Jack Abramoff is out of jail and up for making a change at U.S. Capitol
After 43 months in jail, the Jewish ex-lobbyist talks to Haaretz on Israel, Congress and corruption.
There are plenty of harsh accusations flying back and forth these days on Capitol Hill, but there is one person whose criticism is not an easy pill to swallow: former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who, following his 43 months in jail on corruption- related charges to corruption, is on a crusade to promote change of the system with a new book, "Capitol Punishment: the Hard Truth about Washington Corruption from America's Most Notorious Lobbyist", and a series of high-profile interviews with some juicy details about the ways to buy influence at Congress - with job offers to staffers, over a million dollars spent on sports events tickets, golf games, lavish meals and hefty donations.
"When I had a chance to sit back, look at my life and at the system, even things that were and are legal," Abramoff tells Haaretz, "I came to the conclusion it has to change. It's wrong, it's bad for America, for the world." These days, he is planning to do some public speaking and is discovering new media ("when I went to prison, there were no things like Twitter etc., now I am working in every media that I can, trying to use it as a platform to promote different ideas" ).
But on the Internet, pretty much as in his off-line life, Abramoff has to deal with very different circumstances in comparison to his lobbying years when he claimed to have "very strong influence" in more than 100 Congress offices. One example is his fight against the website jackabramoff.com, which argues that "Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff was a key player in convicted former Republican Leader Tom DeLay's Culture of Corruption. Now that he's out of federal prison, he's trying to re-write history with a new book and media tour. Don't let him!" After he tried to convince the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which holds the rights to the domain name, to take it down, they added onto the site the voice message he left on the answering machine.
Despite Abramoff's charity donations, kosher restaurant and deli, when he was in trouble the Jewish community hardly rallied behind him. "He was a high-profile Jew and it was embarrassing for the community," one Washington insider said.
Abramoff himself admits there are people who prefer to keep distance now. "That's fine by me, I am not reaching out to anybody," he says. "I made myself available, I joined Facebook, I have my old email address and cellphone number. Anybody who wanted to be in touch with me could do it, and hundreds and hundreds of my friends did it. I got a visit every weekend from somebody. I had over 150 of my old friends to sign up to visit me in jail. A lot of them were upset, devastated at this attack, because they knew better, but other people that I didn't know as well stayed clear."
Following his release from jail, Abramoff worked for several months as an accountant at a kosher pizzeria in Baltimore. "I am in dire straits financially, unfortunately," he says. "I was completely wiped out by this situation. I have a very large restitution order, huge - $44 million. And I have debts in addition to that ... I just have to do my best and be positive."
Abramoff does follow events in Israel and says, "It pains me to see Israel making concessions to people who I don't believe in my heart want peace. But I've always felt I am not an Israeli, so it's not my business to tell Israelis what to do or not to do. I just hoped they do what's wise and right. I don't believe peace can be made with people who don't recognize Israel as a Jewish state - I don't think it's a very controversial remark."
Did you have any relations with the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC while you were working on Capitol Hill?
Abramoff: "I knew those guys when I was a lobbyist. I was trying to be helpful wherever I could, but they hardly needed my help. They are very powerful and they have always been kind and nice since this started. But I have always been grateful that they are there doing what they do."
As a longtime political junkie, a staunchly conservative Republican, Abramoff obviously follows the current presidential race in the United States, but if there was a Republican candidate who impresses him, he wouldn't say it. "I am not the endorsement anybody is seeking," he chuckles. "So I am going to refrain from providing my preferences right now."
A man who once enjoyed being in the limelight admits today it wasn't easy for him to watch the movie made about his story, "Casino Jack." "It's hard to see yourself in a movie," he says. "Kevin Spacey is a brilliant actor, and a very fine person. He visited me in prison, and I am very grateful to him for his efforts to portray me as honestly as he could. I think the problem is that the screenplay was very weak. He did his best with it. You know, when one looks at the movie about himself, he only sees the flaws."
Do you think one day you might return to Congress?
"I am not going back to lobbying because I reached the pinnacle of the lobbying business and was basically assassinated. I am not going to reach a higher level than that. And I disagree at this point with the world I was in anyway. I do have friends among the Congressmen, I do see them, some of them came to visit me in prison. But they need to be cautious and quiet, because they are politicians. I am not likely to get back to Capitol Hill."
Have you been in touch with Tom DeLay?
"Yes, I have. I spoke to him twice on the phone. We couldn't talk about too many things because, unfortunately, he was convicted as well, not in my case. We were expressing for each other our friendship and our support. And, in my case, my undying gratitude for him for the years and years he spent defending Israel in Congress."
The Congress approval rate hit a new low recently - now it's about 12 percent. Do representatives deserve this attitude?
"It's not that they are out there purposely trying to do the wrong thing, any more than I was. The problem is that the atmosphere is very corrupt ... the American people are sick of this, watching these guys coming to Congress and pontificate and preach how people should be, and then they are making a fortune out of the fact they are in Congress, are beholden to lobbyists or other special interests. The Americans are sick of the amounts of money these guys are spending, and they can't even cut the budget or admit they have a problem - they are like alcoholics that can't admit they have a drinking problem."
Did any Congressmen reject your offers?
"Sure. There were Congressmen there - there were very few - such as Congressman Dana Rohrabacher from California, who didn't play golf, had no interest in it, and whenever he and I would go to dinner, he would pay. He never really cared about raising money, that's why he never really moved up in terms of the rankings, because it's all based on the money you raise."