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Jack Abramoff is back. “Casino Jack,” the man at the heart of the biggest corruption scandal in Washington since Teapot Dome, began his career as national chairman of the College Republicans, and went on to build a lobbying empire that set the gold standard for influence peddling. This empire milked clients, swayed Congress and the White House, and exercised sustained influence on the Justice Department even as its prosecutors had Abramoff in their sights.
Since being released in June 2010 from a minimum-security federal prison in Cumberland, Maryland (the location a special concession from prosecutors, so he could be close to them and his other friends inside the Beltway), Abramoff has been facing a dilemma: his brand has been trashed, and he badly needs to recreate himself. As an Orthodox Jew, he can’t exactly embrace Jesus and be born again, so he has thus far pursued a different redemption story. He claims now to want to expose the Beltway’s rampant corruption, a posture he is promoting with a blend that’s one part confessional, three parts movement-conservative gospel about the evils of government. Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes has helped out with a segment, and Tucker Carlson of the Daily Caller is lending a hand, too, hosting the launch party for Abramoff’s book, Capitol Punishment, which is just out on stands.
Capitol Punishment acknowledges the modus operandi that earned Abramoff convictions for mail fraud and conspiracy, and lobs rounds at those he thinks betrayed him along the way, especially those politicians who took his money and then held him up to ridicule. He also attacks the senators on the Indian Affairs Committee whose investigation and report effectively brought down his practice, reserving special venom for John McCain, who led the Senate’s effort. Abramoff calls McCain a “classic narcissist” who continued to “milk the scandal he helped ignite.” Not surprisingly, he fails to mention McCain’s pioneering work with Russell Feingold to control the campaign-finance process and limit the work of lobbyists. Nor, despite his newfound distaste for corruption, does Abramoff acknowledge that the Senate report (like the Justice Department investigation) slammed doors on intriguing aspects of the scandal that could have led to powerful Republicans.
He does, however, lead readers up to one of these sealed-off corridors, across four pages in the middle of the book. There, Abramoff describes funneling $20 million to the Alabama G.O.P. and its allies in order to advance the interests of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, which operated a casino in Mississippi near the Alabama line. He writes that the Choctaw had three enemies in Alabama: Don Siegelman, the Democratic governor, who was proposing a state lottery to support Alabama’s education system; Milton McGregor, who was introducing gambling at facilities he ran in the state; and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, which was seeking to develop a casino of its own. Abramoff writes that he used Ralph Reed to “organize the Christians” to stop these initiatives.
In fact, it was the Justice Department that blocked Abramoff’s three “enemies.” After immense payments were funneled into G.O.P. coffers, Bush-appointed U.S. attorneys began criminal investigations that targeted Siegelman and McGregor, ultimately launching highly controversial trials with thin criminal pretexts. One U.S. attorney was also appointed to the licensing commission for the Poarch Creek Indians’ casino application, where she was able to block its progress. Abramoff’s ties to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and his immediate entourage were considerable, and the Alabama U.S. attorney’s offices were probably the most thoroughly politicized in the country — a state of affairs that persists today.
Alex Gibney, producer of the documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, told me he thought Abramoff’s book was “vintage Jack, entertaining and fanciful…. As an insider, he conveys — with great conviction and rough accuracy — a sense that the whole system is corrupt. Yet, in regard to his own misdeeds, the book is a cut-and-paste version of history that’s somewhat more embarrassing.” Gibney pointed to Abramoff’s takes on Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, each of whom was deeply involved in the lobbyist’s machinations but neither of whom was named in the probes or called as a witness in any of the prosecutions or Senate hearings. Abramoff “loves Grover and hates Ralph,” said Gibney, “and it shows in the book.”
Tom Rodgers, a Washington lobbyist who helped expose how Abramoff ripped off Native Americans, was outraged by the spectacle of his rehabilitation effort. “Abramoff wants us to think ‘They all do it,’” said Rodgers, an enrolled member of the Blackfoot tribe. “What cancerous cynicism.” He added that Abramoff’s claims of having secured enormous tax benefits for his clients are “categorically untrue.”
Rodgers also ridiculed Abramoff’s claim to be a born-again moral lobbyist. “A man reveals his character by his actions when he believes no one is watching. I therefore direct you to his e-mails calling us ‘morons,’ ‘troglodytes,’ ‘monkeys,’ and ‘retards.’ He then bet on the death of our elders to pay off his invoices. What else need be said?”
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Notes on South Africa’s failed revolution
“I will never know what goes on in your mind, or what that shield of a smile behind which we try to advance should tell us.”