An expert on bribery and corruption makes a lonely visit to the Capitol

An expert on bribery and corruption makes a lonely visit to the Capitol

The hour that Jack Abramoff spent in the state Capitol last week was a strange and lonely one. A basement room had been reserved for the man once d

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The hour that Jack Abramoff spent in the state Capitol last week was a strange and lonely one.

A basement room had been reserved for the man once deemed Washington’s most notorious lobbyist, so that – in between a pair of other speaking gigs in Atlanta – he could discuss ethics in government with state lawmakers and lobbyists.

But Room 125 was nearly empty that afternoon. Only two state senators showed up, including Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who introduced Abramoff, then left. Not one lobbyist of note appeared.

Abramoff’s appearance was sponsored by the same coalition that has advocated the $100 cap on gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers. His trip was financed, in large part, by wealthy real estate investor and tea partyer Ray Boyd — an undiplomatic critic of the way our Legislature does business.

A boycott was underway. And so the most heavily invested inhabitants of the Capitol never laid eyes on the fellow who, with a little help from his friends, unintentionally changed the course of Georgia politics.

Had they been there, they perhaps would not have appreciated the bulk of his message. “At the end of the day, if you’re trying to get something out of a public servant, and you give them something valuable, that’s called bribery,” he said. Even if it has a $100 cap.

He would know. Seven years ago, Abramoff pleaded guilty to mail fraud, conspiracy to bribe public officials, and tax evasion. He was sentenced to six years in federal prison and served more than three.

Until his fall, he owned two Washington restaurants that served as free cafeterias for members of Congress and their staff, and 72 season tickets to the Redskins for distribution to the same crowd. You’ll remember Abramoff as the guy in the trench coat and black fedora – which he now calls a 15-second sartorial gaffe that followed his sentencing.

Kevin Spacey played him in the movie.

In Georgia, the collateral damage from the Abramoff scandal was profound. Much of the investigation involved the lobbyist’s efforts to protect the gambling interests of his Indian tribe clients from poaching competitors.

E-mails and other documents showed that Abramoff enlisted his longtime friend Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, to rally conservative Christians against the tribes’ rivals. Money was funneled to Reed through Americans for Tax Reform, the anti-tax outfit headed by Grover Norquist.

Like Norquist, Reed was never accused of any crime. But the association with Abramoff doomed Reed’s 2006 GOP primary bid for lieutenant governor. Take Abramoff out of the picture, and a 2010 run for governor would have been within the telegenic Reed’s grasp.

We might now be talking about Reed’s 2016 plans to win the White House, not Marco Rubio’s.

Abramoff’s has colored Norquist’s influence here as well. Last year, Gov. Nathan Deal was backing both a transportation sales tax and a measure to require Internet retailers like to pay sales taxes on purchases made here.

Norquist asked for a private meeting with Deal to argue against both. The discussion became heated, and the governor decided to end it, he has told several friends, by filling Norquist in on his television preferences.

“I was watching TV last night and saw this movie, ‘Casino Jack.’ I didn’t know you were that close to Jack Abramoff. I mean really close,” Deal is said to have marveled. A reddened Norquist quickly departed.

Abramoff, now 55, said he is no longer in touch with Reed or Norquist.

“They’re my old friends. But I haven’t seen either of them since before I went to prison. I saw them both last at Grover’s wedding,” Abramoff said. That was in 2004.

“Folks from my past, a lot of them stayed in touch with me. Some of them visited me in prison. And some of them kind of kept their distance – they’re in the political game,” Abramoff said. “I didn’t begrudge anyone not staying in touch with me.”

On Wednesday, Abramoff described himself as a “post-partisan felon who’s trying to do a little good.” His suit was a size too large, and the golf-course blush from the George W. Bush years has been replaced by the pallor of a man who spends his time indoors. He has given up fedoras for touring caps.

On the speaking circuit, Abramoff has addressed the FBI on white-collar crime, and lectured lawmakers on the way money insinuates its way into politics. It is not unlike asking Willie Sutton how to rob a bank.

Abramoff’s specialty is the loopholes that can be found in any piece of ethics reform. “The lobbyists’ job is to find loopholes,” he said. “You can be very corrupt within a reform bill.”

But he also had this thought that resonated: Abramoff said he never considered that he had crossed a moral line until a raft of federal indictments settled on his shoulders. He suspects that the same applies wherever money and politics mix. Even here.

“These are good people on both side of the equation, thinking they’re doing the right thing,” he said. “They may never feel that it’s corroding the system.”

You should have been there. So should a lot of other people.