If you want learn how to protect a bank, you ask a famous bank robber like Willie Sutton. If you want to know how to clean up Washington, you ask Jack Abramoff.
Abramoff was, by his own accounts, an expert on corrupting politicians. He did it by lavishing them with campaign contributions, providing jobs to congressional staffers, handing out free sports tickets, meals, and even golf junkets to Scotland.
In return, Abramoff was hired by clients to get laws passed - Russian energy companies, multinationals and foreign countries came calling. When a movie was made of his life, with Kevin Spacey playing him, it was called "Casino Jack," because of the work he did for Indian tribes trying to get casinos.
Most of Abramoff's influence peddling was perfectly legal. Occasionally, he crossed the line, which landed him in the federal pen for three years and six months. The surrounding investigations led to the conviction of two White House officials, a congressman and nine other lobbyists or congressional aides. He still owes $44 million in fines.
These days, he is wearing the hat of a reformer, traveling around the country talking to "60 Minutes" or going on the "Colbert Report" or pushing his new book, "Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Corruption from America's Most Notorious Lobbyist" (WND Books, $25.95).
He sat down with me last week while he was in Raleigh to talk at Quail Ridge Books and at William Peace University.
The most corrupting influence, he said, is money - in all its forms.
"The system has become one of very polite, legalized bribery," Abramoff said. "It is pervasive, and it is considered commonplace. And it is not really even considered to be corrupt."
A well-meaning new congressman comes to Washington, and he or she is soon caught in the money chase, needing to retire campaign debts and then raise money for re-election.
"There is no question that over time, they get worn down," Abramoff said.
Abramoff has some ideas on how the system should be reformed.
He would impose term limits, because the power of incumbency is worth millions of dollars. Term limits would level the playing field and lessen the need for money.
He would permanently bar members of Congress or congressional staffers from going to work as lobbyists - closing the revolving door. He said temporary bans are meaningless, because former congressmen join lobbying firms, then call their former congressional colleagues and tell them that while they can't personally lobby, members of their firm will be stopping by.
"Frankly, a lot of that goes on their whole careers," Abramoff said. "They don't call themselves lobbyists. They call themselves strategic advisers or history professors or whatever."
Abramoff would ban lobbyists from making political contributions, drying up some of the political money.
If anybody knows how to fix the system, it would be the man who knew how to work it.