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.

  • Doug

    What bothers me in all this talk about lobbyists and their access to members of the House and Senate is that it fails to mention one overriding failure in the system and that is ‘equal access to your elected official by ALL’. We overlook that both the House and Senate have ethics rules, which require that ALL constituents be treated equally regardless of party or contributions. Yet we find repeatedly that those who once worked for a member of Congress, a former member, or the lobbyists who contributed get the real ‘face time’ to influence legislation or support for a cause – not the common person.

    That means that if you do not have money to spread around you are going to be politely ignored by your elected official and their staff – even the President plays this game. What to meet him and get your picture taken with him – just cough up $25,000 or more at the next fundraiser.

    • Nellerdee

      Republicans in Va. now endorsing a law to keep all email/calls to govt. officials exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Va. is trying to return to the Confederacy. Last week they had a rally in Richmond, sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and Sons of Confederate Veterans. Activities included a parade, a stop at the statue of Robert E. Lee with praise given to him and Jefferson Davis and scorn heaped on President Abraham Lincoln. All the while a small plane flew overhead stating “Richmond, embrace your confederate history.” Wish Rachel Maddow or some investigative reporter would focus more on the atrocities going on in VA. , the transvaginal ultra sound agenda state.

      • Nomad1166

        I cannot believe what is going on in states like VA, PA and apparently TX with state govt wanting to be so small, it can fit into a woman’s vagina; by the way, doesn’t insurance cover Viagra? Anybody figured out that the right wing nuts only believe in supporing life between conception and birth, and after that – who gives a damn?

  • Donny

    “…..And how can fundraising really be entirely separate from policy?” That is the question most in need of an answer. Until we can separate the two things all policy is de facto for sale.

  • Del Purscell

    Jack is a guy who knows how it works! I would love to have him on my side in the effort to reform Congress. Until we get the money out, the influence out and arrive at some ethical standard, we and the country doesn’t have a chance!

    • dclobbyist

      Influencing Congress is not the problem. The method of influencing Congress is the problem.

  • Joe Ratliff

    What is Jack’s opinion on the movie “Casino Jack” starring Kevin Spacey? Jack is the central character. Is it fairly accurate in exposing the extent of bribery that goes on in and outside of Congress?

  • Joe Ratliff

    What is Jack’s opinion on the movie “Casino Jack” starring Kevin Spacey? Jack is the central character. Is it fairly accurate in exposing the extent of bribery that goes on in and outside of Congress?

  • Matthew Jones

    I do not understand why we sit peacefully and allow this behavior to exist in our leadership. These individuals who are elected under public trust should fear for their safety and for their freedom. If the Law does not provide tools to ensure that the public trust a means of timely justice then the people of public should enforce that upon there leadership by any means necessary. Or the republic be damned.
    The members of the public who support this means of leadership, should be re_educated. The institutions and businesses that do not support the welfare and justice for the public should be destroyed.
    Only the freedom to think, and the forgiveness of god is guaranteed. Everything else must be taken.

    • CatKinNY

      I think there is a good chance that we are heading for another revolution; the next one will look decidedly French.

      • Del Purscell

        Well … I am mostly non-violent, though capable of government related abusive language. Couldn’t we just send the legislators home or to jail with bruised egos and the need to find a legitimate job? By the way, have you seen the 2012 House calendar? In session six days in January and a total of 109 days for the year. That’s about $1,600/day as I figure it plus what you can steal. CatKinNY, maybe you should run for Congress! Then you would no longer be of modest means and you would be right there and could handily crack them up-side the head when needed. I for one don’t speak French and like to avoid French entertainment.

        • Rickandkarin

          Although I agree with CatKinNY, she couldn’t win the election unless she has the support of the 1%. The 1% will spend money to defeat her at the local level if she can’t be “bought” to push their agenda.

  • dclobbyist

    There are ways to influence Members of Congress entirely apart from campaign contributions. All Members of Congress need votes of constituents to stay in office. If their constituents can be convinced to not vote for them, the game is over.
    The best way to lobby a Member of Congress is to convince him that you have the power to keep him from being reelected.

    • CatKinNY

      And just exactly how can constituents of modest means do that? I can’t run TV ads against him; all I can do is make phone calls to support the get out the vote campaign of his opponent. There are a number of Republican house members that I will be aggressively targeting this fall, but if you’ve got some better suggestions, I’m all ears.

      • Del Purscell

        Regarding constituents of modest means, you have a computer, know your Senator, Congressman and candidates for office.
        Coming soon to a neighborhood near you, the “Committee to Reform Congress” and a progressive reform-pledge ala Grover Norquist. We will help you do all the targeting. Watch for it in 2-3 weeks. The site is presently under construction.

      • dclobbyist

        You can join groups of like minded constituents and work together. You can write letters to the editor of Members of Congress’ local newspaper (they care more about what is happening at home than what is happening in DC). You can use Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to get your message out. You can organize local grassroots campaigns, i.e. get 20 or so of your neghbors to work with you to get your message out.

      • michael

        Yeah me too, But there are so many anti American demopukes that I would love to see voted out as well. But with the country now so much to the socialist side and most every news media on the their side, I really can’t do much to turn this country back to what it once was…FREE!

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