March 3, 2012

ABRAMOFF: Let’s Focus on What Matters: Battling Washington’s Everyday Corruption

Last week, the Sunlight Foundation’s reporting blog responded to a post I wrote about my experience as a lobbyist convincing members of Congress not to impose a retroactive tax on inverted companies, including my then-client, Tyco. Inverted companies are those who reincorporate overseas, primarily to avoid paying US corporate taxes. Tyco was actually purchased by ADT, based in Bermuda, but that transaction had the same effect.

Keenan Steiner writes:

But a review of the record, and interviews with a former colleague as well as with a congressional staffer to a key senator pushing the legislation, do not support his claims and suggest that, in this case at least, Abramoff may be exaggerating his clout…

Abramoff’s lobbying advice looks back to the summer of 2004, when the tax loophole-closing legislation had passed both the House and the Senate.

Here’s where I must disagree: the thing is…I didn’t have a job in the summer of 2004. In fact, my firm, Greenberg Traurig, had fired me in March of that year.

And that’s just the beginning of the inaccuracies in Steiner’s post.

Fact-checking is important. But in seeking to undermine what I’ve written, the Sunlight Foundation, a champion of lobby reform and political accountability, misses the point. I’m not exaggerating my clout – I’m trying to tell the truth.

I named seven senators who we targeted with what were, essentially, bribes: Chruck Grassley, R-Iowa, Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Jim Bunning, R-Ky., Tom Daschle, D-S.D., John Breaux, D-La., and Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. These bribes were more than “junkets” as Steiner writes, and the targets encompassed more than the seven legislators themselves. As I’ve made clear in my book and elsewhere, I didn’t just provide travel opportunities or campaign contributions, but also tickets to games and meals at my restaurant. The targets weren’t just members, but also, and especially, their staff. The checks we rounded up were often from employees of these clients, and many times were directed to party organizations and PACs.

Does the Sunlight Foundation believe that meals and tickets aren’t bribes? Do they contend that my staff and I raised no money for these members or their designated party beneficiaries.

Steiner writes:

From the time the Senate passed its bill until it became law in October 2004, Abramoff himself, who gave nearly $100,000 to federal and state campaigns in 2003 and 2004, did not donate to five of the seven senators’ campaigns, according to Influence Explorer.

Again, this is because I was no longer employed nor donating – this all happened after I was done lobbying. Targeting of these senators – by a wide variety of means – took place in 2003. This timeline error is repeated throughout the article, obscuring the facts he uses.

Steiner also points out that my “short list of clients, excepting Tyco, gave $15,500 to campaigns and committees of Grassley, Daschle and Lincoln, and almost all of that came from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, not exactly a corporate player.”

It’s important that those of us looking to fix the system understand that corporations could not make contributions to federal campaigns, so we asked our clients to solicit donations from individuals. Bundling campaign contributions makes their ultimate source much easier to hide.

For an idea of how this all works, see this Washington Post infographic.

Sunlight interviews Neil Volz, a former member of my team who was convicted of conspiracy. Volz says that for me to call our contributions “bribes seems to be quite an exaggeration.” That’s the entire thesis of his book, which he is now promoting and his viewpoint corresponds with that of someone who might work on the Hill: that the gifts lobbyists like me ply members and staff with are signs of friendship, not bribery. I think this headline from the Onion says it all.

I find it unfortunate that the Sunlight Foundation appears to be endorsing this approach – if they contend that the conveyance of tickets, meals, and contributions by lobbyists to public servants, with the full expectation that they will do the bidding of the lobbyist is not a bribe, then we have a serious problem within the reform community.

Steiner interviewed Grassley spokeswoman Jill Kozeny who called my work influencing Grassley “pure baloney,” and noted that “fundraising is entirely separate from Sen. Grassley’s policy operation.”

What do you think Grassley’s staffer would say? And how can fundraising really be entirely separate from policy?

Steiner fails to mention the work done by one of my former staffers, Todd Boulanger, who ingratiated himself with Grassley so that the two became running and breakfast buddies.

The bribery I explained in my post (and that I used for years to get my clients what they want) is complicated, sneaky, and oftentimes entirely legal. The Sunlight Foundation should know that – and should know that the only way for us to fight to fix the system is to target that kind of everyday Washington corruption – together.