Jack Abramoff Calls D.C. Politics Dirty As Ever

Abramoff earned millions making deals and trading favors on Capitol Hill before being imprisoned on corruption charges. He's been called 'scum' and a 'bloodsucking bogeyman.' He speaks with host Michel Martin about his new memoir Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're ending the week as many of us began it, still thinking about the child abuse scandal involving a former Penn State assistant football coach. Prosecutors say many of the people who knew about the alleged abuse did what they were legally required to do, but were their actions ethical? We're going to talk this over with one of the former contributors to O magazine's Everyday Ethics column. That's a little later in the program.

But first, to many people, the career of our next guest symbolizes everything that's wrong with the ethics in government. Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff - he's been called scum, a creep, a blood-sucking bogeyman, and the most evil lobbyist ever to be operating in Washington. And that's just on the back of his own book.

Abramoff built his career, and his fortune, pedaling influence across Capitol Hill. He counted dozens of congressional representatives as friends. He sent fat campaign contributions and other favors their way. Jack Abramoff, in his doings, became such a big story that a movie, albeit fictionalized, was made about him. Oscar winner Kevin Spacey played him in 2010's "Casino Jack." Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CASINO JACK")

KEVIN SPACEY: (as Jack Abramoff) You're either a big leaguer, or you're a slave clawing your way onto the C train. Some people say Jack Abramoff moves too fast, Jack Abramoff cuts corners. Well, I say to them if that's the difference between me and my family having a good life and walking and using the subway every day, then so be it. I will not allow my family to be slaves. I will not allow the world I touch to be vanilla.

MARTIN: But the swashbuckling came to an end in 2006, when he pled guilty to fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion. He spent three years in federal prison. He was ordered to make restitution for more than $20 million. But he is now a free man, and he's the author of a biting new memoir. It's called "Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America's Most Notorious Lobbyist." And he's with us now in our Washington, D.C., studio. Welcome. Thank you for coming by.

JACK ABRAMOFF: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask how you are?

ABRAMOFF: Sure ...

MARTIN: And you and your family. I mean, the fact is you are a family man, and it can't...

ABRAMOFF: Right.

MARTIN: ...be an easy thing to go through such a public thing. Do you mind if I ask how you're all doing?

ABRAMOFF: No, I don't mind at all. We're doing better and better every day. This was very hard on all of us, obviously. Thank God I married a woman far better than I who not only stayed loyal and faithful to me, but bucked me up and bucked all of us up. And we have five children. And you know, they deal with it in different ways, as five different children would. But we're getting there slowly, but we're getting there.

MARTIN: OK. Well, I do want to start with the book. Normally, when people write a book they get people to say nice things about it, and I was commenting earlier in my introduction about some of the things on the back of the book. This is what's on the back of yours: Jack Abramoff - he's scum. I hope he goes to jail and we never see him again. I wish he'd never been born. He is a creep, and we hate him. This stuff could gag a maggot. The most evil lobbyist ever to be operating in Washington.

What's this about? Why did you want this on the back of your book? I mean, is it your competitive instincts here - if you're going to be a bad guy, you've got to be the worst guy?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ABRAMOFF: Well, those are the only positive things I could actually find. No, I'm kidding. When the publisher came to me and said - as normally, they do - can we get some quotes about you or about the book? I wasn't exactly in a position to have people saying positive things. So I thought it would be more unique, and it would be kind of interesting, to put some of the worst comments on the back of the book. And then maybe people in the bookstores, when they picked up the book, might think it was worth a second look.

MARTIN: What are you trying to accomplish with the book? Are you settling scores here?

ABRAMOFF: No, no, two things. People wanted me to write a tell-all about all the intricate, bad things going on - individuals in Washington - and I'm less interested in that. What I'm more interested, and the reason I'm writing the book - I guess there are two reasons.

First, I have gone through an epiphany. I have fallen from the perch I was on. Whether I should have been there or not we'll discuss shortly, I'm sure. But I was knocked off and knocked onto the ground, and fell and landed with a thud - in federal prison, eventually. And in the course of that fall and certainly, by the time I landed, I started rethinking my life and rethinking what I was and what I was involved in, and came to the conclusion that I'm pretty ashamed about it, and it was pretty bad.

And eventually, I came to the conclusion that instead of running into a hole hiding and getting out of the public eye, which frankly, I prefer - it has not been a pleasant time with the media, or with anyone else - that maybe I had something to give back, some way to make some recompense for what I was by telling what is going on in Washington - from the point of view of somebody who rose very high in that industry - and what goes on behind those doors, and how horrible it really is.

MARTIN: Well, let me read a short passage from the book. You're writing - this is early in the book; this is about 1995. The House had gone Republican in 1994 in the elections in the prior year, 1994. And Microsoft was a major client of the firms. You write:

In 1995, when Microsoft needed access to the House Republican leadership, conservatives were there to help. When the company started to feel the Clinton administration's pressure on the issue of software program encryption export, it was Majority Whip Tom DeLay who came to the rescue.

So you went - you had the meeting with DeLay - and I'm fast-forwarding a bit here. You said he made a soft appeal for political contributions from the company, reminding them that were the Republicans to lose the majority, the very members of Congress who supported the Clinton administration's attacks on Microsoft would then be free to dismantle their software company. You say that one of the Microsoft executives brushed off this solicitation. So then here's what DeLay says, according to you.

When he was a freshman in Congress, he told them he approached Wal-Mart for a campaign contribution. The government affairs director of Wal-Mart told him that Wal-Mart didn't like to sully their hands with political involvement. Staring intently at the Microsoft executives, DeLay continued: A year later, that government affairs rep was in my office asking me to intervene to get an exit built from the federal highway adjacent to a new Wal-Mart store. I told him I did not want to sully my hands with such a task. You know what? They didn't get their ramp. You know what else? They never will get that ramp. DeLay smiled without taking his eyes off the quivering executives. As we often say in a lobbying business, they finally got the joke. A $100,000 check was soon delivered to the Republican Congressional Committee, and Microsoft's relationship with the American right commenced.

Now, you know, that's not what you went to prison for, but that's exactly the kind of thing that I think drives most Americans crazy. It's a quid pro quo, isn't it?

ABRAMOFF: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So why is that legal, and what you did not?

ABRAMOFF: Well, I think the great tragedy in American politics is what is legal, not what is illegal. The truth is, there are not a lot of Jack Abramoffs who are pushing the envelope so far that they go over the line. They're very few, frankly. The problem is what's legal, and that's what I write about in the book. The thing that people should be upset about, and they are upset about, is that all of these kind of little deals are legal. And that's what America's got to start focusing on.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm speaking with Jack Abramoff, the former lobbyist who went to prison for three years for fraud and tax evasion. He has a new memoir out. It's called "Capitol Punishment," and he names names and dates, and describes the environment that he was operating in.

What was your special sauce that you added to it? I mean, you point out in the book that the idea of - some of things that you did - spreading tickets around to nice events that people would like to go to, especially sporting events, great seats; hiring people, bigwigs who had formerly served - that's not new. So what was your special sauce?

ABRAMOFF: Well, I'm not sure I added anything new. What I did was, I learned at the feet of everyone else, and then I just innovated within what was already being done. And I probably did more of it. And I was maybe a harder worker, unfortunately. And instead of buying a little - few tickets to the sporting events, I spent a million and a half dollars a year on sporting tickets to events.

MARTIN: So you just went big whenever?

ABRAMOFF: Yeah, I just overdid everything, and pushed every envelope and every line.

MARTIN: Did you think you were doing wrong at the time? I hope you don't mind my mentioning - you talk about this in the book - that your faith is very important to you.

ABRAMOFF: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You're an observant Jew.

ABRAMOFF: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You are very serious about your faith, even to the point of going to a White House dinner as a young man, and not eating anything because it wasn't kosher, which is a hard thing to do. Did you never think anything was wrong with what you were doing at the time?

ABRAMOFF: No. And that's part of the problem. And that has a lot to do with my personality, frankly, as much as the system. I started getting off course by small degrees.

MARTIN: Like what?

ABRAMOFF: Like, for example, overdoing it in terms of political contributions; going and raising bunches of money for Congress, and right around the time that we needed them to do something. Again, not necessarily illegal. And, by the way, virtually everything I did was not illegal. And again, that's the problem. There were only a few things that I did that were illegal, but...

MARTIN: Like what?

ABRAMOFF: Well, I'll give you an example. The House and the Senate have different rules. And the rules include an exemption for governments to get out of the gift ban. So governments can give whatever gift they want. Now, I represented Indian tribal governments. And in the United States Senate, a tribal government is considered a government. In the House, it's not considered a government.

But we basically just didn't care about that rule, and we gave tickets away to House and to Senate with aplomb, regardless of whether the rule permitted it or not. That's a violation.

MARTIN: I do want to ask about the work for the tribes. You were asked about this at the hearing at which you invoked the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Well, there are two things I want to ask you. The numbers you were charging the Choctaw Indians, in particular, eye-popping. I mean, eye-popping to - I think; is it fair to say - an average citizen, I mean, $150,000 a month?

ABRAMOFF: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. First of all, at the end of all of this, when everything came crashing down and we had to take an assessment - my lawyers and I - of what happened here, I added up that we probably charged north of about $80 million in total in fees, over the period of time I was a lobbyist.

But we delivered for our clients value in excess of about $6 billion. Our clients generally came to us when they were at death's door. Some other lobbying firm failed them. They were about to lose a $400 million a year casino that was generating that much money. They were about to, in the case of Tyco, get taxed retroactively $4 billion.

So what I charged them was negotiated with them; wasn't a trick, or anything like that. They had lawyers, actually, each of our clients, to negotiate with us and sign contracts. And it was, by their assessment, the value of what they placed on our winning. And other than one time, we always did win.

MARTIN: Well, I guess the key question here is, were you ripping these people off, number one? And it was also reported - and I do have to ask you about this; you've mentioned this in the book - that you used disparaging language to refer to your clients behind their backs. Did you do that? I don't want to say the names that you are alleged to have called them behind their backs. But the implication here is, you had contempt for these people while you were taking their money.

ABRAMOFF: I was a very passionate person. I was in the heat of battle a lot. There were times when I would write disparaging emails about everybody I was in business with - in other words, calling them jerks or morons, or what the heck is the matter with them and...

MARTIN: Would you really call your clients monkeys?

ABRAMOFF: I referred to my children and my clients as monkeys in the same day. Yes, I did. All right? It wasn't - that was not - look, it was stupid. I'm not defending it. I don't want to sit here and say, well, you know, what I really meant was this. I was an idiot to do something like that. I wrote into my emails dumb, stupid things; jocular, idiotic thoughts.

Did those 50 emails that were parsed out of 850,000 better represent my view to my clients than a couple hundred-thousand emails that really told the truth? No. But those were the ones that made it into the paper. Look, I'm embarrassed about the emails. I wish I could undo them.

MARTIN: And to the charge whether you were ripping people off?

ABRAMOFF: Yeah. Well, look, all I can tell you is what we delivered for them and what we charged them. I always was very clear with my clients. Here's what it will cost you if you want to hire me. We will deliver - and we always did, except once - we'll deliver for you, but this is the price. Again, they negotiated with us. They felt they got good value. And they kept rehiring me for 10 years. So, I don't know. I don't consider that to be ripped off.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break. But when we come back, we'll continue for a few more minutes with our guest, Jack Abramoff. We're talking about his new book, "Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist." We're going to take a short break. Please stay with us.

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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