By Kevin Bogardus - 11/02/11 10:48 AM EDT
In a new autobiography, former lobbyist Jack Abramoff discusses in detail how and why he became K Street’s most infamous name.
Abramoff — who served three years in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges of corruption, fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion — paints an ugly picture of the lobbying industry in “Capitol Punishment,” arguing that everyone on Capitol Hill and K Street is complicit in a system of favors and influence-peddling.
An advance copy of the book was provided to The Hill.
“Lobbyists were those evil corporate pukes who disdained ideologues like me. They were the guys in the $2,000 suits who sucked the lifeblood out of our nation. Why would I ever become one of those guys?” Abramoff writes.
Abramoff was well-connected in the Republican Party, having served as chairman of the College Republican National Committee in the 1980s. He said he saw lobbying as a way to further the goal of “getting the government off everyone’s back.”
He was also the right kind of conservative to work with the new GOP class. A friend at the prominent law and lobbying outfit Preston Gates Ellis and Rouvelas Meeds recognized Abramoff’s bona fides and wanted him to come work at the firm.
“To me, it seemed clear why they needed me,” Abramoff writes. “The new regime in Congress was not only Republican — it was conservative Republican — and most lobbyists, including Preston Gates’s Republican lobbyists, didn’t know how to speak their lingo. I did.”
After he was hired in December 1994, Abramoff went full-throttle into lobbying, first at Preston Gates and later at Greenberg Traurig. Abramoff became a runaway success, though his tactics led to a spectacular downfall that ensnared dozens of associates in criminal charges and spurred Congress to pass an ethics reform law in 2007.
One common tactic of Abramoff’s was to host lawmakers and congressional aides at one of his suites at the Washington Redskins’ FedEx Field and the Washington Wizards’ MCI Center. The lobbyist estimates the firm often spent more than $1.5 million per year on event tickets.
“Our seemingly unlimited ability to dispense sports and concert tickets to the [Capitol] left scores of representatives and staff thinking we were Ticketmaster. For their purposes, we were,” Abramoff writes. “An entire sub-industry developed at the firm to acquire, dispense and track the tickets. We had prime seats to every game and important event.”
The revolving door also proved helpful to Abramoff, who hired several congressional aides for his lobby practice.
When Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s top political adviser, hired Abramoff’s close aide Susan Ralston, it “was not a blow,” but “an opportunity,” leading to improved access and information from the Bush administration.
Abramoff would also turn to friends with like-minded politics to help his clients.
He wrote that Microsoft “engaged” with Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform at his suggestion. He also recalls a meeting between then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and the software company’s executives, in which DeLay told the company that the Republican House majority could ward off the Clinton administration and then made “a soft appeal” for political contributions.
“A $100,000 check was soon delivered to the [National] Republican Congressional Committee, and Microsoft’s relationship with the American right commenced,” Abramoff wrote.
In a statement to The Hill, Microsoft said Abramoff “was briefly part of the team at Preston Gates in the mid-90s that advised Microsoft on legislative issues. However, he did not play a leadership role in the firm’s government affairs work on Microsoft’s behalf and moved off the account several years before he left the firm.”
Abramoff’s friends also saw dollar signs in their ties to the Republican Party. In a “hard sell” from Ralph Reed to secure Abramoff’s support for then-Texas Gov. Bush’s 2000 presidential run, Reed said that “Bush personally told him that his presidency would make all of us very rich,” according to Abramoff’s account.
Abramoff didn’t believe it. “If Bush had said this, then he wasn’t very wise,” he writes.
Asked by The Hill about the anecdote, Reed said: “I don’t recall ever saying that to Jack.”
Partisan politics hurt Abramoff when he worked as a consultant for Cassidy & Associates, one of K Street’s most revered names. The lobbyist was let go by the firm’s head, Gerry Cassidy, whom Abramoff calls “kind and insightful.”
“He had been warned by Sen. Daniel Inouye [D-Hawaii], one of Cassidy’s biggest allies on the Hill, that if I were associated with their firm, they were no longer welcome in his Senate office,” Abramoff wrote. “Cassidy had no choice but to let me go.”
Inouye’s office declined to comment.
Tom Alexander, a spokesman for Cassidy & Associates, dismissed Abramoff’s book.
“Clearly there is no news here, just the efforts of a convicted felon to peddle a book. Jack Abramoff was not an employee, but acted as a marketing consultant, a relationship we quickly ended when it became clear his story to us was, at best, misleading,” Alexander said.
Despite Abramoff’s protests that his methods and compensation were above board, they would attract the attention of rival lobbyists, the press and eventually the Justice Department. Emanuel Rouvelas delivered what Abramoff called a “prophetic line” after Abramoff was blasted by the media for representing the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands.
“Jack, at the rate you’re going, you’re either going to be dead, disgraced or in jail in five years,” Rouvelas, now a partner at K&L Gates, told him, according to Abramoff’s book.
Rouvelas was right: Abramoff entered federal prison in 2006.
Much of official Washington disavowed the lobbyist, though some stayed in touch.
His former racquetball partner and ex-Preston Gates colleague Larry Latourette helped set up Abramoff’s meeting in the Cumberland, Md., prison with actor Kevin Spacey, who later played the lobbyist in the film “Casino Jack.” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) also visited him in prison, Abramoff said.
A spokeswoman for Rohrabacher confirmed the lawmaker did visit Abramoff in prison.
Now out of jail, the former lobbyist admits he broke the law and says he wants to see reform of the system he once manipulated.
“Life is always complicated, and mine was probably more complex than most, but ultimately, I was the cause of my difficulties,” Abramoff writes. “Sure, I did a lot of good during my years as a lobbyist — for my clients, my firms and many needy people — but I also broke the law, for which my family and I paid a dear price. I continue to pay that price every day of my life.”