Silver Spring, MD – Superior preparation and unbounded aggression made Jack Abramoff into one of Washington’s sharpest lobbyists. His win-at-all-costs philosophy led his boss to level a stiff warning that if he kept it up, he would end up either dead, disgraced, or in jail. Abramoff suffered both disgrace and the purgatory of jail, but lived to write about it in a new book, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth about Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist. Back home in Silver Spring, Maryland, after almost four years in jail, Abramoff told Mishpacha how he worked to uproot the corruption from his own heart and how Washington needs to do the same.
Listening to Jack Abramoff speak, you can still hear the force and authority in his voice and sense the determination and intestinal fortitude that he plied to open doors in Congress, closing them only when he emerged with his client holding the winning hand.
These days, he employs that same fighting spirit when offering ideas to reform Washington DC, where lobbyists outnumber members of Congress and their staffs by two-to-one.
A day before we spoke, Abramoff had addressed the annual conference of Kentucky’s legislative ethics commission, where attendance is mandatory for all state legislators.
Abramoff was interviewed last night on the Zev Brenner radio show click here
Abramoff chuckled heartily when I asked if “legislative ethics” was an oxymoron.
“It was probably the first time they heard from someone who was actually involved on the ground,” said Abramoff. “I told them how lobbyists think, and how the people who can get them into trouble think.”
The way Abramoff thought, and operated, led to an indictment on multiple counts of conspiracy, bank fraud, and tax and mail fraud, stemming from his decade of activities on Capitol Hill. He served 43 months of a nearly 10-year jail term before his early release.
At his peak, Abramoff was able to command lobbying fees of up to $150,000 a month. Today, he is scrambling to repay debt incurred as a result of civil lawsuits filed against him. His jail term served as punishment in the eyes of the law, but has Jack Abramoff also done teshuvah, I ask?
“Can anyone look at themselves and say they’ve done teshuvah, in the sense of having completed teshuvah?” he answers. “We have to do teshuvah every day, and I’m trying every day. I hope I’m in a better place than I was, but as the Rambam says, we have to be put back in the same circumstances to ultimately be tested.”
Since Abramoff has not, and will not return to his former profession, he will never be put to that ultimate test. But he insists that the win-at-all-costs attitude that dominated his worldview from his youth is a vestige of the past.
“In that respect, I hope I’ve done teshuvah,” he said. “I believed that I could change situations no matter what. That was my kochi v’otzem yadi. Now I realize, more than ever, that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is in charge and that my kind of self-confidence and aggressive ambition was not helpful. I’m assiduously working on this and trying to root out the thought processes behind it. It’s a full-time business for me, because unfortunately it was a very devastating part of my life.”
Unbounded Aggression Life for Abramoff began in Atlantic City, New Jersey, long before this seacoast town became known for its casinos. Ironically, it would ultimately be Abramoff’s lobbying for Indian tribes to protect the gambling revenues they thrived on that would prove to be his undoing.
The Abramoffs were New Deal Democrats, like most Jewish families of that era. Abramoff’s father “converted” to the Republican Party through his association with golfing great Arnold Palmer, who hired him in the 1950s to run his miniature golf division. The Abramoff family moved to Los Angeles in 1969. They were not religiously observant, but at age 12, after seeing the musical Fiddler on the Roof, Jack decided to become Orthodox. It was a decision that didn’t sit well with Jack’s father, although they agreed to disagree.
A determined young man, Jack was an eclectic blend of a power-lifting, football playing, Orthodox Jewish right-wing Republican, as well as an opera buff. He sought admittance to Brandeis University, which had an Orthodox Jewish student body that he felt would be supportive of his religious observance. Stuck on Brandeis’s waiting list, a well-timed call from another one of his father’s sporting associates — famed prizefighter Sugar Ray Robinson —
clinched him a spot in the freshman class. It was one of Jack Abramoff’s initial introductions to the power of having a lobbyist on one’s side.
While Brandeis provided Jewish spirit, its liberal student body was driving him up a wall. In his sophomore year, he would wake up to a view of a gargantuan poster of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary sidekick, Che Guevara. “The daily dose of liberal and at times radical political activism at Brandeis, plus the fact that Jimmy Carter was president, was enough to make any conservative depressed,” writes Abramoff.
Determined to alter Brandeis’s political landscape, Abramoff won election as Massachusetts state chairman of the College Republicans and went to Washington in the summer of 1980 for national political training. He returned to campus the next year fired up, ultimately creating a powerful statewide organization of 42 campus College Republican chapters.
Abramoff later became national chairman of the College Republicans. While many in that position might have used the title to pad their rיsumיs or have their pictures taken with political bigwigs, Abramoff took it to heart. His close involvement with the next generation of young Republicans meant that it was Jack Abramoff who ended up training many people who years later would become members of Congress or their staffers. Those contacts were going to come in handy.
At the same time, Abramoff and supporters would often resort to a host of political dirty tricks to defeat opponents and consolidate their power.
“To us,” writes Abramoff, “politics was war without the benefit of armed forces. In those days — and in too many days to come — I didn’t pause to consider niceties.”
Reagan and the Rebbe It wasn’t because he was incapable of being nice. On the contrary, one day Abramoff was driving from the Brandeis campus in Waltham to nearby Brookline when he caught sight of the Bostoner Rebbe outside his home. Abramoff bounded out of his car to greet the Rebbe and seek a brachah.
When he told the Rebbe he was working on Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign, the Rebbe replied that he was davening for Reagan to defeat the incumbent, Jimmy Carter.
Sensing an eis ratzon, Jack asked the Rebbe if he would agree to endorse Reagan publicly. The Rebbe said yes and Abramoff had scored a political coup. The last time a Bostoner Rebbe had endorsed a presidential candidate was 1928, when Al Smith, a Catholic, was being attacked for his religious beliefs.
Abramoff immediately telephoned Reagan campaign headquarters, explaining the impact the endorsement could have on the Jewish vote. He recommended that Reagan come to Boston to accept the endorsement personally.
The Reagan camp sent Reagan’s daughter Maureen, a staunch feminist, instead.
“I want to brief you on some of the particular customs of the Grand Rabbi and all chassidic Jews,” Abramoff told Ms. Reagan. “Since the Jewish laws of modesty forbid contact between a man and woman other than those who are married, the Rebbe will be unable to shake your hand today. Additionally, he won’t be able to be photographed with you.”
“Then why am I here?” Ms. Reagan shot back.
Despite her initial reaction, she put on her game face and met with the Rebbe for almost an hour and accepted his endorsement on her father’s behalf. The only faux pas occurred when Ms. Reagan’s male aide offered to shake hands with the Rebbetzin.
Seeing Green Following Reagan’s election victory that year, Abramoff was asked to lead Citizens for America, the president’s grassroots lobbying association. At age 26, Abramoff was making $150,000 a year. “I had one of the most powerful groups in Washington at my disposal and all of official Washington was at my door. Senators asked me for favors. The president was in my debt,” wrote Abramoff.
Drained by the previous years of political infighting, Abramoff decided to change careers. He went to law school, met and married Pam Alexander (he took her to a shooting range on their first date) and by age 36, they had five children. Abramoff tried his hand at filmmaking and founded and financed the operations of two local yeshivos.
With Democrat Bill Clinton in the middle of his first White House term, disgruntled Americans handed Clinton a stinging reproach, giving the Republican Party control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections. Abramoff’s good friend, Democratic Party lobbyist Ralph Nurnberger, approached Jack, saying he now needed a Republican lobbyist. Would Jack be willing to return to politics?
The next Shabbos, Jack was speaking (nisht Shabbos geredt) with fellow congregant Jonathan Blank after services, and related this offer. Blank suggested that if Abramoff was seriously considering a career as a lobbyist, he should join Blank’s firm of Preston Gates Ellis and Rouvelas Meeds. The Gates in the firm’s name was none other than William H. Gates Sr., whose son Bill was chairman of Microsoft. Not surprisingly, Microsoft was the firm’s main client.
Most people hire lobbyists because they want to stop the government from doing something that will harm their business. Some lobbyists use the government to gain a competitive advantage for their client, by promoting legislation that would force the competition to be over-regulated. Other lobbyists are merely looking for federal funding. In Microsoft’s case, the Clinton administration was considering using antitrust laws to dismantle Microsoft to open the industry to more competition. The firm hired Abramoff, knowing his impeccable Republican credentials would be an asset in lobbying Congress to keep the government off Microsoft’s back. “One of the most vital things a lobbyist can do when working an issue is to ignite the passion of congressmen and their staff,” writes Abramoff.
Thanks to Abramoff’s political connections, a key Microsoft executive landed a meeting with House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, who eventually had to resign from Congress in 2005 due to corruption charges. At that time, DeLay was at the apex of his power and he utilized the meeting to make what Abramoff termed a “soft appeal for political contributions to the Republican Party.”
After the Microsoft executive brushed off the solicitation, DeLay told the executive the story of a Wal-Mart executive who once told DeLay that Wal-Mart didn’t like to “sully their hands” with political contributions. One year later, when Wal-Mart needed Congressional intervention to get an exit ramp built from a federal highway adjacent to a new Wal-Mart store, DeLay told the company that he doesn’t sully his hands with exit ramps. “You know what?” DeLay added. “They didn’t get their ramp. You know what else? They will never get that ramp.”
Microsoft got it. Shortly thereafter, the company wrote out a $100,000 check to the Republican Congressional Committee. The House GOP leadership was now on Microsoft’s team versus the Clinton administration.
Abramoff’s first year as lobbyist ended in other triumphs. He prevented efforts to tax gambling revenues from Indian-owned gaming enterprises and prevented enactment of legislation that would have economically crippled the Mariana Islands, a US territory in the Pacific, following accusations that it was abusing its special status by exploiting foreign workers and running a “slave trade.”
Having learned a lesson from DeLay, Abramoff pressed the Indian tribes to make political contributions to those members of Congress who supported their position. This quid pro quo soon became a hallmark of the Abramoff lobbying effort.
“What I did not consider then,” wrote Abramoff, “and never considered until I was sitting in prison, was that contributions from parties with an interest in legislation are really nothing but bribes.”
Abramoff told Mishpacha that while it is illegal for lobbyists to make campaign contributions, it is not illegal for the lobbyists’ clients to make contributions, even though they are the ones getting the direct benefit. “Not everything that is wrong is illegal. In fact most of the things that are wrong in the political world are legal. This is what needs to be fixed up.”
Warning Signs During the course of his lobbying career, Abramoff would routinely trade expensive gifts, meals and excursions in exchange for political favors for his clients and jobs for his associates. He would tempt congressional staff members in order to increase his clout with members of Congress by offering the staffers lucrative positions at his lobbying firm once they left their Congressional positions — all offenses known as influence-peddling.
One of his bosses, Manny Rouvelas, summoned Abramoff to his office one afternoon. As Abramoff writes, after a few minutes of rhetorical barbs, Manny delivered the prophetic line that would ring in his ears for more than a decade: “Jack, at the rate you’re going, you’re either going to be dead, disgraced, or in jail in five years.”
His words cut through Abramoff like a dagger. In retrospect, what Jack found most shameful was the fact that as busy as he was, he was still learning Torah every day but was not internalizing his lessons. Familiar as he was with the aggadata in the Gemara of dayanim who disqualified themselves immediately upon the slightest inkling of favoritism toward one of the litigants, Abramoff noted that he never made the connection that a legislator was also a judge, of sorts. “Maybe I didn’t want to see it,” he writes.
Abramoff says there are few internal checks and balances in the lobbying industry and that compliance departments at lobbying firms are normally quite weak. “The firms I worked for handed out basic stuff, but the fact is, everyone ignores it. The rules are drawn very loosely.”
By the time Rouvelas’s prediction came through, Abramoff had split with his firm and was working at Greenberg Traurig, where he built his own lobbying team, patterned along his more aggressive style.
He had become a partner in a casino cruise ship venture that went bankrupt and was sued by lenders for $60 million in loan guarantees and was accused of faking a wire transfer for the $23 million he and his partner had promised to put into the deal. Abramoff contends he got snagged by naively signing blank loan forms in a rush to save the deal.
Things went further downhill. In late 2004, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee began to investigate Abramoff’s lobbying on behalf of American Indian tribes and their casinos. Eventually, he was accused of defrauding the tribes by charging fees far in excess of what other lobbyists were charging.
The negative publicity hit a peak with the December 29, 2005, publication of a searing investigative piece in the Washington Post, calling Abramoff “the central figure in what could become the biggest congressional corruption scandal in generations.
“A reconstruction of the lobbyist’s [Abramoff’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.”
Pilloried in the media, the New Republic suggested: “In a profession of such rock-bottom standards, to distinguish yourself as unethical requires villainy on a truly epic scale.”
The game was up when his attorney, Abbe Lowell, read Abramoff his “rights.”
“He reminded me that I would be in front of a jury in the District of Columbia and that I was a white male
conservative, perceived to be a wealthy Orthodox Jewish lobbyist. I was the worst possible defendant.”
Facing up to 50 years in prison under harsh, much-criticized federal sentencing guidelines, Abramoff decided to accept a plea bargain. He served 43 months of a total 118-month sentence at the Cumberland Federal Correctional Institution for medium-security male offenders and was released in June 2010.
Since his release, he has been reunited with his wife and children, has finished his book, is giving media interviews, and has lectured nationwide to legislative and corporate audiences and on college campuses. He is working on another book and plans to take a second stab at the motion picture business.
Asked to compare his relatively shorter sentence to those of other Orthodox Jews, such as Sholom Rubashkin or Wendy Runge — who received sentences of 25 and 10 years, respectively, following their convictions for white-collar crimes that appear to be far less serious than the ones Abramoff committed — he replied: “I can’t comment on other people’s sentences. I think it’s horrible that Sholom Rubashkin got 25 years. It pains me more than most because I’ve been through this. I’ve been to prison, so I know what these people are G-d forbid facing. And by the way, I was there for 1,299 nights and 185 weekends. I feel horrible for them, but believe me, most people who have not experienced prison don’t understand what prison is. Every minute in prison is torture. Even for my sake I feel I was in prison for too long. Prison is not a productive place to be.”
Never on Shabbos
The case of the Bostoner Rebbe and Maureen Reagan may have been the first time that Jack Abramoff was forced to explain Jewish law to a client or political contact. But it was not the last.
Abramoff once sat at the same White House dinner table as President Bush’s wife, Barbara, who noticed he was faking eating. When he told her he kept kosher, she insisted it would be no trouble to get him a kosher meal. Abramoff settled for a plate of fruit to avoid a public spectacle. During his lobbying career, he found himself explaining the Torah law on why gamblers were considered untrustworthy to Congressman Tom DeLay, a Christian who opposed gambling on religious grounds.
Perhaps his most famous account occurred in 1998, when Imelda Marcos, wife of deposed Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos, was facing jail on corruption charges. By that time, Abramoff was well-known in the South Pacific for his successful lobbying on behalf of the Mariana Islands, a US territory engulfed in an ongoing battle to retain advantageous economic treatment.
Mrs. Marcos called in Abramoff for a consultation, which took place on Erev Shabbos. Abramoff devised a compromise plan. Mrs. Marcos agreed to it and asked Abramoff to present it to the Speaker of the House in Manila, who would decide whether to accept it on behalf of the government. He told her Shabbos was coming, so he would be unable to complete his mission, as he couldn’t use the phone or ride to an appointment.
“But you can have a conversation, right?” asked Mrs. Marcos. She arranged for both a midnight meeting between Abramoff and the Speaker and an armed escort to accompany Abramoff on the two-mile walk from his hotel.
The next challenge was when the Speaker asked Abramoff to put his proposal in writing. He told the Speaker he could not write on Shabbos, nor could he accept the Speaker’s offer of a ride home. The best he could offer was that Mrs. Marcos’s office would put it all on paper for him the next morning.
Eventually the Supreme Court of the Philippines reversed her conviction and Abramoff chalked up another high-profile victory.