Once the highest paid lobbyist in Washington, Jack Abramoff can’t escape the constant reminders of his remarkable fall.
He complains that the word “disgraced” nearly always precedes his name when he’s mentioned by the media. His black Lexus SUV, once a gleaming status symbol, looks dated now, its leather seats cracked. A Rolex hangs on his wrist like an artifact from another time. When I first spotted it, I wondered what kind of dent it could put in the $44 million he owes in restitution.
He still refers to Grover Norquist as his “old buddy,” but the men haven’t spoken in a decade, and Norquist—the powerful president of Americans for Tax Reform—never returned my calls and e-mails asking if he’d like to chat about his friend Jack.
When I met Abramoff at a coffee shop near Dupont Circle last November, I was surprised to feel a twinge of pity for the former Republican superlobbyist, poster boy of Beltway corruption. Three years out of federal prison, in his navy-blue golf jacket and baggy slacks, he looked like any other chubby, suburban dad.
But then we got to talking.
The most important thing about Abramoff hasn’t changed: his unparalleled talent for winning people over. “He could sell sand to the Saudis,” say several of his former lobbying colleagues. “Jack could talk a dog off a meat truck,” says Neil Volz, who got two years of probation for his involvement with Abramoff.
Others are harsher. “He’s a modern-day Elmer Gantry,” says Tom Rodgers, the whistleblower who helped bring Abramoff down, referring to the fictional con man.
Somehow, Abramoff can make boasts sound self-deprecating. He can cast himself as a hero while making you believe you arrived at that conclusion on your own. For most of his life, this was his gift. But now it’s Abramoff’s curse.
It’s the reason—as he embarks on his second act in Washington, claiming to be a changed man dedicated to reforming the government—that there’s one question on everyone’s mind: Is this just another of Abramoff’s scams?
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Far from skulking away quietly—as most people would if they’d been dressed down by a Senate committee for swindling their American Indian clients and buying favors from lawmakers; had their racist e-mails exposed to the world; and served time for conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion—Abramoff, 54, has again placed himself in the public eye.
He started by writing Capitol Punishment—half memoir, half critique of what he calls “the favor factory” in Congress—and launching his book tour with an interview on 60 Minutes with Lesley Stahl.
Until it was canceled in July, he hosted his own radio show, Jack Abramoff, live on Sirius XM channel 168 every Sunday. He says he’s trying to find a way to get it back on the air. But mostly, Abramoff is focused on rebranding himself as a reformer.
For fees as high as $20,000, much of which he must turn over to the government, he gives speeches across the country about corruption on Capitol Hill. He’s working with United Republic, a group dedicated to taking money out of politics, on a grassroots campaign to enact far-reaching ethics legislation to restrict interaction between lobbyists and elected officials.
“This is very much like the FBI or the NSA hiring world-class hackers when they finish their jail terms to try to hack into their agencies’ systems,” says Josh Silver, United Republic’s CEO. “Jack said, ‘These are the laws needed to stop me.’ ”
He also has three TV-show concepts in the works as well as an idea for a series of six novels he wants to write and then turn into movies. He says they’ll be on the scale of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The declaration calls to mind the motto Abramoff lived by during his lobbying days: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”
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It’s a cold, drizzly night in Stamford, Connecticut, and Abramoff is in his element. He’s here to speak—for a $7,500 fee—at a meeting of the Prometheum, a men’s club that bills itself as “a fraternal organization, inspired by the founders of the United States,” with a mission to foster debate and the free exchange of ideas. The invitation to the evening’s event described the dress code as “black tie (not optional).”
The club’s president, Steve Bowling, has known Abramoff since they were undergraduates at Brandeis University. Like most of Abramoff’s remaining friends, Bowling has nothing to do with the Washington power structure. He’s trying to start a tilapia farm.
Abramoff and I find our places at a table for eight in a dimly lit banquet room. An elderly man, David Parent, sits to Abramoff’s right. It turns out he was one of Abramoff’s pen pals while Abramoff was in prison. Parent says he was inspired to write to him because the Bible encourages people to reach out to those who aren’t easy to like. Because Parent lives nearby, Abramoff invited him to the speech so they could meet in person for the first time.
About 40 Prometheum members attend. Many arrive leery of Abramoff. Paul Nakian, a lawyer and self-proclaimed “hard-left-leaning liberal,” tells me that when he learned Abramoff would be the evening’s speaker, he was certain he would be “a slimeball.”
Before long, though, Abramoff holds court. He regales our table with tales of meeting Lesley Stahl and Piers Morgan. He talks about his efforts to improve his vocabulary while in jail—he made flash cards with the goal of learning 80 new words a week. When Parent begins to interrupt, Abramoff puts a hand on the man’s arm and softly tells him he’s not done talking.
Finally, it’s time for Abramoff’s speech. He delivers story after story with the rhythm of a standup comic; there’s a lot of buildup and punch lines that usually make the audience laugh. There are somber parts, too, such as when he introduces Parent, telling the crowd how the then-stranger gave him “a spark of hope at mail call.”
Abramoff talks about the day he pleaded guilty and how grateful he was to have at least been investigated by honest prosecutors and FBI agents. He describes looking down during his plea and seeing that the prosecutors “were teary.” He says he told them afterward, “When you go [to heaven], you’ll be just fine because you’ll bring with you, as exhibit A, the tears you shed in this room.”
He closes by talking about the work he’s doing with government-reform groups to get ethics legislation passed: “For me, it’s part recompense. It’s part wanting to do the right thing. It’s not easy getting up and telling my story.”
If that’s true, he sure makes it look easy. The men give him a standing ovation. He then navigates through a sea of outstretched hands and winds his way to the back of the room, where he takes a seat at a table next to a stack of his books. A line of new converts stretches before him.
As I head to the parking lot, I run into Paul Nakian, the liberal lawyer who predicted Abramoff would be a slimeball. Is he ducking out, one of the few who don’t want an autograph?
No, he tells me. He’s hurrying to his car to get his wallet so he can buy an autographed copy of Capitol Punishment.
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Nick Penniman had a similar conversion. He first met Abramoff in December 2011. Penniman, then working for United Republic, had spent the better part of two years researching the Abramoff scandal.
So when he awoke that winter morning, he could hardly believe what he was about to do. He felt reluctant, questioning whether he should have agreed to do Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig this particular favor.
Lessig, a scholar of ethics, had invited Abramoff to Cambridge to talk about his book. Then he had called Penniman, who lives in Boston, to tell him he ought to sit down with Abramoff while the ex-lobbyist was in town.
Though uneasy, Penniman forced himself out the door. When he entered the restaurant of the Charles Hotel off Harvard Square, there was Abramoff. The great villain wore an oxford shirt with an iPhone in the pocket.
Penniman decided he would gradually wade into the business of campaign-finance reform and first ask Abramoff about his time in prison. To Penniman’s surprise, his nerves calmed almost immediately.
He was disarmed by how forthcoming Abramoff was. “I learned more about him as a person and about the time he spent in jail, about what that did to his family,” he says. “I was able to see beyond the caricature of Jack Abramoff into a man who went from the height of power to a completely broken father behind bars.”
Despite warnings from others—including one who suspected Abramoff was a mole crafting some kind of exposé, à la James O’Keefe’s undercover ACORN video—after two or three more meetings, Penniman grew to trust Abramoff. He introduced him to United Republic CEO Josh Silver and got him involved in drafting ethics legislation.
“Jack is in this for all the right reasons,” Penniman says. “He really cares.”