Former lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff (LAW ’86) reflected on his past corruption on Capitol Hill and offered solutions for reforming cam
Former lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff (LAW ’86) reflected on his past corruption on Capitol Hill and offered solutions for reforming campaign finance legislation in Lohrfink Auditorium on Wednesday.
In the hour-long Georgetown University Lecture Fund event, “Can Washington Be Fixed? The Ultimate Insider Shows Us Why the System’s Broken and How to Reform It,” Abramoff looked back on the years he spent lobbying members of Congress.
Through the provision of improper benefits, Abramoff was able to operate effectively by gaining access to members of the House of Representatives and Senate, whom he persuaded to support his clientele’s position.
“I spent $1.5 million a year on sports tickets alone in order to get policymakers to come with me so that I would have an opportunity to influence them and have them be indebted to me in some way,” Abramoff said.
Abramoff spoke about his peak lobbying years when he won multimillion dollar accounts to represent the interests of everyone from Native American casino owners to Russian energy companies in Washington, D.C.
“People come to this city for power, and I was clearly one of them. I was brash, a bit arrogant, but it was because I had more connections than just about anyone,” he said. “I figured that I wasn’t really doing anything wrong, because every lobbying firm on Capitol Hill was giving the same improper benefits. I was just doing it on a much larger scale.”
Abramoff was eventually indicted on felony corruption charges and was imprisoned from November 2006 to June 2010, a time that he said allowed him to realize the faults within himself and the system.
“I came to realize that it’s unfair when your firm has the resources to fly congressmen to St. Andrews for a round of golf while your opponent is getting their calls put on hold by those same congressmen,” Abramoff said. “I had created a system for myself whereupon I could buy a policymaker a dinner or take them to a game and would persuade them over to my side that very same night. Buying that access is corrupt, and it left people with a passion for a cause and a rightful case, but no money, with an impossible fight.”
The man whose black hat became synonymous with Washington corruption claims to have fully learned his lesson and is now trying to reform the same system that he once exploited. Abramoff has been working with United Republic, a political reform group that vociferously attacked him when the corruption allegations surfaced.
“I’m a conservative, but I want to work with people of all political affiliations to get certain anti-corruption and campaign finance legislation passed,” he said. “I want people who are lobbyists to have to register as lobbyists, and once they do so, they should be barred from contributing election campaign money. That is actual reform. However, to get this passed would require asking the congressmen who benefit from that money to reject it, which is difficult to do.”
Abramoff, who as of May 2012 owed $44 million in restitution for defrauding his Native American tribe clients, concluded his speech by offering some cautionary advice to the Georgetown students in the audience.
“For those of you headed to Capitol Hill in the future, just know that no matter what you do there, learn the rules and play by them, because shortcuts will come back to bite you,” Abramoff said. “Know all debts must eventually be repaid, and this is coming from a guy that only took shortcuts in his professional life.”
Students in attendance said they appreciated Abramoff’s advice.
“It was good to be made aware of this side of the political landscape. His Time magazine cover which read, ‘The Man Who Bought Washington’ turned out to be rather apt,” Yash Johri (SFS ’17) said. “It was really interesting to see how his experience in jail has reformed his political morals.”