Jack Abramoff appears before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee at an oversight hearing to investigate tribal lobbying, Sept. 29, 2004.
Nobody in Washington gives out awards for hotshot lobbying. And in September 2000, that was a problem for Jack Abramoff.
Abramoff, the flamboyant lobbyist now under investigation by two congressional committees and the Justice Department, had toiled for years with other conservatives to conquer establishment Washington. By 2000, their efforts were shaping up as a political and personal triumph.
Abramoff himself had left Washington, and then come back in 1995. Republicans had seized control of Congress — even the House of Representatives, that 40-year bastion of Democratic rule. In the fall of 2000 the White House too was within reach after eight years of Clintonism. Abramoff was reaching the height of his lobbying powers. He had a lucrative book of clients.
And how many other lobbyists could say they had taken House Majority Leader DeLay to Scotland to play the illustrious St. Andrews golf course? How many were nervy enough to funnel money from an Indian casino-running tribe in Mississippi, up through one of Washington's best-known conservative advocacy groups and back down to Christian groups fighting a gambling referendum in Alabama?
Everything about Jack Abramoff screamed political clout. But it's a tired tale here that clout can be fleeting. What endures is the Washington establishment — a network of friendships, clubs, schools, even golf and tennis partnerships, which many politicos can never crack.
Nothing whispers "Washington establishment" more distinctly — or more discreetly — than the Cosmos Club, the self-described "crossroads of intellectual thought" that occupies a 19th-century mansion on Embassy Row. Its membership list is secret, of course, but is known to include policy thinkers, scientists, writers and historians.
Now, in late 2000, came Abramoff's moment to cross over, to make the transition from being just another muscular political operative to something more fixed in the capital's firmament: a Cosmos Club member. Hence the e-mail to his friend, Rabbi Daniel Lapin; it's among documents released as part of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee's investigation of Abramoff.
"I hate to ask your help with something so silly, but I have been nominated for membership in the Cosmos Club," Abramoff wrote. He noted that the club has "Nobel Prize winners, etc. Problem for me is that most prospective members have received awards and I have received none."
Although he introduced Abramoff to DeLay, Lapin could not be considered Washington establishment. He lives in Washington state. Like Abramoff, the rabbi is Orthodox Jewish, and he runs a socially conservative Jewish advocacy group called Toward Tradition.
Abramoff's e-mail continued: "I was wondering if you thought it possible that I could put that I have received an award from Toward Tradition with a sufficiently academic title, perhaps something like Scholar of Talmudic Studies? …Indeed, it would be even better if it were possible that I received these in years past, if you know what I mean. Anyway, I think you see what I am trying to finagle here!"
Lapin saw. "Mazel tov," he e-mailed back, "the Cosmos Club is a big deal."
Their e-mails continued sporadically for a few days. They apparently talked by phone. Finally Lapin e-mailed, "I just need to know what needs to be produced….letters? plaques? Neither?"
Abramoff wrote: "Probably just a few clever titles of awards, dates and that's it. As long as you are the person to verify them [or we can have someone else verify one and you the other], we should be set. Do you have any creative titles, or should I dip into my bag of tricks?"
Abramoff and his attorney declined to comment for this story. But now we can see what might have been in Abramoff's bag of tricks. Even though Abramoff left his last law firm, Greenberg Traurig LLP, early in 2004, his biography still exists on an archived version of the firm's Web site. It lists these six honors:
• Scholar of Biblical and American History, 1994, from Lapin's organization Toward Tradition. Lapin says, "We never issued any such award."
• Biblical Mercantile Award, 1999, from the Cascadia Business Institute, another creation of Rabbi Lapin. Lapin says the institute was a concept that never really came to fruition, "and it certainly never gave any award." In fact, Lapin says Abramoff used the names of the two organizations without his knowledge. But weren't Abramoff and Lapin good friends? "We certainly were," Lapin says.
• Outstanding Public Affairs Professional, 1998, and Winston Churchill Award, 1997, both from the National Center for Public Policy Research. Abramoff was on the center's board at the time. He was also an old friend of center director Amy Ridenour, and he funneled money through the center for, among other things, DeLay's Scotland trip. Aside from Abramoff's biography, there's no evidence the center ever gave either award to Abramoff or anyone else. Ridenour didn't respond to NPR's request to comment; she did tell the Indian Affairs Committee that she thought Abramoff defrauded the center in his financial dealings, and she's no longer speaking to him.
• National Order of Merit, 1983, from the USA Foundation. The Greenberg Traurig biography notes that Abramoff was the foundation's chairman at the time.
• Distinguished Biblical Scholar Award, 1988, from the Keter Torah Institute. NPR could find no evidence that the institute exists.
That's a noteworthy showing for someone who lamented in 2000 that he had received no awards. Possibly awkward for someone who promised that any fabricated awards "would only be used from [sic] this situation" — that is, the Cosmos Club nomination.
And ultimately, it didn't work. A club spokesman said this week that "that gentleman... is not a member of the Cosmos Club and has never been a member."
Abramoff failed to reach that higher rung of the Washington ladder.