Jack Abramoff, one of Washington’s most notorious former lobbyists, came to Tallahassee on Tuesday as part of his crusade against what he calls “the corrupting influence of money on public policy.”
He called out a constitutional amendment on solar energy backed by the state’s utilities, as “one of the oldest lobbyists’ tricks in the book” because it is “intended to confuse people” and detract the proponents of a rival amendment.
He detailed his tricks of the lobbying trade before he was convicted on federal fraud and tax evasion charges: buying goodwill from members of Congress with campaign contributions, sports and concert tickets, meals and golf outings and the promise of lucrative jobs to members of their staff.
And he called for “draconian reform” to “stop folks like me” — including the banning of any corporate interest, special interest or individual who wants to petition government on public policy from contributing any money to any elected official or political campaign.
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“Lobbying was for me a series of political battles. Unfortunately, winning became everything. I stopped paying attention to the lines in the sand — the rules,” said Abramoff who pleaded guilty in Miami on Jan. 3, 2006 on charges stemming from his lobbying activities in Washington on behalf of Native American tribes, including steering millions to favored lawmakers.
At the peak of his power in 2004, Abramoff owned two Washington restaurants, a fleet of casino boats, four sports skyboxes and had at least 100 members of Congress — both Democrats and Republicans — he said he could control. Forty lobbyists worked for him, the largest firm in Washington.
“Our ethos was, if you are going to lose, don’t come back alive,” he said at a speech before a gathering of conservative and liberal activists during lunch at Faith Presbyterian Church in downtown Tallahassee. “That’s great if it’s a movie ... but it’s terrible for life. You can’t live like that.”
Abramoff’s visit was hosted by Conservatives for Energy Freedom, which has backed the ballot initiative Floridians for Solar Choice that aims to introduce competition into Florida’s solar energy market. He was paid “a couple thousand dollars” said Debbie Dooley, president of the group.
Abramoff served four years in prison and has since become an outspoken advocate of campaign contribution reforms. He is now working with his sons on television and movie production, a career he had before lobbying, and said “a large chunk” of his earnings go to pay a multi-million dollar restitution debt he owes the Native American tribes.
As he spoke, the Florida Legislature met just two blocks away for its second to last week of committee meetings before the regular session that begins in January. Also on the agenda each day is a long list of fundraisers.
Abramoff talked about the pay-to-play element of politics that he says has corrupted public office and said the only solution is to require that anyone who hires a lobbyist or lobbies government to be banned from contributing to candidates and campaigns. He also said that all lobbyists must be required to register and anyone who leaves Congress or government staff should be banned from returning as a lobbyist.
“There is nobody in politics who is giving big money and is not asking for something back,’’ he said. “If we don’t fix this, it is going to undo our government.”
He said he frequently hears the refrain from public officials that “they are not for sale” but he considers that self-deception because the process is dependent on relationship transactions that he equates to bribery.
For example, he spent more than $1 million a year on sporting tickets, often buying 72 tickets to a single game. He escorted congressman on his Gulfstream jet to play golf at St. Andrews in Scotland, and both he and the congressmen defended it as legitimate.
“You can take every member of Congress who says my vote is not for sale and you could put them under a lie detector test and they’d pass,” he said. “But we know that’s not true, because we know human nature and human nature is such that if I do something nice for you, you are going to want to do something nice back for me.”
The problem, he explained: “The minute they do that their vote isn’t for sale, you are taking over their soul.”
He said he watched as people who arrived in Washington as “bright-eyed” reformers would soon morph into thinking like everyone else “because they wanted power.”
He told the story of a congressman from the South who was elected in 1994 as a reformer and refused to talk to lobbyists but, by 1999, his staff called Abramoff and asked for two of Abramoff’s $1,000 court-side tickets for the congressman and his son to attend a Washington Wizards game when Michael Jordan was playing.
Abramoff brought his son, too, and, as they watched the game, the congressman “opened the conversation with a phrase that every congressman uses when they’re getting ready to fundraise: ‘So, Jack, tell me a little about your clients,’ ” he recalled. “He doesn’t care about my clients, except that my clients may give him money.”
The next week, Abramoff attended the congressman’s fundraiser, brought him a check, and he then moved the congressman “from the list of useless to the list of owned.”
Abramoff chided the reform bill passed by Congress that attempted to crack down on lobbyists’ excesses. His lawyer sent it to him in prison to read and, “within a minute, I saw enough loopholes for me to carry on as I was doing — with imprimatur of Congress,” he said.
Reform bills, Abramoff said, are often gifts to lobbyists because few people read them and they get fast-tracked and signed into law.
“The only reason I paid attention to reform bills is because they were what was called moving trains,” he said, a convenient vehicle to use to tuck in provisions that benefited his clients. He said he used an election reform bill once to authorize a casino for an Indian tribe in Texas.
“The people who are obvious about it, are not good lobbyists,” he said.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and at (850) 222-3095. Follow her @MaryEllenKlas