Six years after pleading guilty to defrauding clients and other crimes, Jack Abramoff continues to annoy and provoke Washington’s lobbying community like no other figure.
Since his release from prison in December 2010, Abramoff has published a book, “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist,” and was the subject of the movie “Casino Jack” starring Kevin Spacey. More recently, he has made the rounds of the news media and public forums talking about his criminal past as well as his prescriptions to fix all that he considers wrong with his former profession.
Veteran lobbyists lament that far too much attention is being lavished on an imperfect messenger whom they accuse of being wholly unrepresentative of the state of the business today.
“It’s amazing that the media are using this ex-con as an expert on what’s wrong with our system and what changes need to be made,” said Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists. “He was not a lobbyist because he did not deal in the facts or merits of his clients’ issues. He simply paid for the perks of elected officials to buy votes. Adding to his life of crime, he bilked his clients out of millions of dollars by playing both sides of a single issue.”
Nick Allard, chairman of Patton Boggs’ lobbying, political and election law practice, said Abramoff’s public and media appearances amount to “a freak show” and that he is “selling a snake-oil myth of how government works to stir the pot.” He said he declined to take part in a recent panel discussion on lobbying when he learned Abramoff was also invited to participate.
“I’m not going to have a hand in giving him a platform … It’s shameful for anyone to give him a platform,” he said.
And Paul Miller of Miller/Wenhold Capital Strategies, who was ALL’s president when the Abramoff scandal broke, said Abramoff has no sincere interest in bettering the profession – and that if he did, he would donate some of his “newfound wealth” to the group’s lobbying certification program.
“For a guy who screwed the entire profession, he should consider an apology to all of us following the rules,” Miller said. “At the end of the day, Jack Abramoff is a crook and only out for himself. What does it say for the man who took advantage of his clients, some of those who needed the money the most?”
In response, Abramoff said in an email message that his critics are deeply misguided. He accused ALL members of “Orwellian doublespeak” if they think he should donate to the lobbying certification program.
Miller’s suggestion “that the true path to reform is through donations to his organization would be funny if he were not serious,” Abramoff said. “His problem does not lie only with Jack Abramoff, but rather with a nation which will no longer condone special-interest money buying legislative results. If he feels that corruption has disappeared and that the pay-to-play system is somehow beneficent, he must be living in the ‘Bizzaro’ world.”
Lobbyists say Abramoff’s suggestions for reform are far too draconian. They include a lifelong ban on legislators and their aides becoming lobbyists and barring lobbyists from making political contributions or giving gifts of any amount to any lawmaker. He also calls for term-limiting members of Congress.
Listening to Abramoff “spreads a diseased way of thinking about our government which is not only untrue but which helps breed distrust in government,” said Allard, who wrote the 2008 article “Lobbying is an Honorable Profession” partly as a rejoinder to the uproar that Abramoff caused.
So what does he think should be done to counter their ex-colleague?
“We just have to keep plodding along,” he said, “making the case as best we can.”