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. Are all the profits from the book going to restitution for your victims?
Yeah, that and debts.
How much do you owe in restitution?
How does that work?
It stays with me the rest of my life.
Why did you write Capitol Punishment?
Because I was made out to be a cartoon villain. And I know things about lobbying that nobody except those who've reached the very top know, and they don't talk because they're making money out of it. I think the American people deserve somebody telling them what is really happening in Washington.
Newt Gingrich says he did not lobby for Freddie Mac to earn $1.8 million. Do you buy that?
He cashed in on public service in a way that I'm talking about in terms of corruption. Lobbying isn't just meeting with the members. Lobbying is a process that includes strategic advice for companies.
You describe your college sidekick Grover Norquist as a genius. Hasn't his anti-tax pledge put the United States in a financial hole?
If anything, he's a bloody genius because he's succeeded in stopping taxes from being raised since 1990.
You say you've always fought bullies. Isn't the 1 percent bullying the 99 percent in America today?
I don't like the whole 1-versus-99 thing. Class envy is dangerous.
Politicians have to beg constantly for money, but you say that's not the primary problem. What is the primary problem?
Power. The primary problem is them wanting to stay in power. It's not just campaign contributions; it's also people giving each other meals, taking them on trips. Anytime a gratuity is given to a public servant, that is a bribe.
You tell about your son teasing President Bush about needing a business card and email. How did you feel when Bush said he couldn't remember ever meeting you?
I felt like Bush is a politician. Politicians are there when they need you, and when you need them, they're gone.
So these political friendships are all transactional?
Pretty much. People in politics are there to stay in power.
Do you think your win-at-all-costs mentality has contributed to the Washington gridlock?
It certainly contributed to my downfall.
You take a lot of shots at the media in the book. Do you think the media have a role to play in a democracy?
Of course. I understand why they do what they do, but when you're on the receiving end, it doesn't feel too good.
A lot of the outrage directed at you stemmed from the emails disparaging your clients.
I regret those emails more than anything else. I live with the fact that I said such stupid, boneheaded things. I am haunted by those emails every day of my life.
You say the best way to get control of a congressman's office is to offer a future job to the chief of staff. How does that work?
I would say, “I would like to talk to you about working for me.” The minute that conversation started, I had basically bribed them. From that point forward, I found, they were basically working for us.
You say that 90 percent of the chiefs of staff were interested in future employment. Why?
Because they see how, in the lobbying world, people are just fabulously wealthy, including people who worked with them just two months ago before making the jump.
So what's the solution?
To say, if you take that job, you're not making that leap. When you're done, just get out of D.C.
Is that part of your reform recommendations? Members and their chiefs of staff cannot become lobbyists?
I would include every member of their staff.
Anyone who has business with the government shouldn't be allowed to make a contribution or give anything like a meal or a gratuity. And I'm now in favor of term limits — three terms in the House and two in the Senate.
Are you allowed to vote?
Will you ever be allowed to vote?