From Rolling Stone
Meet Mr. Republican: Jack Abramoff
by Matt Taibbi
The secret history of the most corrupt man in Washington
So this is it, finally. By the time this magazine hits the newsstands, Jack Abramoff -- right-wing megalobbyist and great feckless shitwad of our new American century -- will be but a tick of the geological clock away from The End. There will be no rack, no stoning, no scorpion-filled sand pit, no bucket of fire ants. Just a sanitary plea agreement and a single blow of the gavel, and "Casino Jack" Abramoff will disappear for a few years of weightlifting and Talmudic study.
En route to his day of reckoning, Abramoff really did travel each and every right-wing highway, from Jo-burg in the old days to the Bush White House. But he's being sentenced for only the last few miles of that trip. It's almost an insult to a criminal of Abramoff's caliber that the charge he'll go to jail for is a low-rent wire-fraud scheme committed in a pickpocket capital like Miami Beach. In that one, Jack and his cronies claimed to have $23 million in assets when he didn't have a dime, and he persuaded financial backers to purchase a $147.5 million cruise-ship casino empire. A nice score for a Gotti child, maybe, but a bit gauche for the wizard of the Republican fast lane.
The other charges are a little more respectable. He took tens of millions from Indian tribes that sought relief from Washington on gaming-industry questions, illegally pocketed millions in lobbying fees and evaded taxes on his ill-gotten gains. He also used their money to provide, in exchange for favors, a "stream of things of value" to elected officials, including golf junkets to Scotland, free meals and other swag.
It's that last bit that made Abramoff a national celebrity, the poster boy for the way the Bush administration does business and the most feared name around in a Washington political society that is still waiting with bated lizard breath for the other shoe to drop. To most Americans, Jack Abramoff is the bloodsucking bogeyman with a wad of bills in his teeth who came through the window in the middle of the night and stole their voice in government. But he was much more than that. Abramoff was as much of a symbol of his generation's Republican Party as Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater was of his.
He was an amazingly ubiquitous figure, a sort of Zelig of the political right -- you could find him somewhere, in the foreground or the background, in almost every Republican political scandal of the past twenty-five years. He carried water for the racist government of Pretoria during the apartheid days and whispered in the ear of those Republican congressmen who infamously voted against anti-apartheid resolutions. He organized rallies in support of the Grenada invasion, showed up in Ollie North's offices during Iran-Contra, palled around with Mobutu Sese Seko, Jonas Savimbi and the Afghan mujahedin.
All along, Abramoff was buying journalists, creating tax-exempt organizations to fund campaign activities and using charities to fund foreign conflicts. He spent the past twenty years doing business with everyone from James Dobson to the Gambino family, from Ralph Reed to Grover Norquist to Karl Rove to White House procurements chief David Safavian. He is even lurking in the background of the 2004 Ohio voting-irregularities scandal, having worked with the Diebold voting-machine company to defeat requirements for a paper trail in elections.
He is a living museum of corruption, and in a way it is altogether too bad that he is about to disappear from public scrutiny. In a hilariously tardy attempt to attend to his moral self-image, lately he has been repackaging himself as a fallen prophet, a humbled super-Jew who was guilty only of going too far to serve God. He was the "softest touch in town," he has said, a sucker for causes who "incorrectly didn't follow the mitzvah of giving away at most twenty percent." Then he shows up a few weeks before sentencing with his cock wedged in the mouth of an adoring Vanity Fair reporter, claiming with a straight face that his problems came from trying to "save the world."
There is no evidence yet that anyone is going to call him on any of this bullshit, and we can see where all of this is going. He'll go away now for his Martha Stewart fitness tour, and a few years from now he'll slide straight into his own prime-time family show for cable's inevitable Orthodox Channel and a $14 million deal from HarperCollins for his 290-page illustrated manual of marriage and intimacy for devout Jewish couples.
No other outcome is really possible, given the logic of the American celebrity world. What is unknown, as yet, is whether America will learn any lessons from the here-and-now of the Jack Abramoff story. For that to happen, we would all have to take a good, hard look at the remarkable life story he is now temporarily leaving us to consider.
Abramoff is a man defined by his connections. As an individual -- as a lone dot on a schematic diagram, an intersection of crossed strands in a web -- Jack Abramoff is a nobody, just another pompous Washington greedhead distinguished only by the world's silliest Boris Badenov fedora ("That was between me and God," Abramoff now says of the infamous hat). But let him loose in society, and magic happens. Jack Abramoff's instinctive political talent was for first locating and then inveigling himself into the disreputable backroom deal of the hour. He was a walking cut corner, a thumb on the scale of American history.
* * * *
The story about Jack Abramoff and the elementary school election, the one first reported by The Los Angeles Times, is true. It only seems like apocryphal bullshit. Born in Atlantic City to Frank Abramoff, an affluent Diner's Club executive who would go on to represent golfer Arnold Palmer, Jack moved with his family to Beverly Hills as a boy and grew up attending one of the more prestigious elementary schools in the country, the Hawthorne School. And it was here, at this same fancy-pants school that would one day be home to a chubby girl named Monica Lewinsky, that Jack got his start in politics by being disqualified from a race for student-body president for cheating.
"Jack was a very, very, very smart boy with a straight-A average," recalls Milton Rowen, the then-principal of the school. "We had certain rules about the amount of money that could be spent, and there was no electioneering outside of the school . . . He had his mother come up with hot dogs in her car and give them out to the kids.
"He was a very nice boy," the eighty-seven-year-old now says, laughing. "But he hot-dogged it."
Still, even with that setback, Abramoff was already off and running on a course that would lead him straight to the political underworld. Like Watergate vets Donald Segretti, Dwight Chapin, Gordon Strachan and Ron Ziegler before him, Abramoff throughout his youth would be drawn to student politics, running (and losing) again for student-body president at Beverly Hills High before becoming head of the Massachusetts College Republicans while at Brandeis University in the Boston suburb of Waltham.
Abramoff was part of the first wave of young people who came back to the Republican Party en masse during the so-called Reagan Revolution. The year 1980 was a time of resurgence for a party that just four years before had been in a post-Watergate death spiral; the Moral Majority had just been founded, and new-right prophets like Howard Phillips, Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie were attracting a fresh generation of young people to the brash, piss-in-your-face, fuck-the-poor ideas emanating from places like the Heritage Foundation and Bill Buckley's Young Americans for Freedom. Among their other converts at this time were Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, a pair of ambitious students from Harvard and Emory University, respectively.
After Reagan's 1980 landslide win, those two, along with Abramoff, would work together at the College Republicans National Committee, and when Abramoff succeeded Norquist as CRNC chief he would win a national reputation as a hard-liner with his Lenin-esque pronouncement that it wasn't the job of young Republicans to "seek peaceful co-existence with the left." The take-no-prisoners stance of the twentysomething student leader: "Our job is to remove them from power permanently."
All accounts point to Abramoff as the prototypically humorless Animal House campus villain. A thick-necked champion weight lifter (he still holds the Beverly Hills High bench-press record) with a square jaw and exquisite hygiene, the man-child Abramoff also had the kind of sadistic jock temperament that impresses coaches and corporate recruiters alike. "The football coach was always afraid that Jack was going to kill somebody if he hit him head-on," Rowen says. By the time he went away to Brandeis, he'd already undergone a conversion to Orthodox Judaism, having found religion at the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles (after seeing Fiddler on the Roof as a youngster, Abramoff says), and so he arrived in 1970s Massachusetts the rarest of East Coast campus creatures: a moralizing weight lifter with short hair and a passion for Republican politics.
The Abramoff story, in fact, confirms in the most dramatic way every vicious popular stereotype about campus conservatives. Kids who get involved with lefty politics on campus almost always graduate straight into some degrading state of semi-employment -- the defining characteristic of lefty student movements is how few doors they open for you. Another defining characteristic of the student left is its persistent, unquenchable and irrational suspicion that the campus Republicans hold their meetings in the offices of someplace like the Rand Corporation, where they have their buttocks branded with Sumerian symbols in secret ceremonies that upon graduation will gain all of them entrance to the upper ranks of corporate and governmental privilege.
That was Jack Abramoff. Like those famed USC student "ratfuckers" who went on to hold the ultimate panty raid in the Watergate Hotel, Abramoff and his close friends Norquist and Ralph Reed (the one-time head of the Georgia College Republicans used to sleep on Abramoff's couch) never really abandoned the laughable training-wheel secrecy and capture-the-flag gamesmanship of student politics. His buttocks freshly branded, Abramoff in 1983 traveled to Johannesburg on behalf of the CRNC and immediately parlayed his student experience into a real job as a sort of frontman for South African intelligence services. He was the young progressive's paranoid nightmare come shockingly true: absurd campus Republican proto-geek effortlessly transformed at graduation into flesh-and-blood neo-Nazi spook.
It is not easy to find anyone who actually encountered Abramoff during his South Africa experiences, although one source who was involved with South African right-wing student politics recalled "Casino Jack" as a "blue-eyed boy" who rubbed people the wrong way with his arrogant demeanor. On his first trip to Johannesburg in 1983, Abramoff met with leaders from the archconservative, pro-apartheid National Students Federation, which itself is alleged to have been created by South Africa's notorious Bureau of Security Services. Together with NSF member Russel Crystal -- today a prominent South African politician in the Democratic Alliance, an anti-African National Congress party -- Abramoff subsequently, in 1986, chaired the head of a conservative think tank called the International Freedom Foundation.
The creation of the IFF officially marked the beginning of the silly phase of Abramoff's career. According to testimony before Democratic South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, the IFF was not a conservative think tank but actually a front for the South African army. Testimony in sealed TRC hearings reportedly reveal that the IFF was known by the nickname "Pacman" in the South African army and that its activities were part of a larger plan called "Operation Babushka," designed to use propaganda to discredit the ANC and Nelson Mandela at home and abroad. Among other things, Abramoff managed during this time to funnel funds and support from the IFF to a variety of stalwart congressmen and senators, including Rep. Dan Burton and Sen. Jesse Helms, all of whom consistently opposed congressional resolutions against apartheid. These members of Congress would deny knowing that the IFF's money came from the South African government, because that, of course, would have been illegal; Abramoff himself denied it too, although he has been largely quiet on the subject since the TRC testimony in 1995.
In a hilarious convergence of ordinary workaday incompetence and pointlessly secretive cloak-and-dagger horseshit, Operation Babushka's grand opus would ultimately turn out to be the production of the 1989 Dolph Lundgren vehicle Red Scorpion, in which American moviegoers were invited to care about an anti-communist revolutionary targeted for execution by a sweat-drenched jungle version of Lundgren's overacting Ivan Drago persona. The film, which Abramoff wrote and produced, was instantly derided by critics around the world as one of the stupidest movies ever made.
Veteran character actor Carmen Argenziano, who played the heavy, Col. Zayas, in Red Scorpion, recalls the "Cimino-esque" film shoot in Namibia as one of the most surreal experiences of his career. "It was pretty weird," he says. "What was going on was fishy, and then in the middle of production the word spread that there was some kind of weird South African/CIA connection. And that bummed everyone out."
Argenziano, whom history will likely absolve for being, with Lundgren, one half of the film's only memorable scene, which also perhaps represents the apex of Jack Abramoff's literary career (Argenziano: "Are you out of your mind?" Lundgren: "No. Just out of bullets"), laughs almost nonstop as he recalls his Namibia experiences.
"We were all staying in this hotel called the Kalahari Sands in Windhoek, the capital," he says. "There was this huge new escalator in the hotel. I guess it was the only one in the country, because little African kids kept coming in to stare at it. But the South Africans we had on the shoot [Abramoff was reportedly provided free labor by the South African army] kept shooing them away, literally pushing kids off the escalator, shouting these racist words at them. Wasn't exactly good for morale."
The Eighties show Abramoff involved in a series of almost comic backroom escapades, the most famous being the organization of a sort of trade convention for anti-communist rebel leaders in Jamba, Angola. There are not many facts on the record about this incident, but what is known smacks of an articulate young Darth Vader putting out scones and lemonade at a sand-planet meeting of the leading bounty-hunter scum in the universe. Under the auspices of the Citizens for America, a group founded by Rite Aid drugstore magnate and one-time New York gubernatorial candidate Lewis Lehrman at the request of Ronald Reagan, Abramoff helped organize a meeting of anti-communist rebels that included Angolan UNITA fighters, Afghan mujahedin, Laotian guerrillas and Nicaraguan Contras.
Some reports speculate that the meeting was convened so that one of the Americans -- perhaps Abramoff or Lehrman -- could pass along a message of support from the White House. But it's more likely that this will be just another Abramoff episode to remain shrouded in mystery. Twenty-one years later, Lehrman won't say what it was all about, noting that "I do not recall if there was a White House message discussion" and adding only that "there were very many anti-communist individuals present in Jamba."
Abramoff's CFA experience was extensive enough, however, to make him a character in the Iran-Contra scandal. His ostensible role was to raise support for the Contras through the CFA. "Abramoff was a bit player in Iran-Contra," says Jack Blum, a Washington lawyer who served as a special counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Iran-Contra investigation. "That's where he learned that the money wasn't in the ideological skulduggery world. It was in the go-buy-the-government world." But, Blum adds, Abramoff's experiences with various conservative foundations and nonprofits during this period proved valuable later on. "This is when he made all his connections," he says. "It was through them that he learned that it was much more lucrative to work in the commercial end of politics."
Abramoff, Norquist and Reed were all in their mid-to-late twenties, and all were experiencing paradigmatic life changes. While Abramoff was joining such groups as the Council for National Policy, the CFA and the United States of America Foundation, Norquist was founding Americans for Tax Reform, the organization he would later ride to prominence as a fat, hygienically deficient tax-policy oracle. Reed, meanwhile, was recovering from the trauma of an April 1983 incident in which he was reportedly caught plagiarizing for his student newspaper a Commentary article denouncing Mohandas Gandhi. A few months after that setback, however, Reed found Jesus in a phone booth outside the Bullfeathers pub in Washington -- and by 1985 he, too, had found his calling, terrorizing abortion clinics with the Students for America, a sort of pale precursor to the Christian Coalition.
There is a common thread running through almost all of Abramoff's activities during this tadpole period of his in the Eighties. Suggested in his every action is an utter contempt for legal governmental processes; he behaves as if ordinary regulations are for suckers and the uncommitted. If the government won't step up to the plate and sign off on support for the Contras, you go through channels and do it yourself. If you really want to win an election, you find ways around finance laws and spending limits. And if you want to oppose a national anti-apartheid movement on the country's campuses, don't waste time building from the ground up; go straight to Pretoria and bring home a few million dollars in a bag.
One of the ugliest developments in American culture since Abramoff's obscure Cold Warrior days in the Eighties has been the raging but highly temporary success of various "smart guys" who upon closer examination aren't all that smart. There was BALCO steroid scum Victor Conte ("The smartest son of a bitch I ever met in my life," said one Olympian client), Enron's "smartest guys in the room" Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay, and, finally, "ingenious dealmaker" Jack Abramoff. Somewhere along the line, in the years since the Cold War, Americans as a whole became such craven, bum-licking, self-absorbed fat cats that they were willing to listen to these fifth-rate prophets who pretended that the idea that rules could be broken was some kind of earth-shattering revelation -- as though they had fucking invented fraud and cheating. But to a man, they all turned out to be dumb, incompetent fuckups, destined to bring us all down with them -- not even good at being criminals.
* * * *
All of Abramoff's late-career capers -- the inner-city youth charity that actually bought sniper scopes for Israeli settlers, the academic think tank that turned out to be a lifeguard in a shack on Rehoboth Beach, the "check's in the mail" fleecing of his own tailor out of a bill for suits -- they all exude the same infuriating "Check out the brains on us!" vibe.
Take the infamous Naftasib scheme of 1997-98. The short version of this story is that Abramoff and Tom DeLay met with a bunch of shady Russian oil executives in 1997; the Russians then sent $1 million to a British law firm called James and Sarch; James and Sarch then sent a million to the pompously named nonprofit "U.S. Family Network," which in turn sent money to numerous destinations. It went to a lobbyist agency called the Alexander Strategy Group that was run by DeLay's ex-chief of staff, Edwin Buckham; the agency would subsequently hire DeLay's wife at a salary of $3,200 a month. It went toward the purchase of a luxury D.C. town house that DeLay would use to raise money. And it went toward the purchase of a luxury box at FedExField, which Abramoff used to watch the Redskins. If you follow the loop all the way around, the quid pro quo probably involved DeLay's 1998 decision to support an IMF loan to Russia, whose economy collapsed that year and would rely on an IMF bailout to survive. A Maryland pastor named Christopher Geeslin, who briefly served as the U.S. Family Network's president, would later say that Buckham told him that the $1 million from the Russians was intended to influence DeLay's decision regarding funding for the IMF. DeLay ended up voting to replenish IMF funds in September of that year, right at the time of the bailout.
Is this smart? Sure, if you're fucking ten years old. If your idea of smart is turning an IMF loan into Redskins tickets, then, yeah, this is smart. But another way to look at it is that these assholes got themselves Redskins tickets by giving $18 billion to one of the most corrupt governments on Earth. I'd call that buying at a premium.
That's the most striking characteristic of Abramoff and his crew of ex-student leaders; nearly thirty years out of college, no longer young at all, the whole bunch of them are still Dean Wormer's sneaky little shits, high-fiving one another for executing the brilliant theft and pre-dawn public hanging of the rival college's stuffed-bear mascot. That whole adolescent vibe permeates the confiscated Abramoff e-mails, the best example of which being this exchange between Jack and his "evil elf" aide Michael Scanlon regarding their lobbying fees for the Coushatta Indian tribe:
Scanlon: Coushatta is an absolute cake walk. Your cut on the project as proposed is at least 800k.
Abramoff: How can I say this strongly enough: YOU IZ DA MAN
Again, these assholes affirm every stereotype about campus conservatives. They don't spend enough time being kids when they're supposed to, so they do it when they're balding, middle-aged men with handles and back hair -- using Washington and Congress as their own personal sandbox.
They figured out how to beat everything. Everything about the Abramoff story suggests that at some point, he and his buddies Norquist, Reed and DeLay took a long, hard look at the American system, war-gamed it and came up with a master plan to strike hard at its weakest points. In the end, almost all of the Abramoff scams revolved around the vulnerability of the national legislature to outside manipulation. Once Abramoff and his cabal figured out how to beat Congress, everything else fell into place.
Case in point: Abramoff's remarkable success in defeating H.R. 521, a 2001 House bill that would place the Guam Superior Court under the control of a federally controlled Supreme Court. Led by Judge Alberto Lamorena, Guam Superior Court justices hired the lobbyist to defeat the bill, which would have unseated them as the chief judicial authorities of the island. It says something for Abramoff's ability to bring out the worst in people that he managed to get a group of sitting judges to pay him $324,000 in public funds in $9,000 installments so as to avoid detection.
Despite the $324,000 fee, Abramoff could not prevent the House Resources committee from unanimously recommending H.R. 521 for passage. Would the superlobbyist finally fail? No, of course not. Given what we know about Abramoff's tactics, we'd be naive not to conclude that he could lean on DeLay and then-Whip Roy Blunt to stall the bill in the congressional machinery. On May 27th, 2002, just five days after the Resources committee made its recommendation, an Abramoff-linked PAC wrote two checks for $5,000 -- one to Blunt, one to DeLay. H.R. 521 never reached the floor.
The Guam incident certainly shows how easily the whole Congress was controlled by a small gang. The DeLay Republicans, along with Abramoff, were apparently the first to recognize the opportunities for corruption presented by the House leadership's dictatorial control over key committees, in particular the Rules committee. Now, a single call to a lone Tom DeLay could decide the fate of any piece of legislation, pushing it through to a vote or gumming it up in the works as needed. The other 430-odd congressmen were window dressing.
I asked Rep. Louise Slaughter if the Guam case, which showed that just two men could quash a bill, proved that Congress was especially vulnerable to manipulation by the likes of Abramoff.
"Absolutely," she said. "And the thing is, we have no idea how many incidents like that there were. What else didn't get to the floor? We have no idea. No way of knowing."
Even more ominously, Abramoff would eventually come under fire in Guam following the mysterious removal of Guam Attorney General Frederick Black, who had seen the fate of H.R. 521 and decided to investigate Abramoff's role in it.
"The thing that really worries me about Guam is the prosecutor who was plucked off the case," says Slaughter, a New York Democrat who has spearheaded her party's lobby-reform drive. "It makes you wonder what really went on there."
At the very least, Abramoff's relationship with White House procurements officer David Safavian shows that he made at least some inroads into the world of White House patronage. Abramoff took Safavian on one of his famous Scotland golfing junkets and reportedly was receiving help from Safavian in leasing government property. Safavian was working on the distribution of millions in federal aid to Katrina-affected regions when he was arrested, which raises all kinds of questions about what else might have been going on.
"There were so many contracts, from Katrina to Iraq -- God knows what really went on in there," says Slaughter.
Once Congress was conquered, Abramoff, Norquist, et al., apparently discovered a means for turning it into a pure engine for profit. The game they may have discovered worked like this: One lobbyist (Abramoff, say) represents one group of interests -- for example, the Malaysian government. Then, a lobbyist friend of Abramoff's (say, Norquist) represents an antagonist to Abramoff's client, in this case, let's say dissident leader Anwar Ibrahim. Ibrahim asks Norquist to press his case against the Malaysian state in Washington; Norquist complies and uses his contacts to raise a stink on the Hill. Abramoff's client, unnerved, turns to Abramoff to make the problem go away. Abramoff dutifully goes to the same friends Norquist applied to in the first place, and the problem does indeed go away. In the end, everyone is happy and both lobbyists have performed and gotten paid. Abramoff apparently pulled this kind of double-dealing scheme more than once, as he and Ralph Reed appear to have run a similar con on the Coushatta and Tigua Indian tribes, who were on opposite sides of a gaming dispute.
An idiot might call a scheme like this clever. But that's only true if you don't consider what really happened here: Dozens of people conspiring to reduce the U.S. Congress to the level of a Belarussian rubber stamp for the sake of . . . what? A few million dollars in lobbying fees? And not even a few million dollars apiece but a few million dollars split several ways. Shit, even Paris Hilton can make a million dollars in this country without blowing up 200 years of democracy. How smart can these guys be?
Everyone sold themselves on the cheap. They apparently got Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), and many others in the House, to lie back and open their legs all the way for a few thousand dollars in campaign contributions. In the Third World, corrupt politicians at least get something for selling out the people -- boats, mansions, villas in the south of France. If you offered the lowest, most drunken ex-mobster in the Russian Duma $5,000, $10,000, $15,000 in soft money for his vote, he would laugh in your face; he might even be insulted enough to shoot you. But Jack Abramoff apparently got any number of congressmen to play ball for the same kind of money.
They paid journalists to change their opinions; as it turns out, the right to free speech is worth about $2,000 a column to America's journalists like Doug Bandow of Copley News Service. And now it comes out that Diebold, the notorious voting-machine company, paid some $275,000 to Abramoff's firm, Greenberg Traurig, with the apparent aim of keeping legislation requiring paper trails in the voting process from getting into the Help America Vote Act. Conveniently, Abramoff pal Bob Ney, one of the HAVA architects, blocked every attempt to put paper trails into law, even after the controversial electoral debacles of 2000 and 2004.
They targeted Congress, the courts, the integrity of elections, and the free press, and in every corner they found willing partners who could be had for a few bucks and a package of golf tees. That doesn't mean Jack Abramoff was so very smart. No, what that says is that America is no longer trying very hard. And when Jack Abramoff hears his sentence, ours will certainly be made plain soon after. Jack Abramoff was the Patient Zero of Washington corruption. He's the girl at school that everyone got a piece of, including two janitors in their forties. It strains all credulity to think that he's been talking to the Department of Justice for months and yet prosecutors still have to "encircle" a lone congressman, Bob Ney, as has been reported. If Ney is the big target the government made a deal with Abramoff for, we'll know we've been had again.
"If you're venal and cunning enough, like him, you can do it," says Slaughter, when asked if the American system has become easy to beat. "But he had a lot of help."
Posted Mar 24, 2006 11:42 AM