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K Street Files: Abramoff Returns as Government Reformer

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who served time in jail after a corruption scandal, gave advice on how to reform Congress and K Street.

Under a banner of “Standing Up to Corporate Power” at Public Citizen’s Dupont headquarters, the reinvented Jack Abramoff offered his ideas for how to take corruption out of Congress and K Street.

To add to the surreal nature of the event, he even took questions from government watchdog types about how they can increase their influence (really?!). After all, he went from K Street heavyweight to jailbird, and now he’s trying to solidify himself as a reformer, railing against all of the ills that he, admittedly, helped to create as a top-paid lobbyist for corporations, Indian tribes and the Northern Mariana Islands.

He told of how he “bought” Congressional offices with sporting tickets and promises to top aides of future well-paying jobs with his lobbying firm.

But most government relations types aren’t buying it.

“Jack Abramoff misrepresented himself as a top Washington lobbyist, and now he’s pretending to be a political reformer. Nobody should take him seriously,” said Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council. “Booking Jack Abramoff to speak on political reform is like hiring Bernie Madoff to host a seminar on ‘Smart and Prudent Investing.’”

New group United Republic disagrees. The group said it’s fighting corporate influence in politics with Abramoff’s assistance and added in a release: “Just like the CIA hires ex-hackers to protect its mainframe, Jack will be using his insider knowledge to hold the worst offenders to account.”

Oddly enough, some of Abramoff’s recommendations — no more political donations from lobbyists, no more hiring Capitol Hill aides to become lobbyists — would help established lobbyists by eliminating the constant demand for contributions and competition from newly minted lobbyists just leaving Capitol Hill.

Abramoff also took a dig at “unlobbyists” such as ex-Speaker and GOP presidential nominee candidate Newt Gingrich, who made millions of dollars as a consultant for major companies but did not register as a lobbyist. “Strategic advisers and history professors” also shouldn’t be allowed to give political money, he said. He added that he favors term limits for Members and staff. From his perspective as a lobbyist, “Once you buy a Congressional office, you don’t want to have to repurchase that office” with a new roster of faces.

Abramoff said when he met Congressional aides he thought might make good lobbyists, he would let them know there would be a job at his firm. After that, he said, it was almost as if they already worked for him — sending his team a constant stream of Capitol Hill intel about matters of import for his clients. “It became apparent to me that was an incredible way to control a Congressional office,” he said.

As for why public interest advocates sometimes have an edge over high-priced K Street talent, Abramoff said: “Most lobbyists are very lazy. They don’t want to spill their blood at the end of the day for their clients.” On the other hand, folks at advocacy organizations are passionately working their issues constantly. “Your opponents aren’t always awake, they’re sometimes drunk, in bed,” he said.

Super Bowl of Issue Ads

The Super Bowl isn’t the typical venue for issue ads, but the corporate-backed Center for Union Facts took to the airwaves in the Washington, D.C., market during Sunday’s big game. The $150,000 spot featured “union members” complaining: “I’m sick of the union taking so much of my money out of every paycheck” and grumbling that they never voted to join a union in the first place.

It’s part of the coalition’s larger  $10 million effort in support of the Employee Rights Act.

“The reaction to the Super Bowl ad was great,” said Rick Berman, president of Berman and Co., which runs the campaign. “We’re rolling this thing out one state at a time.”

He declined to name the members of the coalition who funded the effort but narrowed it down to companies, foundations and individuals.

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