Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Fast Rise and Steep Fall of Jack Abramoff

I think it is time for a Season Finale of The Jack Abramoff Show! This is actually a pretty good background story, from the Washington Post, regarding the rise and fall of ubber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. From The Washington Post:

Jack Abramoff liked to slip into dialogue from "The Godfather" as he led his lobbying colleagues in planning their next conquest on Capitol Hill. In a favorite bit, he would mimic an ice-cold Michael Corleone facing down a crooked politician's demand for a cut of Mafia gambling profits: "Senator, you can have my answer now if you like. My offer is this: nothing."

The playacting provided a clue to how Abramoff saw himself -- the power behind the scenes who directed millions of dollars in Indian gambling proceeds to favored lawmakers, the puppet master who pulled the strings of officials in key places, the businessman who was building an international casino empire.

A reconstruction of the lobbyist's rise and fall shows that he was an ingenious dealmaker who hatched interlocking schemes that exploited the machinery of government and trampled the norms of doing business in Washington -- sometimes for clients but more often to serve his desire for wealth and influence.

The Post's story regarding Abramoff's rise is especially interesting. Abramoff became involved with two Republican rising stars during the Reagan years--anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and Christian fundamentalist Ralph Reed. In the Post story:

A quarter of a century ago, Abramoff and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist were fellow Young Turks of the Reagan revolution. They organized Massachusetts college campuses in the 1980 election -- Abramoff while he was an undergraduate at Brandeis and Norquist at Harvard Business School -- to help Ronald Reagan pull an upset in the state.

They moved to Washington, maneuvered to take over the College Republicans -- at the time a sleepy establishment organization -- and transformed it into a right-wing activist group. They were joined by Ralph Reed, an ambitious Georgian whose later Christian conversion would fuel his rise to national political prominence.

Soon they made headlines with such tactics as demolishing a mock Berlin Wall in Lafayette Park, where they also burned a Soviet leader in effigy. "We want to shock them," Abramoff told The Post at the time.

They forged lifelong ties. At Reagan's 72nd-birthday party at the White House, Reed introduced Abramoff to his future wife, Pam Alexander, who was working with Reed.

During the Reagan years, Abramoff also networked himself with other interesting names during the 80s. Consider this:

[In 1982,] Abramoff was running Citizens for America, a conservative grass-roots group founded by drugstore magnate Lewis E. Lehrman. Abramoff was in frequent contact with Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the Reagan White House's Iran-contra mastermind, about grass-roots efforts to lobby Congress for the Nicaraguan contras, according to records in the National Security Archive.

One of Abramoff's most audacious adventures involved Jonas Savimbi, the Angolan rebel leader who had U.S. support but was later found to have ordered the murders of his movement's representative to the United States and that man's relatives. With Savimbi, Abramoff organized a "convention" of anticommunist guerrillas from Laos, Nicaragua and Afghanistan in a remote part of Angola. Afterward, Lehrman fired Abramoff amid a dispute about the handling of the group's $3 million budget.

Abramoff also worked on behalf of the apartheid South African government, which secretly paid $1.5 million a year to the International Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit group that Abramoff operated out of a townhouse in the 1980s, according to sworn testimony to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

At the same time, Abramoff dabbled as a Hollywood producer, shepherding an anticommunist movie, "Red Scorpion," starring Dolph Lundgren, filmed in Namibia, which was then ruled by South Africa. Actors in the film said they saw South African soldiers on the set. When the film was released in 1989, anti-apartheid groups demonstrated at the theaters. The movie ran into financial difficulty during and after production, but Abramoff produced a sequel, "Red Scorpion 2."

What I find interesting here is who Abramoff was working with. Abramoff networked with anyone who would give him a rising paycheck, power, and influence. And in this early networking, Abramoff didn't care if what he was working on was morally or legally right. Abramoff and North worked on developing grass-roots lobbying in Congress for the Nicaraguan Contras. He worked with Jonas Savimbi, the UNITA rebel leader, for this anti-communist convention in Angola. And it is also interesting the Abramoff was involved in the mis-handling of $3 million budget for this convention. Finally, we see this lobbying on behalf of the apartheid South African government, which then secretly paid $1.5 million to a non-profit group that was set up by Abramoff. You could say that Abramoff was "learning the ropes" of lobbying and shady dealmaking--the basic skills that would propel him to the top lobbyist position in his dealings with Tom DeLay, the Indian casinos, and so many other Republican and Democratic congressmen.

There are also aspects of Abramoff's personality that may reflect on his rise and fall from lobbying power. Consider this:

For a time, all things seemed possible. Abramoff's brash style often clashed with culturally conservative Washington, but many people were drawn to his moxie and his money. He collected unprecedented sums -- tens of millions of dollars -- from casino-rich Indian tribes. Lawmakers and their aides packed his restaurants and skyboxes and jetted off with him on golf trips to Scotland and the Pacific island of Saipan.

Abramoff offered jobs and other favors to well-placed congressional staffers and executive branch officials. He pushed his own associates for government positions, from which they, too, could help him.

He was a man of contradictions. He presented himself as deeply religious, yet his e-mails show that he blatantly deceived Indian tribes and did business with people linked to the underworld. He had genuine inside connections but also puffed himself up with phony claims about his access.

"Everybody lost their minds," recalled a former congressional staffer who lobbied with Abramoff at Preston Gates. "Jack was cutting deals all over town. Staffers lost their loyalty to members -- they were loyal to money."

A senior Preston Gates partner warned him to slow down or he would be "dead, disgraced or in jail." Those within Abramoff's circle also saw the danger signs. Their boss had become increasingly frenzied about money and flouted the rules. "I'm sensing shadiness. I'll stop asking," one associate, Todd Boulanger, e-mailed a colleague.

Abramoff was a salesman. He worked for the sale. He lived for the deal. Only instead of selling cars, or encyclopedias, or vacuum cleaners, Abramoff sold politics. He sold access to politicians to the highest bidders. He became the middleman who provided the link between the business groups, who needed access to the politicians in order to provide their views regarding legislation that would affect their interests, and the politicians themselves, who needed contributions to fund their campaign war chests. And as a middleman, Abramoff was at the political center, reaping the rewards of both money and power. And it was the greed for both money and power that drove Abramoff to destruction.

There is more here regarding the fall of Jack Abramoff, but much of the information regarding Jack Abramoff's fall from lobbying power, and the indictments against him by federal prosecutors, have already been reported in numerous press accounts. Still, the story is a fascinating read on how a single individual could rise from a obscure Young Turk to the highest lobbying position in Washington, only to fall spectacularly in one of the biggest congressional scandals of all time.


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