The notorious former lobbyist and convicted felon is on a well-received rehabilitation tour. But what, exactly, does he think he did wrong?
Since being released from prison in 2010, Jack Abramoff -- "One of the world's most famous lobbyists and former Washington power players," as his Twitter bio puts it -- has been back in the public eye. First there was his work-release stint at a kosher pizza parlor. Then, last month, he released a memoir, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America's Most Notorious Lobbyist, in which he details his sordid career of influence-peddling and calls for reforms to clean up a system he has belatedly concluded is corrupt from top to bottom.
Abramoff's reincarnation has brought the longtime Republican some unlikely allies, from campaign-finance reformers to Michael Moore. But while he says he's totally repentant, it was harder to tell, in a recent conversation, what precisely he regrets. The following interview has been condensed and edited.
How is the book tour going? Seems like you've been pretty well received.
I thought I would get attacked, and some people certainly are unhappy what I'm saying, and they should be. But the support I've been getting is surprising too. My encounter with Michael Moore was inspiring and extraordinary. I bumped into him on the Lawrence O'Donnell set and was surprised to hear his incredible support for what I'm trying to do, the message I'm trying to get out.
Are you still a Republican?
I don't know if I'm a Republican. I can't vote again ever, so political party is not a relevant thing for me. I'm certainly a conservative, with the same libertarian instincts I had before. My philosophy's probably remained fairly the same. Maybe on criminal justice I have some different approaches -- most people who have been through this do. Certainly it's changed my outlook in terms of the role of special interests and how they play -- how I played -- in the system.
You say you have libertarian instincts, but aren't the congressional ethics reforms you're now advocating an increase in government regulation?
I said 'instincts.' I'm not a complete libertarian. There is a proper role in some areas of the government to have rules and regulations -- I'm not an anarchist. This particular space I'm focused on now is that it's essential that the rules be changed to be certain that people not be allowed to do what I did.
I don't want to say I have the exact answers. As I paced the track in prison, I started thinking these things through. One thing I know from experience is the devil is in the language, the devil is in the details. I have a 30,000-foot analysis of these things. I do have some specific ideas, like barring people from passing through that revolving door that is so dangerous, from public service to private cashing-in-on-things. That's one area I'm fairly adamant that, if one wants to go after the corruption I engaged in, one has to go after. The cooling-off period is a joke. If you make a choice to serve the public and your country, do it and go home.
There's no one silver bullet that would have stopped someone like me or could stop someone like me. Another [element] would be term limits -- I was against them as a lobbyist and I fashioned my opposition in conservative terms. We said we were against them because people should be allowed to vote for whoever they want to, but the truth is, when people are in the system too long they ultimately fall to its lures.
None of this is necessarily things only I thought of. For example, Congress shouldn't make laws that apply to everybody but them, like with this insider-trading business [that's now in the news].
All of the proposals you're talking about would restrict what members of Congress can do, not what lobbyists can do. Do you not think lobbyists are the problem?
A lot of it has to do with Congress. The truth is, the lobbyists are just the tool in the system. They're seen as an invidious tool, but they're just a tool.
One [restriction I'd propose] for people who are lobbyists like I was is that people seeking favors from government should not be allowed to give any political contributions. Cut them off entirely. In essence, it's a bribe -- as are the meals, the tickets, the golf, the travel. All that needs to be cut off entirely.
In blaming 'the system,' though, and in putting the blame mostly on the lawmakers rather than the lobbyists, aren't you sort of absolving yourself?
I am 100 percent at fault for what I did. I absolutely own up to my perfidy, 100 percent. The system is also involved. But I am 100 percent at fault and ashamed of what I did. I crossed lines, I broke laws, I went to prison and I suffered immensely -- I lost my dear mother during this time. In no way am I backing away from the fact that I was wrong.
What, in your view, did you do that was wrong?
What I pled to at the end of the day was that I didn't inform my clients -- who I tried to serve well -- that I was sharing in half the profit of the companies servicing them in the important task of protecting their market share. I pled guilty to that. I also diverted funds into charities that I was supporting, and by doing that I evaded taxes, so I pleaded guilty to tax fraud. Finally, I provided a stream of gifts -- movies, tickets, travel -- basically bribes to members of Congress, and that was honest services fraud. I pled guilty to that as well.
That was illegal and I pled to it and I served a lot of time in prison for it. It was a horrible, horrible time in my life. Having said all that, the big problem in Washington isn't that Jack Abramoff crossed the line and Jack Abramoff got punished. Most of what I did was not illegal. It should have been -- it certainly was wrong, and I should have known it.
I'm having trouble understanding what exactly you regret. You say you crossed lines, which makes it sound like a technicality. I've seen in other interviews you've said you don't agree with the prosecutors who say you ripped off your clients. Who do you think was hurt by your actions?
That's probably for others to conclude. I've admitted to what I've pled to. That I well served my clients I think is evident in the numerical analysis of the results I achieved -- for the $80 million we charged, we delivered about $6 billion of value to them.
The deal I had with my clients was dissimilar to that of other lobbyists. Most lobbyists you hire on a contract for one or two years at a time. My deal was, no contract -- at any time if you don't like me, fire me. They never did, until [it became politically toxic]. Ultimately, my work for them was recharacterized as fraud and harmful. But clearly while I was there, we were protecting their market share and gaining immense value for them on Capitol Hill.
What do you think it was about your personality that drew you to the life you had?
I'm a hypercompetitive individual. I got into a business that was constant warfare, which I loved, on behalf of clients who I loved their issues, I loved fighting for them. We started winning battles and we won virtually every battle -- in fact, there was only one we lost [when Abramoff failed to convince Sen. Chris Dodd to slip language favoring the gambling interests of a Texas Indian tribe, the Tiguas, into an election reform bill]. Even after I was already destroyed and out of lobbying, I was still trying to find a way to wrangle that language into legislation from the tables at my restaurant, it so galled me to have this defeat on my record.
That kind of attitude, while hilarious in retrospect, was deadly in terms of my practice. This win-at-all-costs mantra or ethos leads you down paths where you shouldn't go. And while I was winning all these victories for my clients, we were making them a lot of money, saving them tons of money, I'm making a lot of money and giving 80 percent of it to charities and needy people, so I think this is great. We had seven kids living in our house beyond our five, kids who needed a place to live. At every turn I was saying, 'This is good,' instead of being able to pull back and say, 'Wait a minute.'
It kind of sounds like you're still justifying yourself and what you did. You're still lobbying, in a way, and still seeking attention and validation for your latest cause.
It would have been a lot easier for me to stay hidden. These attacks on me hurt. I don't like it when people say what they do about me. I made a conscious decision to take more heaping opprobrium on my head -- which has come, by the way. The positive response of a number of people doesn't [make up for] the attacks of a whole different group.
People ask me why they should believe I'm sincere, and my answer is, I'm not trying to gain friends or become popular again. That was very important in those days. It's not important to me now. I couldn't care less. People ask, 'How do we know you're being honest now?' I say, you don't know. What does it matter? I'm not telling you things about me, I'm telling you things about the system so you understand the system. How do you possibly undo the reputation that I have? I could be Mother Teresa and I couldn't undo it. At least I have the liberation of knowing that I set about trying to do the right thing.
Congress's approval ratings are in the single digits, though. Isn't it a pretty easy sell, telling people Congress is all screwed up? Everybody hates Congress.
Congress doesn't hate Congress. I have a lot of friends, even people who stuck by me, who are upset at me right now.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal early on Saturday, centered 10 miles below the surface, less than 50 miles from the capital of Kathmandu. At least 1,100 are already reported to have been killed by the quake and subsequent avalanches triggered in the Himalayas. Historic buildings and temples were destroyed, leaving massive piles of debris in streets as rescue workers and neighbors work to find and help those still trapped beneath rubble. Below are images from the region of the immediate aftermath of one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike Nepal in decades. (Editor's note, some of the images are graphic in nature.)
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
Four hours after learning about Saturday's devastating earthquake in Nepal, I received a Facebook notification I had never seen before: Sonia, a journalist friend based in northern India, was "marked safe." An hour later, the same notification about a different friend popped up. Then another. Soon, several of my friends wrote that they, too, had learned via this strange new notification that their friends in Nepal were okay.
A few hours later, the mystery was solved. On Saturday afternoon, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on his timeline that the notifications came from Safety Check, a service the company launched last fall. "When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe," he wrote, "It's moments like this that being able to connect really matters."
After more than a year of rumors and speculation, Bruce Jenner publicly came out as transgender with four simple words: “I am a woman.”
“My brain is much more female than male,” he explained to Diane Sawyer, who conducted a prime-time interview with Jenner on ABC Friday night. (Jenner indicated he prefers to be addressed with male pronouns at this time.) During the two-hour program, Jenner discussed his personal struggle with gender dysphoria and personal identity, how they shaped his past and current relationships and marriages, and how he finally told his family about his gender identity.
During the interview, Sawyer made a conspicuous point of discussing broadly unfamiliar ideas about gender and sexuality to its audience. It didn't always go smoothly; her questions occasionally came off as awkward and tone-deaf. But she showed no lack of empathy.
Lots of conservatives talk a good game about how citizens should resist federal control and devolve power to local governments. Few of them are willing to put their convictions into action in quite the same way that Sheriff Joe Arpaio is.
The man who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff" was already in trouble with Uncle Sam, on trial for contempt of court in a U.S. district court. It was only once that was under way that Arpaio and his lawyer apparently had the idea to sic a private investigator on the wife of the federal judge hearing his case. That shows toughness. It shows a willingness to use unorthodox tactics to resist federal interference. It's also not especially bright.
Reporters in the courtroom describe a somewhat shocking scene. Lawyers had completed their questioning when Judge Murray Snow announced he had some questions for Arpaio. After a series of queries, Snow asked: "Are you aware that I've been investigated by anyone?"
The editors of Smithsonian magazine have announced the winners of their 12th annual photo contest, selected from more than 26,500 entries. The winning photographs from from the competition's six categories are published below: The Natural World, Travel, People, Americana, Altered Images and Mobile. Also, a few finalists have been included as well. Captions were written by the photographers. Be sure to visit the contest page at Smithsonian.com to see all the winners and finalists.
Our patient—we’ll call him W.B.—is a 56-year-old father of three who, until last year, had always been healthy. He had worked his entire life, in jobs ranging from automotive repair to sales, taking great pride in providing for his family, even though doing so had recently meant combining three part-time positions. All of that ended in February 2014, when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. A neurodegenerative disease characterized by progressive muscle weakness, ALS leads to the loss of all voluntary movement, difficulty breathing, and, in the end, death.
W.B.’s life was turned upside down by the diagnosis. But once the initial shock passed, he began researching his condition intensively. He learned that he was unlikely to survive five years, and that in the meantime his quality of life would diminish dramatically. With limited options, many patients retreat. But, quite bravely, W.B. had other ideas. After much consideration, he decided that if he was going to die, he would like to try to save another person’s life in the process, even if that person was a stranger. And so last May he approached the University of Wisconsin’s transplant program, where we are surgeons, as a prospective organ donor.
Today was the latest installment of the never-ending Clinton scandal saga, but it won’t be the last. Yet in some ways, the specifics are a distraction. The sale of access was designed into the post-2001 Clinton family finances from the start. Probably nobody will ever prove that this quid led to that quo … but there’s about a quarter-billion-dollar of quid heaped in plain sight and an equally impressive pile of quo, and it’s all been visible for years to anyone who cared to notice. As Jonathan Chait, who is no right-wing noise-machine operator, complained: “The Clintons have been disorganized and greedy.”
“All of this amounts to diddly-squat,” pronounced long-time Clinton associate James Carville when news broke that Hillary Clinton had erased huge numbers of emails. That may not be true: If any of the conduct in question proves illegal, destroying relevant records may also have run afoul of the law.