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A Considerable Town

Jack Abramoff on How to Win Friends and Buy Congresspeople

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Thu, Dec 22, 2011 at 7:30 AM

click to enlarge Jack Abramoff: local boy - RICHARD SHEINWALD/EPA/NEWSCOM
  • RICHARD SHEINWALD/EPA/NEWSCOM
  • Jack Abramoff: local boy
When Jack Abramoff ran for eighth-grade class president at Hawthorne Elementary School in Beverly Hills, he was called into the principal's office because his father had exceeded the $15 spending limit by throwing a campaign barbecue. A tearful Abramoff immediately withdrew. He went on to become a football and wrestling star at Beverly Hills High School before entering Brandeis College in Massachusetts, where he became chairman of the state College Republicans.

After eight years as a Hollywood film producer -- Red Scorpion was his biggest credit -- Abramoff became a powerful Washington, D.C., lobbyist. Thirty years after his first food-related scandal, he used his own high-end restaurant, Signatures, to make deals and influence politicians. At his peak he earned more than $20 million a year and had, he now says, more than 100 congressmen in his back pocket.

But it all fell apart when the press started to raise questions about his treatment of clients. An outraged Congress, shocked -- shocked! -- that money had corrupted the political process, held hearings that focused on his treatment of Native American tribes who had hired him to protect their casinos. In 2006 Abramoff pled guilty to felony charges of fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion and served nearly four years in federal prison.

A feature film, Casino Jack, and a documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, cemented his status as the poster boy for government corruption. Last month he released his memoir, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist.

L.A. WEEKLY: You hated the feature film, as well as the documentary. Why?

JACK ABRAMOFF: They made a movie that was too inside baseball. Most people couldn't figure out what was going on.

Would you consider doing your own film to tell your story?

Two is enough.

When you had your mini-scandal running for eighth-grade president, do you think it was foreshadowing the corruption to come?

If anything, it foreshadowed something good. Instead of fighting it when I knew I was wrong, I admitted it.

Did your kill-or-be-killed attitude in lobbying derive from sports?

I always felt, if you're going to compete, do what's necessary to win.

Whatever is necessary?

Unfortunately, that's exactly the ethos I used to have.

Do people lie more in Hollywood or Washington?

In Hollywood, they put the knife in your front; in D.C., they put it in your back. I found far fewer duplicitous people in Hollywood.

Which town is more corrupt?

D.C. In Hollywood, they're not working for the public. They're working for private companies.

But most people who invest money in films lose most of it.

Right. But not much of that involves people stealing money. It's just a tough business.

Do you ever wish you had never left L.A.?

Absolutely. How do you go through what I've been through and not think, "It's too bad I didn't stay in moviemaking"?

Has any of this altered your conservative views?

I still feel that having a limited government is a better idea. A conservative is a liberal who's been mugged, and a libertarian is a conservative who's been indicted.

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