Washington has seen its share of scandals, one of the most infamous being the case of Jack Abramoff, a powerful Republican lobbyist who was convicted of bribing public officials and related crimes. Now, after 43 months in a federal penitentiary, Abramoff is back and crusading to expose the system in which he once thrived. In Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist, he argues that the lobbying reforms Congress adopted after his disgrace were not a serious attempt to clean up federal politics. Abramoff recently spoke with U.S. News about the industry of K Street, what he thinks needs to change in Washington, and his personal regrets. Excerpts:
Why did you write this book?
I'm trying to get this message out. I'm trying to use the knowledge I have in a positive way and make some recompense for what I was and what I was involved in. And to speak the truth about the system in a way that nobody who knows these things is willing, and hopefully get some reform measures going, to get people invigorated to do something.
What is the truth about Washington corruption?
That it's still here and that most of it is legal.
The behavior of people on the Hill, where they exempt themselves from laws that the rest of us have to abide by. For example, insider trading. Then the fact that they go about to reform the system in ways that ensures that no reform really takes place.
Have any of the reforms been effective?
No, not at all. You know, the game in Washington, and I played the same game when I was lobbying, is do what you gotta do to get the public off your back and continue blithely down the road.
Can Americans do anything about this?
Absolutely. They need to know what's going on, they need to know what the tricks of the trade are, which is what I try to reveal to some degree in the book, and they need to start holding these members' [of Congress] feet to the fire so that when they promise they're going to come after corruption, these promises are specific, and that they're required to keep these promises.
When did lobbying become problematic?
Probably since the word lobbyist was coined. If anything, at least one could say that in this day and age, people pay attention to this stuff. In the old days, special interests just ran roughshod over everybody. That doesn't mean that it's cleaned up, though, and it doesn't mean that there's not plenty that can be done. And I think that, not withstanding the fact that it might be better than it used to be, it's still unacceptable.
Is the system intrinsically corrupt?
Not at all. There are good lobbyists today, people who go to present their case without providing bribes and gifts and things like that. And I use the word bribe honestly. I didn't when I was doing it.
What constitutes a bribe?
Basically any gratuity of any kind toward somebody who's making a decision on behalf of the public, whether it's a meal, whether it's a glass of water. And certainly campaign contributions. All those things have to be removed from the system for there to be any chance of an equal playing field in this country.
What should be the penalty for unethical, if not illegal, lobbying?
It needs to be made illegal. People need to pressure their legislators to act against their own immediate self-interest, to enact laws that will be for the interest of the public. You know, some of the things I propose in the book are really draconian, and indeed I've been attacked pretty roundly by the lobbying world as well as on the Hill. So I thought I'd take that as a badge of honor at this point.
Can you give an example?
I propose that, for example, the revolving door between government service and cashing in to become a lobbyist or a consultant, or whatever the euphemism is, be shuttered completely. That no legislator, no staff member, be permitted to move from that public service at any point in their lives to cashing in.
What would you have done differently in your career?
The things I pled to and there's probably a plethora of other things that I would not have done that weren't necessarily illegal that should be.
Is there something you're proud of?
I was able to achieve a lot of good things for my clients. And I'm proud of the fact that my wife and I gave about 80 percent of the money we made away to causes, charities, and communal efforts.
What will you do next?
I've been working with Lionsgate Entertainment on a reality show that's related a bit to the space I was in. That's another way to educate people, bring the public a little closer to that world, so that they can see what's happening.