Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies, and the Buying of Washington.
By Peter H. Stone.
214 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $23.
Like the spot on Lady Macbeth’s hand, the Jack Abramoff scandal can’t be washed away. Abramoff was sentenced to five years and 10 months on fraud charges, former Representative Bob Ney is scheduled to begin his two-year-plus prison term, former DeLay staff members Michael Scanlon, Tony Rudy and Ed Buckham await their sorry fates (as does Tom DeLay himself) and several other miscreants, including lawmakers, staffers and top administration officials, are praying that the continuing, aggressive investigation by prosecutors will pass them by.
But the revelations are far from over. The House Government Reform Committee reported in late September that Abramoff’s billing records showed a robust 485 contacts between Abramoff and his lobbyist team and key White House officials, including 10 or more direct contacts between Abramoff himself and Karl Rove. Subsequently, Rove’s top assistant, Susan B. Ralston, who had worked for Abramoff and who accepted a number of high-priced tickets to concerts and sporting events from him while she was in the White House, resigned. Meantime, David Safavian, the former White House chief of government procurement (and Abramoff aide), who had been convicted of false statements and obstruction of justice, was sentenced last October to 18 months in prison.
In the 37 years I have been in Washington, I have known hundreds of lobbyists, including a few (or more) who were shady characters, a number who were empty suits, some who were legends in their own time and many others who were savvy insiders and integral (and constructive) parts of the policy process. None were quite like Jack Abramoff. As the subtitle of “Heist” suggests, Abramoff was a “superlobbyist,” a larger-than-life figure who made a fortune while having an outsize impact on politics in Washington and an outsize ego in a town of superegos. He loved to flaunt his wealth and influence. He rose rapidly and fell hard.
Abramoff began his career as an officer in College Republicans, a training ground for future party operatives, where he built enduring relationships with conservative powerhouses like Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed (and where he met Karl Rove). He behaved so badly in that job — his politics were confrontational, his financial practices questionable — that he was denounced and repudiated by Rich Bond, then the chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Abramoff was unfazed. He quickly found his niche in the lobbying world, beginning as a front man for the apartheid regime in South Africa and moving on to represent such upstanding clients as sweatshop operators in the Marianas Islands before hitting the jackpot with Internet gambling companies, Russian energy magnates, and Indian tribes looking out for their casinos, among others. Soon his wealth was such that he opened two high-priced restaurants, started a foundation to support favored causes, bought several ultra-expensive skyboxes at sports stadiums and arenas in Washington, and became a major Republican donor.
How did Jack Abramoff, who earned a law degree but never practiced law, who had no feel for or experience with the legislative process, and who had no obvious area of expertise, become such a huge success? Simple. He was the right guy in the right place at the right time — jumping into the field in 1994, just as the Republicans took the majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years and eagerly sought to put their own people in positions of influence. A key to those desires was the K Street Project, an effort masterminded by Grover Norquist, Tom DeLay and Rick Santorum, among others, to place conservative Republicans in key positions in law firms, lobbying operations, trade associations and individual company offices. The K Street Project was not just an employment service — the goal was to get trusted people into jobs where they could use campaign cash to help Republicans stay in power while enabling them to live comfortably by sharing in the munificence of the moneyed interests.
The attitude of the new majority — to the victors go the spoils — meshed perfectly with Abramoff’s style. Playing off his conservative, activist politics, his religious beliefs as an Orthodox Jew, his hyperaggressive approach to getting clients and his close relationships with Norquist, Reed and DeLay, Abramoff promised clients a direct link to the most powerful leaders in Congress and, subsequently, in the Bush White House. Eventually, he decided the traditional lobbying practice — charging, like law firms, by the hour — was for chumps. Instead, he demanded huge commissions that represented a cut of the enormous sums a big government could provide his clients. He then went a step further by channeling consulting contracts to associates like Scanlon for enormously inflated fees and splitting the profits through kickbacks.
Of course, the Republicans in power did not invent the idea of putting their own people into lobbying jobs, working out sweetheart relationships with interest groups, conducting shakedowns for campaign cash or parlaying influence into high-priced jobs for themselves when they left office. But the scope and brazenness of Abramoff and of the broader K Street Project were on a wholly different scale from what we had seen during the years Democrats ruled Washington — indeed, from anything in the last century.
If some of Abramoff’s misdeeds were known to Washington insiders and reported over the years by regional news media — the Seattle papers when he lobbied for the Marianas for a Seattle-based firm, Preston Gates; The Miami Herald when he moved to buy the local SunCruz gambling boats — they were largely ignored in Washington until 2004, when The Washington Post jumped on the story. One long investigative piece in The Post, on Indian gambling, was the beginning of the end for Abramoff. Since then, there have been many excellent investigative pieces, and a devastating report from the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Now Peter H. Stone, a veteran reporter with The National Journal who has covered the Abramoff beat for the past two years, has written a short, concise and lively book pulling the Senate findings and the media reporting together to chronicle Abramoff’s career and misdeeds.
“Heist” is a one-stop shop for anyone wanting to know what this scandal is all about, why the fuss has been so substantial, what made Abramoff tick and how he succeeded. It follows on the heels of another book that set out some months earlier to do the same thing, “The K Street Gang” by Matthew Continetti of The Weekly Standard. There is substantial overlap, naturally, between the two books, with Continetti providing more detail and Stone a more contemporaneous and concise account.
Both books will make the average reader, even one sophisticated in the ways of Washington, want to take a shower. Of all the miscreants we have had in our lifetimes in American politics — and we have had plenty — few have been more distasteful, amoral or outrageous than Abramoff and his cronies, including Scanlon, Buckham and Reed — not to mention his close friend Tom DeLay. To anyone who cares about our political institutions and their integrity, this story is simply revolting.
But for all the value of a concise account of their misdeeds, what “Heist” is missing is the broader context. Jack Abramoff was not a lone scoundrel — or one of a narrow band of individual scoundrels. He was part of an organized effort to transform Washington, to bend it to the will of one party, with the aim of creating a self-reinforcing loop, where a majority could use its clout to dominate all of Washington, work alliances with moneyed interests who would pay to get their way, provide campaign cash to keep their friends in power and benefit from the majority’s policy largesse along the way.
This dynamic will not just disappear with the change in power. Democratic lobbyists are salivating at the prospect of new, huge fees. The candidates’ shakedown of lobbyists for campaign cash began literally the day after the November elections. It will take a major reform effort, and steely resolve, to change a town virtually awash in money. We are still waiting for a full or definitive treatment of the new Gilded Age that Abramoff typified — although his own glory days may be over now that he has been sentenced to a long term in a federal pen.
Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the co-author with Thomas E. Mann of “The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.”