain some advance access. And if a staffer said no? Well, that was rare. They all fell under Abramoff’s money-spell eventually.
“[Those who said no] were so incredibly complimented, from then on, anything I asked was absolutely granted,” Abramoff said at the Washington, DC headquarters of Public Citizen on February 6. “That was almost a bribe itself.”
If anyone can speak about bribery, it’s “Casino Jack,” the notorious felon and former Washington insider who was convicted and sentenced for giving illegal gifts to legislators and defrauding Native American tribes out of tens of millions of dollars.
His appearance at the public interest advocacy group, Public Citizen, was the latest stop on his so-called “redemption tour.” Since getting out of prison, Abramoff has been pushing out his book, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth about Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist, and—more controversially—is now shedding light on the revolving door culture in Washington.
“I believe that those who engage in public service, those who work on Capitol Hill, those who are elected to federal office and the administration, should not be able to move from those positions into the influence industry,” Abramoff said.
This is precisely what POGO has been preaching in its “Un-Do Influence” campaign—although, hearing the words come out of Abramoff’s mouth is a bit unnerving. The revolving door in Washington gives corporate interests and lobbying firms valuable insider access, and breeds corruption in our government by allowing current and former officials to use their positions for private gain.
Hearing Abramoff tell it, his bribery scandal was not the disease, but a symptom of a wider lobbying culture that still exists. At Public Citizen—where he said he never imagined himself speaking unless he was perhaps “in cuffs”—Abramoff provided other solutions he said he would have been opposed to as a lobbyist, including banning gift-giving and contributing to congressional members and staffs; instating term limits for representatives; and applying every federal law enacted by Congress to Congress itself.
At the discussion, Abramoff painted himself as a man chastened by prison, deep in debt, and trying to become useful to society. He won’t name anyone else who was involved in wrongdoing, because he says he doesn’t want others to endure his hardship. Instead, he says he’s focused on reforming the system. It should be mentioned that Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, said that if Abramoff “really wants to create change, he should name names.”
Whether or not Abramoff is a changed man will be up for debate for a long time—but in the case of the revolving door and the cozy relationship between lobbyists, lawmakers, and their staff, it looks like this time, Abramoff is telling the truth.
“The revolving door is one of the greatest sources of corruption in the government” Abramoff wrote in his book. “It won’t be easy to clean up the swamp we call our nation’s capital, but if America is serious about change and reform, the effort must start now.”
Dana Liebelson is POGO’s Beth Daley Communications Fellow
Image by Dana Liebelson