Tips from ‘notorious lobbyist’

Tips from ‘notorious lobbyist’

Memo from Jack Abramoff to Silicon Valley: You've got to be much more involved in politics than you are, and be smarter at it. "There is no area of

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Memo from Jack Abramoff to Silicon Valley: You’ve got to be much more involved in politics than you are, and be smarter at it.

“There is no area of public policy that tech shouldn’t be involved in, and with a very big footprint,” says the ex-Washington power broker who spent 43 months in federal prison for his role in a lobbying corruption scandal that brought down a former House majority leader and other lawmakers in the mid-2000s.

Now, Abramoff travels the country advocating reforms of a system that “gets corrupted by money and has an impact that is not appropriate.” It’s a message he preaches to legislators, civic groups, TV interviewers, listeners of his show on XM Radio, and on his website, not to mention his book, “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist.”

On Thursday evening, he will share his ideas and reflections on his former career (“more colorful than I would have wanted”), when he talks to a University of San Francisco audience about “How to Fix a Corrupt Political System.”

In an interview Wednesday, Abramoff opined on two issues that corporations, lobbyists and politicians are intensely attuned to these days – tax and immigration reform.

Of the former, “I think the chances are minimal,” he said. “Opposition comes from forces on the right and the left. The right wants tax rates as low and flat as possible, and the left insists on keeping deductions that would have to go.”

So, for example, not much chance of getting the 15 percent “carried interest” rate paid by private equity and hedge fund executives increased, as President Obama and others have called for. “Hedge funds aren’t going to be happy with any taxes they’re asked for. They and others will do everything they can to stop it,” Abramoff said.

“The bottom line is, both sides want to ensure their own benefits stay in place and comprehensive tax reform won’t go anywhere, at least for a long while.”

Lobbying efforts: Abramoff, a onetime lobbyist for Microsoft, is unimpressed with Silicon Valley’s push to get more special visas for overseas workers as part of immigration reform. Both the controversial ads produced by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg‘s lobby and the resulting public blowback from some of its members were “ham handed,” he said.

Same goes for another issue – the amount of untaxed money tech companies are holding overseas. Tech lobbies are pushing to repatriate the cash at a much reduced corporate tax rate.”It should have been handled quietly. They don’t understand how conservatives in the hinterland who are paying close attention to immigration are going to respond to this display.”

“There could be a populist groundswell against this,” Abramoff said. “People don’t understand why American companies keep all that money overseas, even though much of it is actually in American banks.”

Nonetheless, Silicon Valley would not be better off withdrawing from the political realm. Quite the opposite.

“While the tech world has long pretended it operates outside of government interference, it’s now seeing how government is very much involved,” said Abramoff, who agrees with Silicon Valley’s points of view (and is no fan of the government).

“It needs a much bigger view of political involvement. It should be spending much more. They’re not playing as smart as they should, and they could lose big.”

Reform this way: While Abramoff is out of the game, he has plenty of tips to offer, like “How to get your perks into a bill,” which he wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek in April.

He has also laid out specific reform proposals in his nine-point American Anti-Corruption Act. They include: limits to super PACs; closing the “revolving door” between elected representatives and outside lobbying firms; broadening the definition of who is a lobbyist; and banning congressional committee members from taking contributions from industries their committee oversees.

“It’s a challenge that can be met, but will be fought tooth and nail, and will probably take several election cycles to implement,” he said.

Abramoff, 54, earns some money from his various appearances and pro-reform activities – he still owes over $40 million in restitution for his past criminal misdeeds. The USF gig, he tells me, is gratis.

— More information on Thursday’s appearance at

Andrew S. Ross is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist.

Source: By Andrew S. Ross