Profile: Lobbyist Jack Abramoff
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Jack Abramoff is at the center of a storm in the nation's capital. Abramoff is a lobbyist. He's also a former associate of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. And dealings between the two are the subject of ongoing ethics investigations on Capitol Hill. NPR's Peter Overby has a profile of Abramoff.
PETER OVERBY reporting:
Nobody grows up dreaming of becoming a Washington lobbyist. Typically they're hired out of congressional offices or government agencies, settings where they're trained to work out deals and compromises. Jack Abramoff was not your typical lobbyist. Democratic lobbyist Ron Platt recruited him for the law firm Greenberg-Traurig in 1999. Abramoff came with a book of clients worth $6 million a year. Platt says Abramoff got those clients with a blunt pitch.
Mr. RON PLATT (Democratic Lobbyist): He would say that, `If you want to make a deal, if you want to compromise, then you ought to hire somebody else, but if you want to win, you ought to hire us.'
OVERBY: Abramoff first arrived in Washington just out of college as a young movement conservative, an ideological purist, not a compromiser, in 1981. The movement had just powered Ronald Reagan into the White House. He left to produce movies in Hollywood, then returned in the mid-'90s. The GOP now controlled Congress, and Abramoff became a lobbyist with great connections. He favored a small specialty of lobbying, representing Indian tribes. It wasn't such a crowded field, and there was a lot of money to be made. Like other innovative lobbyists, he worked the Hill but also ran grassroots campaigns and public relations efforts for his clients. And, as Ron Platt notes, Abramoff and his team delivered.
Mr. PLATT: Given what they were charging, given what they had told the client they were going to do, they absolutely could not fail. They had to win every fight. And for the most part, they did.
OVERBY: But this multifaceted approach provides the point of entry for ongoing investigations of Abramoff by Congress, the Justice Department and other agencies. That's because Abramoff worked with a high-priced consultant, Michael Scanlon, a former aide to Congressman Tom DeLay. Between them, millions of dollars were funneled through a variety of corporate and non-profit entities. Legal questions abound.
And the Abramoff saga has implications for other prominent conservatives. Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed are movement leaders who came up through the ranks with Abramoff. Now their organizations have ties to Abramoff, and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee is investigating.
And then there's Tom DeLay. Abramoff raised money for him on a 1997 trip to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, where the local government was a client of Abramoff's. DeLay called him `one of my closest and dearest friends.' In 2000 they went golfing at the St. Andrews course in Scotland, a trip arranged by Abramoff. Last year, as Abramoff's troubles grew, DeLay said, `If anyone is trading on my name to get clients or to make money, that is wrong and they should stop it immediately.' So the stage may be set for one of the Capitol's periodic cycles of scandal and cleansing.
Mr. STANLEY BRAND (Lawyer): Sort of our version of the 17-year locusts.
OVERBY: Stanley Brand is a lawyer who often defends clients in such cases.
Mr. BRAND: He's not all wrong when he says there is the soft underbelly of lobbying where these practices go on. They may not go on to the extent that he did perform them, but they do go on, and that is what is going to be closely scrutinized in the coming months.
OVERBY: Abramoff recently launched a small counteroffensive. He told The New York Times Magazine that he's been, quote, "turned into a cartoon of the greatest villain in the history of lobbying." The image may or may not last, but what lingers for now is Abramoff's appearance last fall before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. The committee chairman at the time, Colorado Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell, was brandishing e-mails between Abramoff and Scanlon, e-mails ridiculing the tribal clients who made them rich. Abramoff spoke before Nighthorse Campbell began the questioning.
Mr. JACK ABRAMOFF (Lobbyist): The privileges that protect my testimony include the First Amendment's right to petition Congress and free association, the Fifth Amendment's due process, right to have adequate notice and opportunity to be heard, the separation of powers doctrine and the Fifth Amendment's right for a person not to become a witness against himself.
Senator BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL (Republican, Colorado): Well, I'm going to continue asking some questions, and you can just keep dodging if you want to. Do you refer to all of your clients with the same kind of terminology you used for Indians; i.e., `idiots,' `monkeys,' `morons' and so on?
OVERBY: Abramoff declined to answer. At least that day, there was a lobbying fight he couldn't win. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.