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As a lobbyist, Jack Abramoff used a lot of techniques to influence lawmakers — some of which broke the law and landed him in federal prison. One of the more prominent items in his toolbox was Signatures, the upscale restaurant he owned and operated in Washington, D.C – along with two other restaurant businesses. Abramoff joins Kojo to chat about how he used restaurants to manipulate levers of power and his new life as a government reform advocate.
- Jack Abramoff Former Lobbyist; former owner, Signatures restaurant; Author, "Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist"
Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff talked about why he felt safe using Signatures, a restaurant located down the street from the FBI headquarters, to manipulate levers of power. Abramoff said at the time he didn’t believe he was doing anything wrong or illegal. He said having a “home court” so close to Capitol Hill changed the lobbying dynamic. Abramoff added that he sometimes sent his own car and driver to pick up members of Congress, staffers and other clients who hosted fundraisers in the restaurant’s private rooms.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Food Wednesday. In February of 2002, a fairly typical Washington restaurant opened for business on a cozy corner of Pennsylvania Avenue. Signatures offered pretty standard fare for the class of white-tablecloth eaters with easy access to expense accounts, fine wines, a $74 steak and even a pricier tasting menu, but the business behind Signatures was anything but ordinary.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIts owner, Jack Abramoff, eventually became the poster child for corruption inside the Beltway, a disgraced lobbyist who did time in federal prison for schemes to corrupt members of Congress and their staffers. He has since described the dining room at Signatures as a cafeteria for the very people he was trying to influence, a place where he gave away hundreds of thousands of dollars in free food and drink, a place that served as one of the most powerful tools used in the most sprawling corruption scandal in Washington since Watergate.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJack Abramoff is now out of prison. And he's an advocate for closing the loopholes that allowed him to undertake those very schemes. He joins us in studio. Jack Abramoff is a former lobbyist. He was the owner of several restaurants in Washington, including the aforementioned Signatures. He's now, uh oh, a radio talk show host and the author of "Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth about Corruption from America's Most Notorious Lobbyist." Jack Abramoff, welcome. Thank you for joining us.
MR. JACK ABRAMOFFThanks for having me.
NNAMDIWell, before we get to food, two years ago, we interviewed the documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney on this broadcast. He had spent some time visiting with you in prison while putting together "Casino Jack and the United States of Money."
NNAMDIAnd he told us that part of what he found that made you a dangerous and effective lobbyist, and ultimately a criminal, was that you had a gift for finding money where nobody else would bother to look for it, whether it was bilking it from Native American tribes or scheming for it in an obscure place like the Mariana Islands. But before we go further, how do you feel about that assessment of you?
ABRAMOFFWell, pejoratives aside, I think the -- I was definitely an aggressive lobbyist. I've worked within the business to try to find ways to make money, like anybody who's in business. I did go over the line on some things. I think that Alex's film was interesting and entertaining in times, but some of the understanding of what happened in lobbying, I think, eluded them, unfortunately, in the film.
ABRAMOFFBut in general, I think they got it that Washington powerbrokers and lobbyists utilize resources in ways that people probably will be very surprised about and very clever ways. And I was one of them and did as much, unfortunately, as much of it as I could.
NNAMDIYou told "60 Minutes" last year that you estimated that, at your peak, you had bought influence in more than about 100 congressional offices. How would you characterize the kind of influence you had cultivated?
ABRAMOFFWell, they were asking particular what -- if I could name the number of offices we had very strong influence in. I thought it was about 100. We had influence, frankly, in probably up to 300 offices at some level, but there were 100 of them that we raised money for aggressively that were participants in activities that we would sponsor, that were involved in lobbying activities with us.
ABRAMOFFAnd, you know, again, a lot of it flowed from our strengths. We had 40 lobbyists with lots of relationships there, and a lot of it flowed from our aggressive use of virtually unlimited funds made available to us by our clients to develop those relationships so that the public servants, unfortunately, that they were, would be amenable to the kind of things we were asking for on behalf of those clients. That's the problem, of course, the big problem in Washington.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number if you'd like to joy this conversation with Jack Abramoff. He's a former lobbyist. He was the owner of several restaurants in Washington, including Signatures. That's why he joins us on Food Wednesday. What rules do you think should be in place on Capitol Hill governing the use of meals and drinks to win favor with lawmakers and their staffs?
NNAMDI800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Let's talk food. It's been said in so many ways that the best way into a lawmaker's heart is through his stomach. By 2002, you were a high-flying lobbyist, big Rolodex. At what point did you decide that launching a restaurant would be good for your business?
ABRAMOFFWell, Kojo, the -- I'm kosher, and I had an assistant at that time who saw an opportunity and came to me with it. And I wasn't -- I would love to claim credit in that context of the old days, that I thought of it. I didn't. He came to me and said that the kosher restaurant in town closed down. Let's put together a very high-end kosher restaurant, and let's make it so high-end that lobbyists would go. And I had, as I mentioned, scores of lobbyists working for me with unlimited virtually expense accounts.
ABRAMOFFWouldn't it be good, he said, if they could be all dining in your restaurant? So I gave him the license to go ahead and start building a restaurant, which he did. We were going to open it as a kosher restaurant. Unfortunately, we couldn't find kosher wine that kind of met the standard of the prices that we were going to charge to keep it an elite restaurant and decided instead to not make it a kosher restaurant but instead to open a second restaurant, you know, a kosher restaurant, which we did very -- a very few months later.
ABRAMOFFSo that's sort of how it got going. The idea morphed from one of let's have a very nice kosher restaurant into one of let's have a great lobbyists' restaurant and let's be able to use the restaurant, as we did, as a hangout, a meeting place for as many powerful people as possible, particularly powerful people who had something to do with our lobbying efforts.
NNAMDIWell, you keep saying let's, but what sense did you have for how the restaurant business actually worked when you were (unintelligible) ?
ABRAMOFFNone at all. None at all. I was a restaurant patron. That was it.
NNAMDII was about to say what knowledge, what base of knowledge were you drawing from when you had to put together a staff, hire a chef, a manager? How did you accomplish those things?
ABRAMOFFWell, I mean, the same way any of the businesses that I ever entered. I tried to find people who knew what they were doing, who were experienced. I had a general plan of what I wanted to do, but I didn't know anything about it. And I'm not certain I still know anything about it, having gone through it. And I can't say that in retrospect I would do it again. I absolutely would not do it again the restaurant part of this, or, frankly, many parts of what I was involved in.
ABRAMOFFBut it was a very difficult task, and it's an arduous experience this business of restaurants, losing money and whatnot. Our Signatures just started making money actually when my career collapsed, and we ultimately had to close the restaurant.
NNAMDIWell, at one point, you owned two other restaurants, Archives and Stacks Delicatessen, in addition to Signatures. What was your vision, if you will, for the restaurant businesses when you started? The New York Times described Signatures as a place where you mixed business with business.
ABRAMOFFRight. Well, Signatures, as I mentioned, morphed out of the mode of being the elite kosher restaurant to being the elite lobbying restaurant. It was located halfway between the White House and Capitol Hill. We had a superb chef, Morou Ouattara, and we had the finest sushi available anywhere near Capitol Hill. And so it became a meeting place and a fantastic bar. So the whole essence of that restaurant really revolved around the lobbying world and the political world.
ABRAMOFFThe other restaurant was really I felt in every step along the way a community service that there were no kosher restaurants in Washington. That because there were no kosher restaurants, the young people weren't staying here because there was really nowhere to go out to eat with the family. And I felt that I was very involved in lots of other communal efforts, and I viewed that one very much as that. And, unfortunately, from a business point of view, it stayed very much a community effort and didn't ever come near turning a profit.
NNAMDIWell, Signatures once advertised that it provided -- I'm quoting here -- provided liberal portions in a conservative setting. How would you describe the kind of clientele you were catering for there?
ABRAMOFFWell, we had lots of congressmen and senators who would come in every night that they were in town. We had lobbyists. We didn't have every lobbyist. There were the kind of rival lobbyists who had their own restaurants or had their own hangouts. But we had a good core of lobbyists. We had government workers. Ironically, we had a lot of people from the FBI and the Justice Department.
ABRAMOFFNone of the people who later came to visit me on other matters, let's just say. But we had, I think, a real good mix of sports center, sports players from the teams. They would come over after the Wizards' games or the -- Jordan came over a number of times. The Capitols, Dan Snyder would frequent the place -- Abe Pollin. So it was...
NNAMDIWell, the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was not known as a conservative...
NNAMDI...but he apparently felt quite comfortable in that setting.
ABRAMOFFRight. No. The restaurant wasn't political. I mean, it was a restaurant, and he was -- Sen. Moynihan lived in the building and would grace the restaurant every day in the afternoon with -- just come down and have coffee and talk, and he was magnificent. And obviously, he and I politically maybe didn't come from the same places, but he's somebody who just couldn't but be respected. And we actually named the corner where he sat after him after he passed away.
ABRAMOFFYeah. After he passed away.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Jack Abramoff. He's a former lobbyist. He spent more than three years in federal prison for fraud, corruption and conspiracy crimes. He was the owner of several restaurants in Washington, including Signatures. He's now a radio talk show host and author of "Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth about Corruption from America's Most Notorious Lobbyist."
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think are the tangible lessons we should take out of the scandal that sent Jack Abramoff and others to prison several years ago? Or you can simply send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Jack, please don your headphones because I'm going to head to the phones. Here is Kate in Alexandria, Va. Kate, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATEHi. Thank you very much for taking my call, Kojo. I'm admittedly a little bit of a political novice and somewhat ignorant, but it's always been confusing to me why lobbying is even legal. I don't understand -- I mean, I understand the purpose of it, but I don't understand how it's legitimate to buy influence.
NNAMDIWell, lobbying does not necessarily mean buying influence, but here's Jack Abramoff.
ABRAMOFFWell, Kate, that's a good question, and I think Kojo put his finger on it. Lobbying is a right we have from the Constitution to petition our government. And just like going to court, you can either go directly, or you can get a lawyer and go indirectly, have somebody represent you. The problem in lobbying isn't people petitioning the government and presenting their cases based on the merit.
ABRAMOFFThe problem is, Kate, I think the thing that probably bothers you, which is the use of money in lobbying to buy influence and to, in essence, bribe public officials to get what the lobbyists and their clients want. And that actually, unfortunately, sadly, for the most part, is still legal. It's something I'm working on right now with United Republic, a group that I'm involved with, to try to change because that which is, unfortunately, legal is still contemptuous and needs changing.
KATEOK. Well, I really appreciate your response because I haven't clearly separated the idea of presenting your position and having it supported by, let's say, an industry as to buying -- and the difference between that and buying influence. And so it's very helpful. I appreciate your response.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Not everyone appreciates what Jack Abramoff is trying to do in terms of bringing reform to lobbying. We got an email from Howard Marlowe, the president of the American League of Lobbyists, who says, "Please do not allow this convicted felon to be your expert on so-called congressional corruption. He's just trying to scam the system again, so he can make enough money to pay back the $40 million-plus in fees he bilked out of his Indian tribe clients. There are ethical lobbyists in this town who can tell you what needs to be fixed and how to fix it."
NNAMDI"The American League of Lobbyists has a package of proposals that has the support of many good government groups. The American Bar Association has its own package of proposals, and there are others who can discuss the political finance and other issues that need to be dealt with. I hope you will allow one of these responsible and ethical experts to get as much airtime as the Abramoff, the convict."
NNAMDIThe insults aside, Jack Abramoff, it seems to me, though, that there is some expertise that you bring to the table in terms of having used the regulations and rules as they existed having again run afoul of the law and those regulations and now come back to talk about exactly how they can be fixed because who better to know that than someone like you.
ABRAMOFFWell, precisely. I mean, I -- you know, Mr. Marlowe is a -- is an interesting fellow, and I think that's it's commendable, by the way, that he has, under his leadership of the American League of Lobbyists, tried to put together a package to, in fact, reform some of the egregious problems in the system. I don't know that necessarily his package goes far enough. We're going to try to do a little bit more. But it's heartening to know that the person heading the League of Lobbyists, at least, is thinking about these things.
ABRAMOFFBut in terms of my own experience, gosh, unfortunately for me, I've been in a lot of rooms and did a lot of things I wish I didn't do and rang a lot of bells I wish I could un-ring. Not using those horrible experiences and that dreadful knowledge in a positive way, I think, would be a waste. And it doesn't benefit anyone to not at least listen to ideas and to what I would do. You know, what I often do is, and I do this with the reform groups, we sit there, and we'll go through a reform how to change something, and then I will them how I would have undone that and how I would've found a loophole in that.
ABRAMOFFAnd it's very possible that Mr. Marlowe and others that are, I'm sure, very fine people, unfortunately, maybe their minds don't work like that. We're not going after the Howard Marlowes of the world. We're going after to make sure there are no more Jack Abramoffs in the lobbying business.
NNAMDIOne of the reasons why security people in the tech business use hackers to find the loopholes in their system. We're going to take a short break. If you have already called, you stay on the line. We will get to your call. The number is 800-433-8850. We're talking with Jack Abramoff. You can also send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Jack Abramoff. He is a former lobbyist who spent more than three years in federal prison for fraud, corruption and conspiracy crimes. Jack Abramoff was the owner of several restaurants in Washington, including Signatures. He's now a radio talk show host and the author of "Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Corruption From America's Most Notorious."
NNAMDIOn face value, you had a restaurant that had to be pretty brazen to be right down the street from the FBI. They only had to walk about half a block down Pennsylvania Avenue. They could literally see you from the J. Edgar Hoover Building. Why did you feel safe doing what you did there?
ABRAMOFFWell, first of all, Director Mueller would be in the restaurant almost every day, so they didn't have to walk half a block. All you had to do was look up from where he was. We actually didn't enjoy -- when he came, he was a very nice man. But they seem to think that they could clear out the entire section he wanted to sit in with the FBI agents and make -- give him privacy, and they didn't quite understand, I guess, that it was at least pretending to be a business at that point.
ABRAMOFFBut, you know, Kojo, unfortunately, I didn't really believe that what I was doing was illegal and wrong, unfortunately. And that's not to be a credit me. That's actually more a detriment to me that I didn't look up from the morass that I created around myself and the swamp I had built for myself to realize I was in a swamp of my own making. By the way, I don't blame others for what I did. I blame myself, and I was the one who ended serving all the prison time, not somebody else.
ABRAMOFFSo -- but in terms of it being right there with the Justice Department, Justice Department officials were constantly in the restaurant. I knew a number who did the upper level folks who were there. I didn't encounter any of them during my investigations and everything, but it was not something that we felt that was all right, that was anyway wrong unfortunately.
NNAMDIWell, let's get into how you use the business to get inside of congressional offices. You describe the place in the past as a cafeteria for lawmakers and their staffs. How did you make it work for you?
ABRAMOFFWell, a combination of things. First of all, having a place where we had a home court so close to the Hill, so close to Capitol Hill, was very important to us. Just the dynamic of discussions of lobbying, when you're in their offices, it's more difficult because they're on top. When they're in your offices -- your lobbying offices, that's a different dynamic. They're rarely there. So normally lobbyists have got to meet them in a restaurant or a golf course or something like that. But it's very rare that it's their restaurant or their golf course.
ABRAMOFFWe changed that dynamic by having our restaurant, meaning my staff and I. And so when we had members there and staff there and clients there, whoever it was, it was in our home. And just that slight change of the dynamic was important. Second thing that was really vital to us when I was lobbying, unfortunately, you know, lobbyists raise an awful lot of money for members of Congress, and I raised, during the time I was a lobbyist, millions every year on both sides of the aisle.
NNAMDI$12 million a year.
ABRAMOFFYeah. And, you know, so we had -- I had a restaurant that I could allow members to avail themselves of the private rooms for fundraisers and other events like that. I also had sports boxes and things. But the restaurant was right there. We actually sometimes even sent my car and driver to pick them up and bring them to their own fundraiser in the restaurant. So it was, from a lobbying point of view, it was really ideal.
ABRAMOFFNow, as I look back on it, I think, oh, my God, what in the world did I do? You know, how could I have been involved in that? Unfortunately for me, it was something that I seemed to think was OK, and I did. I wish I hadn't.
NNAMDIBut it just seems that you have such a psychological advantage by being in your own spot. I think about going to testify on the Hill when invariably the members of Congress or the senators to whom you're testifying are a level higher than you are. And that indicates to you that this is their spot. The -- one Republican strategist told Vanity Fair that seeing you at Signatures was like watching Frank Sinatra hold court at a reserved table. Is that how it felt?
ABRAMOFFWell, I mean, it didn't feel that way for me. It just felt I was sitting at a dinner. But I had a table I always sat at. And I purposely had the table so I could view the entire dining room. My main purpose there wasn't necessarily to lord over people who were coming in. It was to watch the staff. We have very specific instructions for the waiters in terms of how they interacted with tables.
ABRAMOFFOne of the big pet peeves I have is when, in the middle of a heated conversation with somebody, the waiter will come over, interrupt you, stop your conversation, say, how is it going? How's -- are you enjoying your meal? So I basically -- the staff was forbidden from interrupting patrons in their discussions. They just had to stand by and wait for the patron to look at them and to call them over. So that was my main concern.
ABRAMOFFBut I think what happened was it became such that everyone saw where I was, and maybe that is what led that particular powerbroker (unintelligible) that analogy.
NNAMDIOn to the phones again. Here is Arnie in Washington, D.C. Arnie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ARNIEThank you, Kojo. Good morning. And hello, Mr. Abramoff.
ARNIEI'm curious, before I ask my question, what radio station you're a talk show host on?
ABRAMOFFI'm on XM Talk 168.
NNAMDIIt's the last time you'll hear that on this broadcast.
NNAMDIGo ahead, please, with your question.
ARNIEI don't subscribe to XM. Anyway, I should make a couple of statements first that I'm a hospitality consultant. I've worked extensively with Morou. Signatures was one of my accounts. I deal with The Prime Rib and (word?) many other fine restaurants. I also serve on a nonprofit board with Pam Abramoff. And on behalf of many people, I want to thank him for his generosity.
ARNIESome people might say that's Robin Hood, you know, taking from the Indians and giving it to others who are more needy, not in the casino business. The whole morass of fundraising is the nature of the deed. The current regulations from Congress allow $25 for a sit-down meal for a lobbyist. But there's an unlimited budget as long as the congressman and lobbyist remain standing.
ARNIEAnd so in other words, they could stand up at a bar and drink five bottles of Dom Perignon and caviar and foie gras, which seems somewhat...
NNAMDIWell, allow me to have Jack Abramoff comment because Congress passed new ethic rules that say a lot of them -- a lot of those rules designed to offer guidelines about food in particular, the one that Arnie was referring to, rules that say food you eat standing up with a toothpick, OK, but food you eat sitting down with a knife and fork, no-no. What do you make of that approach?
ABRAMOFFWell, I mean, this is a typical feckless Washington reform, you know? I -- when I'm out speaking on the road, I talk about how they think that reforming the rules means that congressman can't use a knife and fork when eating their meal. Obviously, some of them have not been with congressmen during meals. Knives and forks are not often in use by some of the congressmen.
ABRAMOFFAnyway, but, you know, the point is all of this is the Washington dance. All of this is the way to get around things. And back to Arnie, one thing that you didn't mention is you can actually sit down and have that meal if you declare it a fundraiser. And in fact, if you're the lobbyist and you pull out of your pocket $5,000 in checks, contributions and give it to the congressman while you're sitting there, that makes the entire meal perfectly OK. This is the kind of thing that has to be changed.
ABRAMOFFThe reform stuff that we're working on, basically, would bar any gratuity, even $25, even $2, going from a lobbyist to a congressman or somebody who has a special interest to a congressman, including fundraising, including being involved in fundraising and everything like that. Until there's a total ban like that or at least de minimis amounts that enable it to get over the constitutional hurdle, until that happens, we're going to see nothing but running through loopholes for the rest of the time.
NNAMDIHow high up did your influence go at its peak? Bob Ney told us a few years ago, former congressman, that it was clear to him that if a member of Congress wanted to get in good with Tom Delay, who was majority leader at the time, Ney was a member of the House, the best way was through Jack Abramoff.
ABRAMOFFWell, I guess my view of it is that I was never as good or as bad as ultimately it was reported. I think that a lot of people use hyperbole on -- hyperbole on both sides of it, but, you know, I had influence. I was in the influence business. I was 24 hours a day working to build influence. I had tremendous resources to put to the disposal of getting that influence, and then I use that influence for my clients. Unfortunately, this is the game that goes on here. I was probably at the tip of the spear of it and suffered accordingly.
NNAMDIBack to the food issue, this email we got from Andrew, "Can you support or disapprove the caricature of the partisan political divide, i.e. liberals eat a fat fare like arugula and sushi and sip lattes, while conservatives chow down on steak and potatoes and prefer their coffee plain and black? You've, no doubt, dined with both. Can you shed any light? Is this a myth?"
ABRAMOFFIt's a complete myth.
ABRAMOFFIt's a funny question. But it's a complete myth. I mean, I've been with many liberals who eat the most common fare. And I've been with my conservatives who are as persnickety as could ever be described, demanding something that would make arugula look like a Big Mac. So...
NNAMDIOK. 800-433-8850 is the number if you'd like to join this conversation with Jack Abramoff. Here is Mike in Alexandria, Va. Mike, your turn.
MIKEThanks for taking my call, Kojo. I have two questions, maybe not that related to each other. The first one is, why can't we have a good kosher deli in Washington? I think that we deserve one, and we should have one. And the second question is, what do you think about public financing? If there was public financing to sort of set limits on campaigns and people we're allowed to raise money from outside influences, vis-à-vis, Citizens United and such other things, do you think that that would really clean up the game, or do you think people would still just try to find a way around it?
ABRAMOFFThose are two good questions, and I guess they're unrelated. But let me deal the public financing first. I'm personally not in favor of public financing and primarily 'cause I'm a conservative. And I think that whether I'm in favor or non-favor it, whoever is in favor it, in today's atmosphere, something that is not supported by right and the left together is not going to pass. And that's just the reality. And in terms of the positives and the negatives of it, they can be debated up and down the street.
ABRAMOFFBut I can say this -- and I had pointed this out -- if public financing ever did come in new existence, they'd better be very careful about how they do it because I can tell you there's a whole group of people -- and I was in that group -- who every time a government program would show up, they'd figure an angle on how to get that money. You'd have lobbyists running scores of candidates across the country. You'd have lobbying firms open up political consultancies and taking percentages of the money. So there's no doubt that would happen.
ABRAMOFFBut in the event, it's not politically, I think, possible, certainly not right now. In term of the kosher deli, I have no idea why that is -- to be honest with you, you know, I had a deli, Stacks. It was kosher. I had mixed views of it myself, by the way, as a deli. It's very hard to replicate for some reason the New York deli, the classic kosher New York deli. It's just very, very difficult. Kosher restaurants in general need a base of support, consumer wise. And it's very tough in Washington where the orthodox crowd is not really as big as everywhere else.
NNAMDIMike, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. What concerns do you have about the influence of money on our politics? What do you think should be done to change that? 800-433-8850, or you can send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Here is Sharwell (sp?) in Silver Spring, Md. Hi, Sharwell.
SHARWELLThank you for taking my call, Kojo.
SHARWELLTo ask your panelist, what the difference between lobby and a bribe?
NNAMDIThe difference between a lobby and a bribe.
ABRAMOFFWell, Sharwell, the -- I guess the difference is a lobby or lobbying is the act of going in and trying to persuade somebody. The bribe is the use of anything of value that you conveyed to a public servant to get in that door to persuade them. If you get in the door and make an argument on your merits, that's not a bribe. But if you give them, yeah, $1,000 contribution to get in that door, to persuade them to do something in your behalf, that to me is a bribe. Frankly, not even a $1,000, whatever you give them is a bribe.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Sharwell. The free meals, a signature, certainly won you have some friends as the tickets to your skybox, the golf trip to St. Andrews. But they also brought a lot of heat. And one thing we talked about with Alex Gibney was the influence of lobbyists for Wall Street and the pharmaceutical industry, which he said were and still are more effective than you were because they keep low profile and avoid some of the outrageous things that brought on so much attention to you. How do you see it?
ABRAMOFFWell, I agree 'cause they're still in business, I guess. You know, I didn't seek a high profile. I think what happened was some of the -- for whatever reason, a Post reporter got on me, and Sen. McCain subpoenaed my emails. And I was off to the races unfortunately. Well, I should say I was the fox in that particularly race, not the hounds. But, you know, in terms of the others, I imagined there are people doing basically, not necessarily, everything I did.
ABRAMOFFBut, again, 90-plus percent of what I did unfortunately was legal. So I imagine they're still doing everything that is legal in town. The problem is that they're not going to be exposed, and they're not going to be -- it's not going to be disclosed because they're not going to get 850,000 emails from them because in the day they got my emails, the delete button was the number one button being hit in Washington, D.C.
NNAMDISpeaking of that, I was intrigued by something you said about your networking skills. So much of what got you in trouble as a lobbyist was the electronic trail of emails you left dangling behind you. You've since said that this is not an age where people can run away from facts. What lessons did you learn about email in particular from those days?
ABRAMOFFWell, I mean, you know, we were all told from the beginning, don't write anything you don't want to read on the front page of The Washington Post. Unfortunately for me, I didn't quite listen to that and wound up reading on the front page of the Post, lots of things I read. Obviously, one has to be careful what one writes. But I think more than what one writes -- you know, that was a symptom of my problem, the emails. The bigger problem was what I was doing and what I was believing and what I was involved in and what I thought was OK.
ABRAMOFFSo that's where most of the work that I've tried to do on myself in the last eight-plus years, Kojo, has been focused. Obviously, I'm more careful on emails. I'm not -- I tended in the past to be much more flippant and jokey on my emails than perhaps I am now. Thank God I was always very strict to not allow anybody to send me any kind of sexist, racist, profane, you know, obscene emails and always reacted very negatively to that.
ABRAMOFFBecause can you imagine what I would have been looking like, as bad as I looked at the -- that kind of stuff that was going on? So, fortunately, they didn't, in 850,000 emails, find any of that. But, still, the emails were, again, a manifestation of a bigger problem. And it's a problem I worked on hard, whether before and after prison or in prison, and one I have to work on for the rest of my life because of character issues.
NNAMDIWell, we're getting a lot of emails and calls for you, but we have to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. Looks like the lines are busy, so you may want to send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there.
NNAMDIOur guest is Jack Abramoff, former lobbyist who spent more than three years in federal prison for fraud, corruption and conspiracy crimes. He's now a radio talk show host and author of "Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He was the owner of several restaurants in Washington, including Signatures. He's now a talk radio host and the author of "Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist." I'll go directly to the phones, where Mike in King George, Va. awaits us. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEYes. Thank you. I would like to ask Mr. Abramoff how he thinks the results of Citizens United is going to affect the influence game in the long term now that individuals and organizations with money can directly affect elections rather than having to affect legislation behind the scenes.
NNAMDIWell, before he answers that, allow me to put you on hold and have Jordan in Baltimore, Md., who also, I think, has a question about Citizens United. Jordan...
JORDANYes. Yes. Thank you very much. My question is -- Jack, I saw the documentary about you, and I also watched your movie and also read your book. But my first question is this. You had to testify in front of a committee that pretty much -- you know, all of them or, you know, or half of them took money from you. Did you, in any time, just thought of saying, hey, you're trying to ask me all these questions? You knew exactly what was going on, and you got money from me. And...
NNAMDIOK. He'll answer that question second. What was your other question about Citizens United, Jordan?
JORDANThe second one is the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, did it just decriminalize what you did in the past? Thank you very much.
ABRAMOFFOK. So, first, on the Citizens United front, let me answer Jordan's quick question and then Mike's and then get back to Jordan's about the committee. No, it didn't decriminalize what I did in the past. And I think it relates to the question Mike asked because, unfortunately, money has really always been able to find its way into the system. People ask me constantly, is it a lot different now? And, frankly, it's not a lot different now.
ABRAMOFFWe were always able to get every dollar we needed to get into races and into the system through party organizations, through soft money, through 527s, through 501 (c)(4) s. There have always been loopholes. There have always been ways to get the money into the system. It's more open now, in a certain respect, in that some people like Sheldon Adelson and others are openly giving large amounts of money.
ABRAMOFFBut in the past, we never had trouble getting amounts of money, whatever we needed to get, into the system, and that's part of the problem, by the way. Citizens United -- where I'm troubled about Citizens United -- 'cause I have a little bit more of a nuanced and complex view of it, I think, than most people who have a problem with Citizens United. I don't have personally a problem with the basic structure of the decision.
ABRAMOFFWhere I have a problem is -- and I think this flows from the fact that the justices, none of them were legislators. None of them were in the political process. They don't accord, in my view, a proper amount of fear and recognition to the fact that money corrupts these politicians, that money influences them in their decisions. I think that they basically, in the decision, they overlook that and they play it down.
ABRAMOFFAnd that -- because of that, I don't think they recognize that the role of special interest money -- and let's not kid ourselves. Ninety-plus percent of the money in the system are people who want something back from the system. There are very few people giving altruistically in huge amounts of money. The big, big donors want something back -- corporate, unions, individuals, whatever it is.
ABRAMOFFWhat we try to do with the bill that I'm working on is target those guys because we feel that that would survive the Citizens United court. And that court is not really going anywhere for a while, so we have to deal with that. And so we're hoping to go after those people who are lobbyists and, by the way, expand the definition of what a lobbyist is. That Newt Gingrich and Tom Daschle can claim they're not lobbyists is frankly as silly as if I was claiming I was a history professor or something.
ABRAMOFFSo it -- everybody who is lobbying needs to be registered as a lobbyist. Everyone who's a client -- basically somebody using a lobbyist or using efforts to lobby and get things -- needs to register as well. And that group, in its entirety, needs to be reduced significantly in terms of the money they can give to a de minimis amount of money.
ABRAMOFFNow, just getting back to Jordan's second question or first question, I guess, in terms of the hearing, did I sit there and think a bunch of hypocrites, many of you received money from me? Yes, I did think it. But, Jordan, unlike the movie, you can't say anything like that or you're going to be taken out of there and put in contempt, and so I didn't say a word.
NNAMDIAnd if sometimes Jack Abramoff sounds like a lawyer, it's because, well, he is. He went to Georgetown Law and has a law degree. Here is Grant in Washington, D.C. Grant, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GRANTThanks a lot. During the investigation, there was movement of $44,000 from Indian tribes into the Capital Athletic Foundation, which went to Israeli settlers for night vision goggles and sniper scopes and military gear. And I wanted Jack to explain whether that was really a charitable purpose and whether he thinks it would a charitable purpose if nonprofits forwarded military gear to Palestinians trying to fend off illegal settlers.
ABRAMOFFWell, that -- it wasn't -- other than what you mentioned, there weren't other military items. But, no, I mean, I plead guilty to that. That was one of the things that I did that was wrong. I misused the charity, and I wound up pleading guilty to violations of tax law as a consequence.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Grant. And speaking of taxes, you came up with a group of young Republicans that included Grover Norquist, the man who has committed many Republicans in Congress to a pledge that they will never vote to raise taxes. What do you make of Grover Norquist's approach and the influence that he has on Congress, particularly with the current Republican members?
ABRAMOFFWell, I think it's important. People got to remember that in the DNA of Republicans at this point is a pledge to themselves not to ever raise taxes. So what Grover has done is, I think, provided an organizational tool, and Grover is a master organizer as he was from the days we were together in 1980 in Massachusetts. He is really one of the most brilliant political organizers. The pledge is basically an organizational tool to get the Republicans who already won't raise taxes.
ABRAMOFFYou know, 90 percent of them, 99 percent of them would be dragged by horses before they would raise taxes. So what's happened is the media have kind of (word?) on to that and made it the reason they're not raising taxes. There may be a couple who signed that pledge, like Steve LaTourette, who regret it and wanted to take it back, but most of the people who signed the pledge are Republicans who absolutely won't raise taxes. What Grover brings us is an organizer and as a masterful political tactician creating that pledge and that whole enterprise.
NNAMDIIt does seem, however, that he has been able to create a level of fear among some more moderate Republicans, that if they do not sign the pledge, then Grover Norquist is going to find somebody to run against me from the right.
ABRAMOFFWell, I don't know how many moderate Republicans are left, but in terms of the ones who feel that way, well, you know what, it isn't just Grover Norquist. I mean, look what's been going on for the last few years with people rising up against establishment and moderate types in their districts and throwing them out and incumbents. I mean, every one of these primaries is bringing usually a story of people getting thrown out. Actually, yesterday or the day before yesterday, election was one of the very few where we didn't see them being run out of office in large numbers.
NNAMDIHere is Andrew in Washington, D.C. Andrew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANDREWHi., Kojo. Hi, Jack.
ANDREWI just -- I have kind of a weird question because I've seen a lot of different movies and read a lot of different books. But because you have literally actually been on the other side of the corruption, on that side, is there a group that's just so much easier to influence? Or when you get, like, a contract from a lobbyist through an organization and they need these people (unintelligible) that's easy money, is there anybody that's just really easy to push one direction or the other?
NNAMDIWhy are you asking this question, Andrew? Do you have intentions of becoming a lobbyist yourself?
ANDREWWell, actually, I tend to try to stay away from the political things just because...
NNAMDIYou just wanted to know. OK. Here's Jack Abramoff.
ABRAMOFFWell, Andrew, it's a good question. I think we got to keep in mind there's several things. First of all, most of the people on Capitol Hill are good people, OK? Virtually everyone is a good person. I don't think they feel like they're involved in corruption. I think if they felt deeply they were involved in corruption, they would probably do things to stop it. And many of them, by the way, are coming to the epiphanies that I came to, that, in fact, these things are corrupt.
ABRAMOFFAnd they are showing, you know, contacts and lobbyists and things like that. Lobbyists are going to give them money. But most of them are good people. In terms of the easiest to influence, what happens with a lobbyist is this, most lobbyists have direct personal relationships with members of Congress. Whoever they are closest to in Congress is usually called their "go-to member of Congress." So whatever the issue is as long as they're reasonable and they're not things that they know that member opposes personally or philosophically, going to your go-to member is the easiest thing you can do.
ABRAMOFFAnd that's the person you're raising the most money for and you're having the most social interaction with. And so that's what happens. It's not like there's a list of congressmen that are kind of the easy, you know, kids on the schoolyard that you know you can get involved in, you know, pranks with. They're people who -- they're all basically honorable people, but they have personal relationships that get them in trouble.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Andrew. We move on now to Kevin in Kensington, Md. Kevin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KEVINHi, Mr. Abramoff. Hi, Mr. Nnamdi. Thank you for taking my call. I myself am an aspiring politician. I'm in college right now. And one of the things that discourages me from involving myself in politics is the amount of time that any politician, whether they be a congressman, a senator or state politician needs to spend fundraising. I mean, it seems to me that the average politician spends a huge amount of their time raising money when it seems to me that they should be setting policy.
KEVINI mean, the thing that interests me in politics is policy, not getting people to sign me checks. So do you have any possible reforms that you have -- I mean, I'm sure you think of these things -- that you think might possibly fix that 'cause I think it's a pretty big problem and it would stop me from involving myself in something that I feel very strongly about?
ABRAMOFFYeah. You know, Kevin, it's one of the difficult things about politics. You're right. It's the thing that all of them -- if you ask a member of Congress what is the most frustrating part of your job, it's the raising the money. But I liken it to the days when -- I was a movie producer for about a decade. And I would talk to other directors and movie producers and actors, and they would say how much they hated the business side of movies.
ABRAMOFFThey all wanted to just focus on the art and make things that they thought were artful and, you know, may not be commercial. And I said the reality of the business is you've got to marry, unfortunately, art and business in the movie business. In terms of politics, unfortunately you've got to get your message out. You've got to communicate. You've got to be heard above the din of noise that's out there, and that involves raising money. What's going to have to happen, though, is that the money has got to be clean money.
ABRAMOFFThat's the big issue here. And politics, like everything else, is more competitive in this country. It's more expensive now. And it's the kind of thing where there are plenty of people -- and we saw this with the Obama campaign in 2008. There are plenty of people out there who don't have personal interest in terms of wanting to get something back from the government who are willing to give money.
ABRAMOFFBut using the Internet and using other social media, one can create a dynamic, I believe -- and, ultimately, I think we're going to see this entirely through the entire political process of reaching out, having innocent contact and getting instant funding.
NNAMDIKevin, thank you very much for your call. And speaking of money, we got this tweet from someone, who said, "Do you believe the implementation of the STOCK Act is an effective move by the government to increase transparency?" And that is the law that now requires member of Congress not to use insider information that they have when they're making investments.
ABRAMOFFWell, I'm certainly in favor of doing something about the insider trading. And Peter Schweizer's book, which really called everyone's attention to this, was really a very important work. I guess what I had a problem -- my problem with the STOCK Act was that instead of doing what -- that which I wanted to do, which was to force anybody who works on capitol Hill to put their holdings into a blind trust and not be able to trade any stocks, all it did was require them to report what they're dealing.
ABRAMOFFAnd while I'm certainly in favor of transparency, transparency doesn't always work alone by itself because if that were the case, frankly, I filed every lobbying disclosure act report humanly possible. There was -- there couldn't have been more transparency in terms of the amount of reports that I filed, yet I was operating in a roguish fashion. So transparency is good. I think it's very important, but the rules have got to change. And, in that respect, I had wished -- I don't think they'll do it now, but that they had forced people to put everything into blind trust.
NNAMDIHow about what happens to rouges? Here is Gary in Dickerson, Md. Gary, your turn.
GARYThank you. My question is a little bit different, but I was curious. Knowing people who've gone to prison, they have to align themselves with some kind of group inside, and they fear for their life pretty much daily. But the media has portrayed federal prisons as a holiday or not the same as I would go to if I got in trouble. I'm curious, your day-to-day routine, if you had to -- if you feared for your life, if you saw people sliced up and...
NNAMDIWell, was he in Club Fed. Here's Jack Abramoff. We only have about 30 seconds left.
ABRAMOFFGary, unfortunately for me, there are no Club Feds. Ninety percent of the folks in the prison with me were there for not being a lobbyist. They were there for drug dealing, and some of them were quite violent. I didn't fear for my life. I was in a minimum security prison. In prison, basically, you keep your head down. You don't make waves. You don't assert yourself unless you have to, and you just be very careful. And that was the case with me and everybody else there. And my experience did not include -- thank God, didn't include any violence.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Gary. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Jack Abramoff is a former lobbyist. He was the owner of several restaurants in Washington including Signatures. He's now a talk radio host -- good luck with that -- and the author of "Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist." Jack Abramoff, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIHopefully, he picked up absolutely no tips here about hosting a radio show. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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