Jack Abramoff Explains How He ‘Owned’ Members of Congress and Their Staff

jack abramoff

Photo: David Burnett/NY Ttimes

Yesterday, CBS News’ 60 Minutes aired a segment with infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Abramoff, released from prison and promoting a new book, expressed remorse for his role in buying and selling public policy. During his interview with Lesley Stahl, Abramoff talked about how he used gifts, campaign contributions, and other legal and illegal bribes to influence members of Congress.

In a simple explanation of how the revolving door, Abramoff said he would use promises of jobs on K Street to lure Capitol Hill staffers into his pocket. He would let a chief of staff know that he was interested in hiring him or her. The promise of a high paying job — Abramoff made $20 million a year at one point — would entice the staffer to give Abramoff control over the congressional office.

In Abramoff’s words, at that point he “owned them”:

ABRAMOFF: When we would become friendly with an office and they were important to us, and the chief of staff was a competent person, I would say or my staff would say to him or her at some point, “You know, when you’re done working on the Hill, we’d very much like you to consider coming to work for us.” Now the moment I said that to them or any of our staff said that to ‘em, that was it. We owned them. And what does that mean? Every request from our office, every request of our clients, everything that we want, they’re gonna do. And not only that, they’re gonna think of things we can’t think of to do.

Watch it:

Abramoff has offered a number of fixes for cleaning up some of the corruption in Washington. But chief among them is a change in the culture of D.C. and the need to make lobbying an undesirable career path. “If you make the choice to serve the public, public service, then serve the public, not yourself,” said Abramoff in the 60 Minutes piece.

The revolving door is perhaps the most pernicious lobbying strategy. And it works both ways. In many cases, lobbyists deregister, then burrow into government by posing as public servants. Once in government, they continue to dole out favors to corporations — before leaving office to re-enter a lobbying firm.

As ThinkProgress reported, a Goldman Sachs official left his job at the investment bank to take a high ranking position with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA). As an Issa investigator, the same ex-Goldman Sachs staffer has used his role on the House Oversight Committee to try to thwart regulations of banks like Goldman Sachs.

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The Obama administration has similarly faced revolving door criticism; for instance, the key TransCanada lobbyist pushing for the approval of the Keystone XL is a former Hillary Clinton campaign operative.

Politico reports today that Brendan Daly, a former top communications aide for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), is now working at “Ogilvy Washington, where he’s now representing a group called the Essential Health Benefits Coalition” — a coalition that is funded by opponents of Obamacare.

Lee Fang


  1. says

    The maybe well-intentioned Abramoff solution appeals merely to unofficial and unenforced voluntary decisions to ‘serve the public, not yourself’. This ‘solution’ will not work in the public service arena any more than it does in other arenas.

    Voluntary actions and attitudes – toward doing the right but unprofitable thing and avoiding the wrong but profitable – must be backed up by structural carrots and sticks, including laws and enforcement. Only in that way can society ensure that those who do the right thing are supported (rather than find themselves to be suckers) and that free-loaders and thieves are undercut rather than rewarded.

    Structurally, in each public jurisdiction we must make big changes in the 225-year-old standard constitutional provisions for decision-making on policies and laws. In those provisions, decision-making is given over to an oligarchy – usually elected, but anyhow an oligarchy – of a few decision-makers having all power for an extended time (at a minimum, a year). This is a recipe for corruption, as made clear in Lord Acton’s famous and utterly correct (but largely disregarded by would-be reformers) analysis: ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ When much power over many decisions is given over unconditionially to one or a few persons for an extended time, it becomes de facto their private possession, which they are free to abuse or sell out for money or other inducements.

    At the very least, every public decision should require review – with power of confirmation or veto – by an independent short-term randomly chosen citizen review team (‘team’ can also be called ‘jury’ or ‘commission’ or ‘council’).

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