The man who brought scandal and disgrace
to the Republican Party has returned to the scene of the crime.
By Brian Ross (@brianross) f
Matthew Mosk (@mattmosk) ,
Rhonda Schwartz Meagan Chuchman (@megcourtney)
Aug. 27, 2012
Former super lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- who served 43 months on fraud, bribery and tax evasion charges -- has come to the Republican National
Convention in Tampa seeking redemption through honesty. And in the process, he is helping pull back the shroud on what really occurs in the
bars and back rooms of the nation's lavish political conventions.
"Virtually every interaction that a lobbyist has with a Congressman is money well spent, from the lobbyist's point of view," Abramoff told ABC News.
In Tampa, that lavish spending is well underway -- largely undeterred by stormy weather. On Sunday, a top D.C. lobbying firm rented out the Tampa Art Museum for
an elegant reception behind a heavily fortified security perimeter. Donors willing to pay up to $25,000 to help Republican U.S. Senate candidates were treated
to an invite-only concert with big-name bands that included the Commodores. The cost was underwritten by major corporations that have extensive needs from
Congress, including AT&T, AFLAC, and Blue Cross Blue Shield.
This, Abramoff said, is where the real work of the convention occurs. And nowadays, he considers it an ugly business.
"If you're conveying something of value to a public servant, a tee time [on the golf course], a meal, a fundraising check what is that, other
than a bribe?" he said. "In Washington, it's impolite to say this, and I've been attacked vociferously for saying this, and I used to participate
in it. But the truth is, it wasn't fine when I was doing it, and it's not fine now."
His conviction in 2006 was the conclusion of one of the biggest scandals to hit Washington since Watergate. It revealed that he had used restaurants,
golf, and luxury vacations to try to co-opt the support of key members of Congress.
It's been nearly two years since Abramoff was released from federal prison. Today, he is a chastened man, crusading against the practices he had used to
gain access to the most powerful people in Washington. Abramoff still needed permission from a parole officer to leave the state of Maryland. But his
mission in Tampa is not, as it once was, to burnish the reputations of high paying clients. It is to explain to the public what is really taking place
on the party yachts and in the cigar lounges outside the convention hall.
"Lobbyists and special interests aren't going to be spending their money to promote and support events like this out of altruism and the goodness of
their heart," he said. "They're doing it because they have an agenda. They may be good agendas, by the way, but they're still agendas that are fed by
an improper use of financial resources in a way that tilts it away from members deciding things only on their merits."
With music blaring and umbrella-toting security guards escorting paying guests from their limousines, the party hosted by the National Republican
Senatorial Committee was evidence of those financial resources at work in Tampa. But none of the six U.S. senators in attendance saw the event as problematic or troubling.
Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, left the Commodores concert at 9:30 p.m., staying only long enough to mingle with donors and accept a greeting from the evening's host, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
Asked on his way out the door if he believed the lobbyist in attendance and the corporations who sponsored the event had spent the money to gain access to him, Sen. Wicker smiled broadly.
"Well, I don't know. I don't think so," he said. "I've been going to these since 1968, and it's changed a lot, no question about it. Conventions used to be more substantive."
Pressed on the question, Wicker again said he did not feel uncomfortable with what he described as a "nonstop" schedule of events outside the convention hall.
"There are better ways to influence me," he said.