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Jack Abramoff: The Fall (and Rise?) of a True Believer

Abramoff has just been made an "anti-corruption blogger." Wait, what?

The 1994 GOP landslide left Washington's corporate lobby shops scrambling for lobbyists wired into the new class of insurgent politicians, and suddenly Abramoff was a hot ticket again. "Very few people had the bona fides he had," says Larry Latourette, a former partner with the firm Preston Gates Ellis. When the feelers began arriving, Abramoff wrestled with his conscience; he considered lobbyists "evil." Ultimately, he took a job with Preston Gates—under the condition that he advocate only for causes he believed in.

At his new job, Abramoff was a "fish out of water," Latourette says. "Preston Gates didn't know what to make of him. They were as button-down-proper, don't-rock-the-boat a place as you can imagine. He talked in black-and-white terms—'We've got to declare war on these guys; we've got to march to victory'—powerful words that you don't usually hear in D.C." But Abramoff's enthusiasm won him so many clients that when he left six years later, he took almost half of Preston Gates' business with him. His official billing rate eventually climbed to $750 an hour, his paycheck to an estimated $1 million a year.

One of his first clients was the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth  exempt from certain federal laws, including a minimum wage. This has allowed companies like The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch to manufacture clothing with the "Made in U.S.A." label while employing thousands of Asian "guest" workers at $3 an hour.

Abramoff was as relentless a lobbyist as he had been a youth activist. "I became my clients," he says. "I became obsessed with making sure they weren't hurt. You know the old Clinton canard, 'I feel your pain'? Well, I felt their pain. I stayed up at night thinking about them." His colleagues attest to this. "I don't know if you'd call it adult attention deficit or type A, but I'd get emails at two or three in the morning," says Jon van Horne, an attorney formerly at Abramoff's second firm, Greenberg Traurig. "Everyone did."

Abramoff set out to mobilize the conservative movement around the causes he was hired to represent. One of the first was the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth seized from Japan after World War II. Under a special covenant, the Pacific island chain is exempt from certain federal laws, setting its own immigration policies and minimum wage. This has allowed companies like The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch to manufacture clothing with the "Made in U.S.A." label while employing thousands of Asian "guest" workers at $3 an hour. Observers have reported 100-degree factory floors, mandatory unpaid overtime, and crammed barracks with no running water surrounded by barbed wire. "We have evidence that at least some of the Chinese workers, when they become pregnant, are given a three-way choice: Go back to China, have a back-alley abortion...or be fired," then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt testified in Senate hearings in 1998. Three years ago, a group of manufacturers settled a union-sponsored class-action lawsuit for $11 million.

In 1995, with pressure mounting to strip the Northern Marianas of their special privileges, island officials contacted Abramoff. He flew to the commonwealth and came away convinced the reports were exaggerated. He also believed—truly believed, say his colleagues—that the islands represented federal deregulation at its best. "He called [them] a unique political experiment," says Roger Stillwell, a former Democratic lobbyist who also worked for the commonwealth. "Jack said, 'We have to protect this, because what they have would be real advantageous to the United States.'"

Abramoff decided the best way to keep the islands deregulated was to make them a Republican cause célèbre. He recruited activists, painting the Northern Marianas as a laboratory of nonregulation. He also arranged for lawmakers and staffers to fly to the islands, in what would become the first of a series of all-expenses-paid trips he set up for political allies. "It was the right's Venceremos Brigade," says Marshall Wittmann, the former Christian conservative. "They weren't cutting sugarcane, but instead staying in plush hotels and having golf junkets." Abramoff insists that the trips (which did include golf) were legitimate fact-finding missions. "It's not like everyone had the Disneyland tour," he says. Many returned to Washington as converts—particularly Tom DeLay, who declared the Northern Marianas a "free-market success."

In 2000, a bill to gradually impose federal immigration policy on the islands passed the Senate. As the bipartisan measure headed to the House, Abramoff scheduled a series of meetings with GOP lawmakers. "Never in the history of the Northern Mariana Islands was a delegation of leaders able to meet with the leaders of the U.S. Congress," says Benigno Fitial, a former garment executive and now a top commonwealth official. Fitial particularly remembers his conversation with Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who then led the House Resources Committee. "I said, 'Mr. Chairman, I respectfully request if you can hold onto that bill and not report it out of committee.' You know what he said? 'I think I can arrange that.'" (A spokesman for Young declined to comment for this story.)

Sure enough, the bill vanished and has never been resurrected. Abramoff "stopped it dead," says Stillwell. "It could not have been an easy job. To this day, I'm absolutely in awe of what he did."

Philosophically, it's a short leap from North Pacific textile mills to tribal casinos. Indian reservations, too, are exempt from certain federal laws. "Tribal sovereignty resonates very strongly with conservatives," Abramoff says. "In essence, what we identified there is an enterprise zone: the ability to go into a blighted area and say, 'This is a no-tax, no-regulation area.'" On this issue, he breaks with Christian conservatives, explaining that Judaism does not condemn gambling.

The casino tribes also had money, some of which they were ready to spend on K Street. Abramoff aggressively recruited tribes as clients, his former colleague van Horne recalls, charging them top rates and promising never to work for their rivals. "Jack was going in like he'd go into General Motors: 'Yes, you're paying beaucoup bucks—but you're getting our whole team, and you're getting our undivided attention,'" van Horne says.

"Ultimately, the main target is [Alabama-Coushatta tribe]," Abramoff wrote to Reed. "I wish those moronic Tiguas were smarter in their political contributions. I'd love us to get our mitts on that moolah!! Oh well, stupid folks get wiped out."

Sometimes, advocating a tribe's interests meant defending it against other tribes' economic ambitions. That's what happened when Abramoff worked for the Louisiana Coushatta, who run a huge gambling complex in the state's southwestern piney woods. Hired to defend the Coushatta Casino Resort, Abramoff found himself battling a threat from nearby Texas, where in 2001 the Legislature was considering a bill that would have allowed another tribe, the Alabama-Coushatta, to open a casino near Houston, drying up much of the Louisiana facility's business.

In exchange for a staggering $32 million contract, Abramoff and his partner, former DeLay aide Michael Scanlon, mounted a full-throttle effort to kill the Texas bill. They joined forces with Ralph Reed in organizing antigambling conservatives, creating a "Baptist-- bootlegger" alliance that successfully halted the measure in the state Senate. Later that year, when the Alabama-Coushatta defied Texas lawmakers and opened a casino anyway, Abramoff worked with Reed to get it shut down—an effort that ended up killing all Indian gambling in Texas. This, in turn, meant that the Tigua tribe of El Paso, more than 800 miles away, was forced to shutter a casino that had generated 90 percent of the once-impoverished tribe's income.

Abramoff showed little compassion for the Democratic-leaning Tiguas. "Ultimately, the main target is AC," Abramoff wrote to Reed, referring to the Alabama-Coushatta. "I wish those moronic Tiguas were smarter in their political contributions. I'd love us to get our mitts on that moolah!! Oh well, stupid folks get wiped out."

Here's where matters grow contentious. Just before their casino closed in February 2002, Abramoff solicited the Tiguas as a client, in the hopes, he says, of gaining an ally against the Alabama-Coushatta. "Fire up the jet, baby, we're going to El Paso!!" he wrote to Scanlon. His partner's response: "I want all their MONEY!!!" Meeting with the tribe, Abramoff reportedly boasted of his political connections and said he could discreetly slip language into a federal bill to reopen the casino. He offered to do the initial work for free, but said the tribe needed to hire Scanlon to run a $4.2 million "political operation" involving two customized databases that would generate 375,000 letters and phone calls to Congress. According to Senate investigators, Scanlon secretly split his earnings with Abramoff, writing a $2.1 million check in April 2002; tribal officials testified that the databases "did nothing more than...rearrange the list provided to them by the tribe." Abramoff also asked for $300,000 in wheel-greasing political donations and $50,000 to take a key House ally, Ohio Republican Robert Ney, golfing in Scotland.

Michigan's Saginaw Chippewa paid Abramoff $2.2 million—and also gave $25,000 to a group called the Capital Athletic Foundation with the understanding that it "benefits the poor and needy kids throughout the D.C. area." In reality the foundation, funneled most of its income to Eshkol Academy, the school Abramoff founded and which educated two of his five children.

In his presentation to the tribe, Abramoff described the casino's closure as a "gross indignity perpetuated by the Texas State authorities." Did he also disclose that he had lobbied for that indignity? Absolutely, Abramoff says; this was common knowledge. Absolutely not, say the Tiguas. "Jack Abramoff was never, ever on anybody's radar screen," says former tribal consultant Marc Schwartz. In fact, Schwartz says, when they first discussed the Texas bill, "Jack chuckled and said, 'Boy, that sounds like Ralph Reed.'" The covert union is a particularly sore spot for the Tiguas. "A rattlesnake will warn you before it strikes," Carlos Hisa, the tribe's soft-spoken lieutenant governor, told senators at a hearing last November. "We got no warning. They did everything behind our back."

This time, Abramoff's usual skills failed him, and 2002 came and went without legislation helping the Tiguas. As he and the tribe discussed their future relationship, Abramoff proposed a novel funding scheme concocted by his firm: The Tiguas could buy life insurance for their older residents, with benefits paying Abramoff's future fees. (The benefits would begin while the elders were still living.) The payments would be funneled through Eshkol Academy, a Jewish school Abramoff had founded, which would keep some of the money. "If it can work, it's truly a win-win," Abramoff wrote in an email. After initially embracing the proposal—even identifying 35 eligible elders—the Tiguas changed their minds and rejected it as morbid. "I'm glad he didn't send an undertaker to start taking measurements," said Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), a member of the Northern Cheyenne, at a hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee last November.

By the time the Senate hearings began last fall, several additional tribes had stepped forward with claims that Abramoff had duped them. Bernie Sprague, subchief of Michigan's Saginaw Chippewa (and a longtime Abramoff opponent), told senators that his tribe—which had paid Abramoff $2.2 million from 2001 to 2003—also gave $25,000 to a group called the Capital Athletic Foundation with the understanding that it "benefits the poor and needy kids throughout the D.C. area." In reality the foundation, which is controlled by Abramoff, funneled most of its income to Eshkol Academy, the school he founded and which educated two of his five children. (It has since closed.)

At the same time, journalists and federal investigators have been scrutinizing congressional travel involving Abramoff. In April, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) asked the House Resources Committee to investigate the Northern Marianas trips, which Abramoff paid out of his own pocket before being reimbursed by his clients; House ethics rules prohibit members from accepting free travel from lobbyists. (An ethics lawyer at Preston Gates advised Abramoff that this practice was permissible, according to internal emails cited by the Washington Post; officials at the firm did not return Mother Jones' phone calls.) Abramoff has also come under scrutiny for funneling payment for two trips with Tom DeLay, a 2000 golf outing to Great Britain and a 1997 visit to Moscow, through a think tank where Abramoff was on the board of directors.

As much as they've exposed specific wrongdoing, though, the investigations of Abramoff's work have also shone a light on the routines of unseemly lobbying in general: the unholy alliances, the influence of campaign contributions, the cushy, and golf-packed, friendships between hired guns and politicians. (The research service PoliticalMoneyLine reports that, since 2000, members of Congress have received more than 6,200 free trips from various interests—about 10 per member.) In the end, Abramoff's story is distressing for how entirely ordinary much of it is.

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