News & Politics

The Other Jack Abramoff

When Jack Abramoff became the poster boy for crooked lobbying, it was hard to square that with the man I knew.

Jack Abramoff went off to jail on Wednesday, November 15. On his last night of freedom, he was sending out e-mails to friends, including me, at 3:50 am.

“One day,” he wrote, “maybe we will be able to figure out why all this happened.”

He had become the poster boy for villainous lobbyists, a caricature of the worst that Washington has to offer in the way of avarice and backstabbing.

According to news reports, Senate investigations, and criminal indictments, Abramoff ripped off his clients and ridiculed them as “morons.” He eventually confessed to making kickbacks to colleagues and forcing his clients, mostly Native American tribes, to contribute to personal charities and pet projects.

He got involved in a deal to buy a fleet of South Florida–based gambling boats. I remember when Jack was working on the deal. He had grandiose notions of gambling boats based in ports of call all over the world. I had been a passenger once on a SunCruz casino boat, based at Port Everglades. I told Jack that the slot machines seemed rigged not to pay off and that the ride was choppy to make me seasick. He said he’d fix the problems.

Ultimately his investment in SunCruz collapsed, and a former owner was killed. No one has connected Jack to the murder, and I think anyone who knows him would be surprised if he was, but it was the signing of fraudulent documents in the SunCruz purchase—not his lobbying activities—that led to his current incarceration.

I first met Jack in 2000 when I was writing a book about Native American casinos. He represented the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and had a wealth of information about Native Americans and gambling.

When I called to ask if he would talk with me about the subject, he invited me to meet him at a kosher restaurant in downtown DC.

I am Jewish but don’t keep kosher. Jack said that he believed people should practice as they wanted. I saw not a bit of arrogance in him. He was down to earth—even, I thought, kind. I liked him—though I couldn’t understand how any self-respecting Jew could claim to be a friend of Tom DeLay’s.

Abramoff’s history was different from mine. He was from California and had gotten involved with Ronald Reagan and the Young Republicans. The political contacts he made there bore fruit as the Republican Party consolidated its power.

For the rest of the meal we talked about what he had done for native tribes—mostly about how he tried to save them from federal taxes by appealing to the Republican Party’s antitax leanings. Tribal reservations, he told me, were examples of “free-enterprise zones,” a capitalist vision supported by conservatives like DeLay.

Our first conversation took place while Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House. Abramoff let me know that the people he was connected to in Congress thought Gingrich was a megalomaniac. He described a meeting Gingrich had with other Republican leaders in which he suggested that even the presidency might be too small an office for a man with his abilities.

Abramoff also told me a story that I promised not to put in my book. It was about how the chief of the Choctaws had taken him to Florida to meet the chief of the casino-owning Miccosukee tribe. When the Miccosukee chief heard that the Choctaws had an adviser named Abramoff, he responded, “You have an Abramoff? You have to meet my Goldberg!”

In the months and years that followed, Jack and I kept in touch. He invited me to his house one year for Succoth, the fall Jewish holiday celebrating the harvest. We ate outside in Jack’s Succoth, a temporary building lined with the fruits of the harvest. In his house he had a room full of religious books. On Saturday mornings he had Shabbat services there if he was unable to walk to his shul. Orthodox Jews don’t drive on the Sabbath.

Occasionally Jack invited me to visit his box at Redskins games. I wouldn’t accept a ticket from him, but I did stop by his box to visit when I had my own tickets to a game.

His box was in the owner’s area, about 20 yards from Dan Snyder’s box. At one game the team was playing the New Orleans Saints. Jack had filled his double box with clients from a tribe in Louisiana. They were loudly rooting for the Saints, well within the hearing of Snyder. Abramoff paced the back of the box; I could tell he wanted that day to be over. He told me he had a box in another part of the stadium that he often provided to members of Congress for fundraisers.

When I got invited to Abramoff’s son’s bar mitzvah, I guess I had to admit we had become friends. But I felt comfortable with him because he never asked me to promote himself or his business interests.

I once went to help review a new restaurant he had opened called Stacks. The food was horrible, the service even worse. When Jack asked how I liked it, I told him the truth. He was embarrassed and disappointed, not with me but with the people running the restaurant. He never hinted to me that I should say anything other than what I thought.

It was about three years ago that the man who had become my friend made the transition from Washington power player to national villain. A series of stories by Washington Post reporter Sue Schmidt revealed that Jack had written e-mails in which he insulted his tribal clients and used racially charged descriptions of tribal members. She later reported that Jack had engaged in machinations to divert money from his clients to his own pet projects, such as a Jewish school he had started.

This put me in a quandary. What do you do in Washington when a friend becomes the subject of negative stories, a Senate investigation, and prosecutors?

I figured that the natural Washington reac­tion would be to pretend I had never known him. And if I had ever seen the Abramoff described in the articles, I would have.

But I had to confess that I had never seen that side of Jack. In the years I had known him, I had never heard him say one negative thing about any racial group, certainly not about Native Americans.

One line in a Schmidt article on February 22, 2004, particularly troubled me. She wrote that Abramoff had received $45 million in fees during a period in which the tribes he represented had no “major new issues on the horizon” before Congress.

Because I knew that Jack worked constantly to keep the federal government from imposing taxes on tribal gaming profits, this seemed unfair. There were plenty of political and competitive threats to native-owned casinos, not only on the horizon but just around the bend. And while I knew he was making millions in fees, the image of him ripping off impoverished tribes was a little hard to take.

The image was that Abramoff was following a long tradition of abusing poor, oppressed native people. Yes, Abramoff was making a lot of money, even charging exorbitant fees. But at the same time, as he saw it, he was saving his clients millions of dollars.

I sent Jack a note of sympathy, telling him I felt the overall impression left by the article was unfair.

He was happy to receive the note. Now that he was in the hot seat, he was reluctant to contact his old friends. He didn’t want to put them in an awkward position, he said.

It occurred to me that in e-mailing Jack, I might also be communicating with the prosecutors, who, if they weren’t already, soon would subpoena all his e-mail. I had to wonder whether anything I said to him would find its way into Sue Schmidt’s hands.

“It has been a horribly withering few days and will only be worse,” Jack lamented. “Sue Schmidt is making a career out of me. Seems I am on the front page of the Post more than [presidential candidate John] Kerry is. She’s my Swift Boat Veterans all rolled into one.”

In the fall of 2004, Abramoff was drawing fire from all directions. Negative articles were in every newspaper, and he was the subject of jokes on Jay Leno’s show.

A few weeks after Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, he was to go to the Senate Commerce committee and testify before John McCain.

Several days before the hearing, word began circulating that Abramoff would not answer questions but would plead the Fifth Amendment.

During religious services that year, I kept thinking about Jack’s alleged sins rather than my own. If he had done everything Schmidt and other writers claimed, he might indeed be a bad man. It was hard to believe I could be so naive as not to see it. I remembered that when I was a copyboy at Time magazine in the early 1970s, I found it pathetic that a correspondent there walked around the office defending Spiro Agnew. “I know Spiro Agnew,” he would say. “He would not accept a bribe in the vice president’s office. It didn’t happen.”

As I sat in synagogue hour after hour, it seemed to me that Abramoff the religious Jew could not plead the Fifth Amendment. In my head I wrote a brilliant presentation for him to make to the committee. Jack would look McCain in the eye and tell him exactly what had happened. He would say that he had sinned in doing some of the things he’d done. He would tell the committee he wanted to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He wanted to apologize for what he had said and done. And if he had violated any laws, he was prepared to pay the price. The words in the traditional Yom Kippur service kept coming back to me in Jack’s voice: “I have sinned; I have transgressed.”

“I wish it were so easy,” Jack told me when I suggested that pleading the Fifth was the worst thing he could do and urged him to tell the truth.

His attorney, Abbe Lowell, had persuaded him that the Senate committee was not a fair forum, that the senators were only out to grandstand. At worst, Jack feared, they would try to steer him into a contradiction under oath. That would give the prosecutors ammunition to indict him for perjury if they couldn’t find any other crime.

“No one wants to tell the truth more than I do,” Jack told me. “But this is not going to happen in front of this dastardly group who have leaked my financial information and e-mails in ways to make me look as bad as possible. This kangaroo court is designed to fry me.”

Jack wouldn’t be appearing before just the committee, though—he would be talking to the public. This was his chance to show himself to the country in the same way he’d shown himself to me and other friends.

Telling the truth and apologizing for what he had done wrong would have won him some sympathy. More than that, naming some of the senators and congressmen who had benefited from his largesse might have stopped the committee in its tracks.

Alas, his stonewalling was a self-destructive act that merely cemented the bad reputation created by press accounts.

After the hearing, Jack e-mailed me, on October 15, 2004, “These are just terrible times.”

As embarrassing e-mails to and from associates poured out in article after article, the humiliation got worse. “The immature bravado of the lobbying industry was certainly not made for publication,” Jack said. “My goofing around with roughneck colleagues clearly got out of hand. This is a nightmare for me. I feel like I am falling into an abyss with no end in sight.”

Fifteen months into his ordeal, Abramoff took the time to count thousands of articles about himself, all of them negative. He had made the cover of national magazines—as a symbol of greedy and unethical lobbying. In a gesture of friendship, I offered to walk with him into the Palm, the downtown DC restaurant frequented by powerbrokers and the media.

“Maybe I could get a fruit plate,” he said.

Things did get worse.

“I wish I didn’t live in a world where each of my steps is constrained by a dozen legal considerations,” he wrote me. “I want to defend myself without causing greater harm, I just don’t know if or when that day will come.”

Jack went back and forth between admitting that he was a bad guy and denying that he was evil.

The week he was on the cover of Time I arranged to meet him in the crowded lobby of the Marriott Wardman Park. Despite his cover-boy status, not a soul recognized him. We sat at a table in the middle of a convention of astronomers and talked about everything that had happened. He was not in denial mode.

“We were a band of killers,” he said of his lobbying practice. “We did a lot of bad things.” He was proud of the fact that if someone got between him and the interests of his clients, he would do everything possible to destroy them.

It was a little scary—not the same Jack that I felt I’d met six years earlier in the kosher restaurant. Now Jack seemed almost proud of his notoriety. He was disappointed to learn that Time had published two covers that week—the second one on an entirely different subject. When he went to the hotel newsstand to get some extras, he seemed distraught to find only the other cover.

Once when George Clooney criticized him on national television, Jack looked up both himself and his critic online. “Put my name in, and then do the same for Clooney,” Jack wrote me. “I’m at 12M+ and he’s only 9M+. I win.”

In January 2006, Jack invited me to his house for a Friday-night dinner. He still felt he was being preyed upon by aggressive reporters and a vindictive John McCain. He seemed especially hurt by the consensus that he had ripped off the native tribes.

Jack said he had committed crimes to help his clients, not to hurt them. “I love my Indians,” he said. “I would never do that.”

A man who could talk callously, even proudly, about being a “killer” could turn on a dime and see himself as a victim, the latest in a long history of persecuted Jews. During dinner he went into a long explanation of the purchase of SunCruz, eventually referring to the fact that the former owner of the line had been murdered.

One of Jack’s teenage sons was at the opposite end of the table. His head had been buried in his arms on the table. It was hard to imagine what he was going through. At mention of the killing, his head jerked up. “Somebody was murdered?” he asked incredulously. It seemed that neither Jack’s children nor his wife, Pam, yet grasped how serious the situation was.

Jack expressed anger at politicians who now claimed they never knew him. He was particularly annoyed that Montana senator Conrad Burns had been quoted as saying he wished Jack “had never been born.”

“Was he wishing I was not born when we were together in Florida, or when we were dining at Signatures, or when he was using our sports boxes or getting tons of money?” he said later in an e-mail.

Jack said the career of his former friend Ralph Reed, then running for lieutenant governor of Georgia, was “flushing down the drain with his outright lies about his relationship with me.”

Of Iowa senator Charles Grassley, chair of the Senate Finance committee, who had been critical of Abramoff, Jack said: “You can say you have a good source that Grassley not only carried my water on the Bear Council issue [a fight over tribal recognition in Grassley’s state] and received a ton of contributions in return, but he also did one of the biggest asks from Abramoff ever, taking Tyco out of the tax bill. . . . They would have been hit with a $4-billion tax bill.”

Of Ohio congressman John Boehner he said, “He dined and drank at Signatures with the best of them.”

And President Bush’s claims that he didn’t know or remember Abramoff? “Pretty ridiculous,” Jack said. Later that evening he showed me a stack of photographs of himself with both President Bush and then-speaker Dennis Hastert.

One night Jack wrote me about a passage in the Torah that would be read in synagogue that Friday night. It was about Joseph’s being sold into slavery by his brothers, and his captors’ putting him in the back of a spice wagon.

“He was able in the midst of total despair to see goodness in the world,” Abramoff wrote. Jack said he now felt more comfortable with the prosecutors than with his old friends, who practically to a man had abandoned him.

For six years, Abramoff and I had corresponded via e-mail. I had kept them all, and I was amused to find a query I’d sent him when I was working on a story for The Washingtonian in 2003 about good places to work. I’d asked whether there were any special employee perks at his firm, Greenberg Traurig. He replied that members of his lobbying group got “unlimited access to the best sporting seats in town, concerts, free use of our restaurant, golf, including trips to Scotland.” Years later, his gift of a Scottish golfing trip to Ohio congressman Bob Ney wound up putting Ney behind bars for accepting bribes.

I continued to try to be a friend to a person in trouble. But in February 2006, our relationship began to deteriorate. The catalyst was my publishing one of his e-mails about photos of him with President Bush on The Washingtonian’s Web site. Jack claimed I had violated an “arrangement” of confidentiality. Even if there had been any “arrangement,” I felt Jack had violated it by giving the same information to reporters for Time and Vanity Fair.

I found myself in an increasingly awkward position. On February 16 he e-mailed me, saying that by releasing that e-mail message, “You are doing something extremely immoral.”

I replied that I didn’t think he had the right to lecture anyone about ethics.

He responded: “As for your comments regarding my morality, I did not mean to impugn yours, and will hope that you did not mean your retort to cut as deeply as it has. I don’t want to continue this discussion on e-mail. Either we chat or meet, or we stop discussing it; but, under no circumstances do I release you to release my e-mails and communications with you in any forum.”

We continued to communicate by e-mail but no longer did he reveal his inner thoughts. Our frequent lunches came to an abrupt halt.

On the day he left for prison, I sent him a message offering to help him or his wife any way I could. He replied, “Thanks, Kim. I leave tomorrow. Thanks for your friendship. Yours, Jack.”

On November 15, 2006, Jack started a new life at the federal prison in Cumberland, Maryland. He would have been most concerned about how he would get kosher meals. Prison officials said he would be accommodated.

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