Jack Abramoff: A D.C. Scandal Made for Hollywood


Magnolia Pictures

Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a documentary film about the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, was released in theaters this weekend, four years after the notorious Washington wheeler and dealer was convicted of fraud, corrupting public officials, and tax evasion. National Journal reporter Peter Stone served as a consultant on the film, and he offers his thoughts on the scandal and its aftermath, as well as his insights into who Abramoff is as a person. Stone's 2006 book Heist documented the details of the scandal, and an expanded version with a new epilogue came out this month in paperback under the title Casino Jack and the United States of Money.

What made you decide to write Heist in the first place and to follow up more than three years later with your newly released paperback, Casino Jack and the United States of Money?

I'd been covering lobbying a dozen years or so at National Journal when the Abramoff scandal first broke in the Washington Post. I'd had written about a number of interesting, important, and sometimes odd lobbying fights before, but as the Abramoff story began to unfold it struck me as a larger-than-life tale. Here was a lobbyist who was very, very powerful in Washington, a Republican lobbyist who obviously had good connections in the Congress with then Majority Leader Tom Delay of Texas and in the White House with Karl Rove and had come up though the conservative movement, through some of the most important organizations in the conservative world of the 1980s such as College Republicans.

Abramoff also had led had a very colorful life as well: before getting into lobbying in 1995 he'd had done a stint as a B movie producer with his anti-Communist tract, Red Scorpion which glorified a brutal Angolan rebel leader. He had close ties to big name conservatives like Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist going back to the early 1980s and he was an Orthodox Jew, all of which set him off from most lobbyists on K Street.

And some of the allegations against him were astounding, particularly that he and his covert partner, the former Tom DeLay aide Michael Scanlon, had bilked several of his Indian casino owning clients out of tens of millions of dollars. I followed up after the first Post story appeared in February of 2004 with a long in depth profile of Abramoff in National Journal about six weeks later, looking at a lot of other areas that his close associates and others told me were quite unusual in his lobbying work such as his knack for finding obscure clients that were willing to pay exorbitant fees, and tracing his deep conservative ideological roots. I quickly got just absolutely mesmerized. He liked to wine and dine members in a way that was even more extravagant than many lobbyists did by opening his own restaurant, Signatures, in 2002.

The more I reported, the more intrigued I became and in late 2004 I was asked to be in a Bill Moyers documentary on the fleecing of the tribes. After I appeared in the documentary I was approached about possibly doing a book with Farrar Straus and decided after a month or so that I really wanted to do it.

Since I had a little over a year to write the book, which was published in October 2006 while the Justice probe into Abramoff's influence peddling network was still unfolding—Bob Ney had yet to plead guility—I thought a lot about doing a paperback that would bring the story up to date a few yeas afterwards: I wanted to discuss the scandal's impact on the 2006 and 2008 elections and to look at the reforms it helped usher in. I also wanted to examine why more key allies of Abramoff in Congress were never charged and how, in many ways, Abramoff's lobbying career was both the exception and the rule on K Street.

What's Jack Abramoff like as a person?

I'd known Jack a little bit and talked to him for different stories before the expose came out. He could be a real schmoozer and had a good sense of humor. I could see how he could be appealing to fellow lobbyists and members of Congress. We never met, but he was certainly an intelligent and sometimes charming individual.

Also you could tell when he had something to hide. The most revealing thing that I recall prior to the story breaking in the Post was when I asked him in early 2003 about a think tank in Rehoboth Beach that was one of his clients. I'd spent summers nearby in Bethany and it just was too bizarre, too unreal to be true. So I asked Jack about that and he immediately got very uptight on the phone and he mumbled something about, "Well, this wealthy Republican who I have ties to is supporting this little institute out there." And the story just didn't ring true, and the think tank quickly surfaced as part of the scandal by Sue Schmidt in the first Post story.

The think tank was being used as a front to hide millions of dollars from Indian tribes and other clients that were going to Abramoff allies like Ralph Reed who want to keep his work with Abramoff for Indian casinos well hidden from the public lest it would tarnish his evangelical credentials. And that was a big part of Jack's style: while he could be very public, and he loved the spotlight—having a restaurant like Signatures and liking to treat members to lavish sports outings at FedEx Field and the Verizon center—there was also a darker, very non-public side of Jack who liked to operate under the radar through conduits like the think tank at the beach so people couldn't follow the money. The latter side of Abramoff was a big part of his modus operandi, which also made it such a great detective story for a reporter to follow because he did lots of things to disguise who was paying who.

Have the new lobbying restrictions that have been put in place since the scandal helped?

The 2006 elections were influenced a good deal by the scandal, and the Democrats ran partly against the Republicans as a "culture of corruption." And when they came in a number of reforms were enacted, although they were not as far-reaching as some members and watchdog groups would have liked. The reforms of 2007 did do away with the ability of lobbyists to buy meals and give gifts to members. And they put further curbs on travel and the ability of lobbyists to finance travel. They also instituted new requirements making earmarks more transparent.

But in some ways the biggest issue raised by the scandal is the negative impact that fundraising has, and the demand that is placed on lobbyists—among others but particularly on lobbyists—to help raise money for candidates. Demands for campaign cash have risen at Malthusian rates in recent years as the costs of campaigning have soared because of hugely expensive advertising.

That's been a growing concern, and it was part of the scandal but nothing addressed it really in pure form. Many campaign finance reformers and members of Congress seem to be looking increasingly to public financing in congressional races as an option that might be viable now. There are over 125 House members who have signed cosponsoring legislation to do this. It could gain increasing traction in the next year or two. It's not going to be an easy fight--there's a lot of opposition to it, but it seems like an idea whose time may be finally coming.

How does the film, directed by Alex Gibney (disclosure: who's the brother of The Atlantic's deputy managing editor James Gibney) put this story into context six years after it first broke?

The film does a terrific job of capturing the zaniness, the ideological and criminal excesses of Jack Abramoff and some of his associates over the years. Jack's story is an amazing story as I said before in part because he grew out of the conservative movement. Two of his earliest associates were Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, who went on to become superstars in the conservative movement. They remained a close allies for over a quarter of a century, Ralph going onto Christian Coalition, Grover going onto Americans for Tax Reform, one of the most powerful conservative groups in Washington, and Jack starting out in his lobbying business after the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994 and becoming a super-lobbyist very, very quickly.

The film has wonderful footage of the early years, footage of Grover and Ralph and Jack from the 1980's and on. Gibney's film also contains remarkable footage of an incredible scene from the mid 1980's of Jack and Grover and some prominent GOP political figures going over to Angola for a high powered conservative conference that became known as the Rumble in the Jungle. Anyway, there's old stuff, there's lots of powerful new stuff including interviews with Bob Ney talking about his experiences with Abramoff and what the scandal meant for him personally. He's very critical of the current campaign financing system. The real stars are Ney and former colleagues of Jack's including Ney's former chief of staff Neil Volz, who joined Jack's lobbying team in 2002, and Abramoff's one time business partner Adam Kidan (who also served jail time for their fraudulent purchase of SunCruz Casinos), who are fascinating to listen to and quite revealing. I give it very high marks.

What's next for Jack Abramoff?

Hard to say, I mean nobody knows. He's been in minimum-security prison in Maryland for a little under four years now. He's due to go to a halfway house in June, probably in the Baltimore area.

And people speculate he may go back to one of his passions of the past: filmmaking. After the Rumble in the Jungle, Jack made Red Scorpion starring Dolph Lundgren, a much inferior version of a Schwarzenegger action hero.

As I report in my book, the film did get support from the South African government. Making Red Scorpion certainly married Abramoff's twin passions for Hollywood and conservative causes. So that's a way he could earn a living when he gets out of jail. Jack might be able to tap some of his old ties and go back to filmmaking.