Opinion

Commentary: Jack Ambramoff's truth

Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)
Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)

When a guy like Jack Abramoff starts truth-telling about the venal world of Washington, don't buy it.

Not that he's lying. But he's hardly giving the whole truth, at least not in a half-hour phone call, or in the numerous publications and television shows that are featuring him these days, or in his book, "Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist."

I didn't know Abramoff when he was flying high. He didn't prowl this capital. But he left fingerprints here. So when the opportunity arose, I figured I'd take my place in line to talk with the man. He had gone through the interview process many times by the time we spoke last week, and knew the routine well.

"I feel responsible for all of this," he said, referring to the 19 other people who have pleaded guilty or have been convicted in the scandal. "This whole thing, the destruction of so many lives, it keeps me up at night. I feel horrific about it."

It keeps you awake at night?

"Some nights," he said.

Here's the story arc: Guy grows up in Beverly Hills, becomes president of College Republicans with help from his pal, Grover Norquist, who goes on to become a nationally known anti-tax zealot. After college, he produces "Red Scorpion," an action thriller that does not win an Oscar for its star, Dolph Lundgren. Then he goes to Washington, where he becomes a super-lobbyist.

Baseball had its steroid era. Lobbying had its Abramoff. He regularly charged clients $150,000 a month, more than any lobby shop in town. He wined and dined very important people at his own Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant, comped them to the best seats at football, basketball and baseball games, took them to Scotland to play golf, and funded junkets to his far-flung client, the Mariana Islands, so members of Congress could find the correct facts.

It came undone after the Washington Post produced a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of reports in 2004, which led to a federal investigation, which landed him in prison for 43 months.

As he reinvents himself, Abramoff is offering elixir to cleanse Washington. He urges an end to all campaign donations from anyone who has any stake in federal policy, a ban on any congressional member or aide from ever working as a lobbyist, and a requirement that elephants and donkeys hold hoofs and whistle "Kumbaya." The last one isn't true, but Congress is more likely to require it than the first two "reforms."

I was prepared to hate "Capitol Punishment," but didn't. Abramoff tells a tale. Some of it is amusing and some is insightful. But the story is not all there.

There is, for example, no mention of former Rep. John Doolittle, the Sacramento-area congressman who decided against seeking a 10th term in 2008 after the FBI raided his Virginia home as part of the Abramoff investigation.

"I found John Doolittle to be an incredibly honest, hard-working public servant," Abramoff told me. "He was enmeshed in a system that needs change."

Abramoff omitted Doolittle for no reason other than space, he said. Besides, he had dozens of "those kinds of relationships."

Those kinds of relationships entailed campaign donations, which goes without saying. He gave $140,000 to Doolittle over the years. He also would sidle up to key staffers and confide that he'd love to hire them then once they were finished working in government. From that point on, he "owned" those aides.

One hireling was Doolittle aide Kevin A. Ring. While on Team Abramoff, Ring helped foster those kinds of relationships by helping Doolittle's wife, Julie, land a job as a paid fundraiser for Abramoff.

A federal judge last month sentenced Ring to 20 months in prison. Reporters who covered his sentencing said he cried as he asked for mercy.

"I feel horrible for him. He suffered immensely," Abramoff said of Ring.

Doolittle and his wife were not charged. For that, he can thank Ring and Abramoff.

"Despite the many mistakes (Abramoff) has acknowledged making," Doolittle said in an email, "I credit him for never mischaracterizing to the authorities, even under extraordinary duress, his relationship with Julie and me."

Abramoff writes about his prowess at getting laws passed or killed on behalf of clients. He doesn't dwell on his representation of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians of Palm Springs, owners of two casinos in and near Palm Springs. That's understandable. Nothing about the relationship is flattering.

Abramoff and his partner, Michael Scanlon, inserted themselves in Agua's internal politics, trying to stack the tribal council with members who were friendly to Abramoff and Scanlon. One of their candidates won a seat on the council and a second lost.

Agua Caliente still hired Abramoff, primarily to persuade the state to allow the tribe to vastly increase its allotment of slot machines. The tribe paid Abramoff and Scanlon a huge amount, $10 million, between 2002 and 2004.

The tribe's Sacramento lobbying expenses shot up during that period, though it's not clear what Abramoff did to persuade then-Gov. Gray Davis to agree to the expansion.

Not one to get into the details, Abramoff writes Agua had 1,000 slot machines at the time. The tribe had 2,000 slots.

"What's 1,000 slots among friends?" Abramoff quipped when I asked him about the mistake.

Agua did gain approval for as many as 5,000 slot machines. But that happened in 2006 in 2007, long after Abramoff and Davis were gone.

As Abramoff sees it, the system he left has not changed. Doolittle, for one, has gone through the revolving door, lobbying on Capitol Hill, though his operation is tiny compared to Team Abramoff.

Abramoff's lobbying days are over. But he has big plans. Perhaps he will develop an instructive video game to illustrate the ways of Washington, maybe make another movie, and go on speaking tours. He'll talk about the venality he saw and helped create, at least some of it, and maybe try to sell a little elixir.

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