Mandatory ethics training this year for the 138 members of the Kentucky legislature features a lecture by Jack Abramoff, a convicted felon at the center of Washington’s biggest lobbying corruption scandal.
Seasoned by a December appearance at Harvard Law School and about 200 interviews on radio and television including “60 Minutes” and “The Colbert Report,” Abramoff will be paid $5,000 plus travel expenses for an hour of his thoughts tomorrow in Frankfort, Kentucky. His fees largely go toward $44 million in restitution to the Indian tribes and others he pleaded guilty to defrauding, he says.
Abramoff is one of many once-disgraced political figures to return to the public eye after a scandal. The class includes Chuck Colson, special counsel to Republican President Richard Nixon, who served time in 1974 for his role in the Watergate break-in. After his release from prison, Colson restyled himself as an evangelical Christian leader and prison reform advocate, founding the Prison Fellowship Ministries.
“Americans love a second act and are quick to accept somebody apologizing and saying they’ve changed,” Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in an interview. “The jury’s still out on Abramoff, but he’s making a compelling pitch.”
Some lobbyists say they are livid about Abramoff’s return to the spotlight, saying he only further impugns the reputation of a profession that rates lower in Gallup public opinion surveys than car sales and telemarketing.
Former lawmaker-turned lobbyist Robert Livingston called Abramoff “poisonous” and “evil” in a recent telephone interview. “He’s making us all look like crooks,” he said. “He needs to stop talking and go away.”
Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said the idea of Abramoff dispensing ethics advice is “ridiculous and shameful.” He dispatched an e-mail to the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission asking it to rescind its invitation to Abramoff. The commission declined.
“What right does he have to talk about ethics?” Marlowe asked in a telephone interview. “Unless he read a book on ethics in prison, he knows nothing about the subject. What he’s trying to do is rehabilitate his image so that he can make a load of money.”
Abramoff’s public appearances, said Elizabeth Bartz, president of State and Federal Communications Inc. in Akron, Ohio, “make me want to gag.”
“Certainly you want to give people a chance to rehabilitate themselves,” she said in a telephone interview. “But is Jack Abramoff rehabilitated? I don’t think so.”
Such piling on is “pretty funny,” Abramoff said during an interview at a coffee shop near his home in Silver Spring, Maryland. “I’m not trying to resurrect myself,” he said. “Let’s not kid ourselves. I’m not going to be resurrected. What I’m trying to do is make something right. That’s it.”
Abramoff, 52, was a top Republican lobbyist with ties to President George W. Bush’s administration, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s office and dozens of other federal elected officials. He pleaded guilty in January 2006 to felony counts related to his illegal lobbying practices and in a separate federal case involving his purchase of casino boats.
More than a dozen others connected to Abramoff, including Ohio Representative Robert Ney and aides to DeLay and Bush, also were convicted. Abramoff was transferred in June 2010 from federal prison to a halfway house in Baltimore, where he worked as a marketing manager for a pizza parlor. He was released in December 2010 and is on supervised probation.
This April, Abramoff wrote his autobiography. “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist” offers his view on what’s wrong with Washington and how to fix it.
It’s his message, Abramoff said, that angers some of the Washington lobbyists and their trade groups.
“They say, ‘You can’t trust him because he’s a criminal,’” he said. “Does it matter if you trust me? Do you think I’m exaggerating what goes on in Washington?”
Severing the link between K Street and Capitol Hill is the most important way to reform lobbying, Abramoff argues in his book and in columns he has written for Bloomberg News and his book publisher, WND. He recommends that all former federal lawmakers and their staff members be banned from lobbying.
Abramoff said he has been “overwhelmed” by the response to his book and ideas: “I never would have expected to have people listen to me, period, let alone to like what I have to say.”
Harvard Law Lecture
On Dec. 6, Abramoff traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be the first guest in a new lecture series at Harvard law’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.
“Our aim is to have a conversation with a wider range of souls than is typically on this stage,” Lawrence Lessig, the center’s director, said at the start of the 90-minute conversation, which was later broadcast on C-SPAN.
Abramoff was there, Lessig told the audience, “to explain a system that practically none of us respect.”
In Kentucky, John Schaaf watched Abramoff’s Nov. 6 appearance on “60 Minutes” and thought he’d be perfect for the state legislature’s annual ethics seminar, he said in a telephone interview.
“He has a cautionary tale to tell,” said Schaaf, general counsel to the state’s Legislative Ethics Commission. “I think he’s going to be real interesting.”
Last year, Kentucky hosted former Representative David Skaggs, a Colorado lawmaker who was co-chairman of the congressional ethics office. He was unpaid, Schaaf said. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute has lectured, and was paid $5,000 like Abramoff, Schaaf said.
Day Two of this year’s lobbying seminar will feature Pastor Paul Prather, who writes a religion column for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He won’t be paid, Schaaf said.
Abramoff said he is fielding speaking offers from universities across the country. A representative from a national group of state legislatures will be present in Kentucky and assess whether his message should be spread further, he said.
Craig Holman, who pushes for lobbying overhaul as a lobbyist for Public Citizen in Washington, said he, too, has asked Abramoff to speak at a lunch -- though he won’t pay him.
“I have no doubt Jack is the same Jack as he has always been; I do not believe he has seen the light,” he said in an interview. “Nevertheless, there is much to be learned from him.”
Many connected to Abramoff have already undertaken various forms of reinvention. Ney is a radio talk show host in Ohio. DeLay, who resigned after being indicted on state charges of laundering campaign money, took a spin on TV’s “Dancing With the Stars.” He wasn’t charged in the Abramoff probe.
Neil Volz, Ney’s chief of staff and later Abramoff’s lobbying associate, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He is working as a janitor and homeless advocate in Fort Myers, Florida. He has a self-published book on the Abramoff scandal called “Into the Sun.”
Asked whether he believes Abramoff’s reinvention is sincere, Volz said in a telephone interview, “I’ve always said Jack Abramoff is a Rorschach test -- people see what they want to see.”
“Neil in his glass house doesn’t like to throw too many stones,” Volz said. “If Jack is more interested in being a celebrity than making meaningful change, we’ll see that over time.”