Abramoff Book Looks at the Early Days

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In Heist, author Peter Stone details megalobbyist Jack Abramoff's ties to public officials. He focuses on the time before a federal corruption probe exposed massive bribery and fraud. Stone discusses his book with Alex Chadwick.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Madeleine, thank you for that. And as you mentioned, Mr. Pombo is one of the Republicans suffering from his past association with the corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He pleaded guilty back in January to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. He was sentenced to prison. He's currently free and cooperating with an FBI probe.

Peter Stone is the author of Heist, that's a new book about this scandal. And earlier he told me how Jack Abramoff became so powerful.

Mr. PETER STONE (Author): What Abramoff excelled at was a rainmaking ability. He was able to bring in big clients, and he was also someone who combined his aggressive fundraising and lobbying with a certain flair and a certain flamboyance.

He was known as someone who established a restaurant that became a prime place for GOP fundraisers, a hangout for Republican leaders. It gave free meals, as we've now learned, thousands of dollars of free meals to some members. One who has been clearly identified thus far is Bob Ney, who was convicted in the scandal. At its opening, it drew people from the White House; friends such as Karl Rove, Tom DeLay and others attended it.

And he also sports suites. He entertained lavishly in skyboxes in Washington. These seats were very much sought after by young Capitol Hill staffers, members, lobbyists, and he handed out tickets to these as a way of currying favor. I say he had a kind of concierge service for folks.

CHADWICK: But, you know, how different is Jack Abramoff as a lobbyist from what hundreds, and indeed thousands, of other people are doing in Washington?

Mr. STONE: Well, there are limits on gifts, there are limits on meals. Abramoff went way, way, way over the limits, so he was, as one of the people I interviewed for the book, a former FEC official said: He wasn't just pushing the envelope, he was shredding the envelope.

What I try to point out in the last chapter of the book is that while Abramoff and those associates, lobbyists, who have been convicted - Ney, David Safavian, the former Bush administration official - while they clearly were egregious cases, some of the tools, as you said, tools of lobbyists that Abramoff employed, have proliferated in recent years: Junkets, for instance, which are legitimate fact-finding missions, dozens of members of Congress take them.

There are a growing number of these which are sponsored by private groups and private business. Some of this is legal. In Abramoff's case, what is illegal and what is against the House ethics rules is for a lobbyist, a law firm or a foreign agent to sponsor a junket. There are other ways, too, as getting to your point about how common were the excesses of Jack Abramoff. Jack was also a considerable user of what are called earmarks.

CHADWICK: These are little attachments to bills right before they're voted on. Say we need $50 million for a bridge here and...

Mr. STONE: Right, they're often in highway bills, they're often in defense bills. They're snuck in at the last minute. They're very similar in many ways. They're varieties of pork. And these, too - I think the Congressional Research Service came out with a study a few months ago that showed that these have roughly quadrupled in just the last four or five years, the number of earmarks.

CHADWICK: Peter, where is the public outrage on this story? It's a week before the election and still we're not hearing a lot about Jack Abramoff and what happened.

Mr. STONE: Well actually, Alex, we're seeing some outrage in certain campaigns where Abramoff's ties, his influence with certain members was particularly acute. I think one thing that underscores your point is that many Americans seem kind of inured to this. In a way, it seems like it validates their conception of Washington as a place where there's a lot of corruption underway. The American public is very cynical about a lot of this. But at the same time, recent polls from Gallop, from USA Today, recent polls that have come out in the last month or two show that the issue of ethics and the issue of corruption is likely to be a significant one for many voters this year.

It's a scandal that is complicated, and so in a way it's hard for Americans to grasp, but I think it's slowly seeping into consciousness. And the investigations by the Justice Department have been very time-consuming, they've been very thorough. They started over two years ago. They've had eight convictions thus far. They've just got their first member of Congress, the first Bush administration official. We are going to see more indictments probably before the end of this year. There are scrutiny of other members that's very intense still underway. My betting is it will be one for the history books.

CHADWICK: Peter Stone, author of Heist: Super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies and the Buying of Washington. Peter Stone, thank you.

Mr. STONE: It's been a pleasure, thanks.

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