Although Jack Abramoff, three of his lobbying associates, and one member of Congress are all going to prison, the story of the scandal is far from finished. In October, Karl Roves assistant Susan Ralston resigned after a congressional report revealed that shed apparently accepted thousands of dollars of unreported gifts from Abramoff (her former boss) while working in the White House. Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman also came under additional scrutiny after emails released with the report indicated that he had performed several favors for Abramoffs lobbying teamincluding helping to push through a $16-million grant over Justice Department objections, and engineering the firing of a State Department official who espoused policies unfavorable to Abramoffs client. The investigation is likely to continue into 2007 and beyondand will almost certainly produce more indictments and guilty pleas as the scores of investigators and prosecutors continue their meticulous work. For those bewildered by the details of intricate deals and obscure organizations that have multiplied as the investigation unfolds, National Journals Peter Stone has provided a comprehensive history of the Abramoff affair so far. Heist, his 200-page primer, draws together the mountain of documentary evidence already released, along with the dogged reporting of a handful of investigative journalists (Stone among them), to produce the clearest picture yet of how Abramoffs operation really worked.
Probably the most important thing to understand about Abramoff is his choice of clients. Abramoff, as a former colleague told Stone, wanted to make a million a day; another recounts that Abramoff once talked of his desire to make $1 billion. So, unlike most top lobbyists, he didnt pursue blue-chip corporations or build a broad practice. Rather, as a former colleague from Preston Gates tells Stone, he wanted clients where there was a lot at stake, so they could support a large financial effort. Abramoff preyed on wealthy, desperate entities, like Indian tribes nervous about losing a casino, or the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory whose government was anxious to protect its exploitative labor industry from federal regulation. Abramoff himself once explained his strategy succinctly to Scanlon in an email: I think the key thing to remember with all these clients is that they are annoying, but the annoying losers are the only ones that have this kind of money and part with it so quickly.
These small, naive, deep-pocketed clients provided the operating budget for Abramoffs extravagant lobbying apparatus. Most important, of course, were the millions that Abramoffs clients poured into lawmakers political committees and other conservative organizations with the hope of securing favorable legislation in return. But Abramoff understood that fundraising only gets you so far. So his clients also bankrolled what might be called his extracurricular operations: the skyboxes, the restaurants, the golf junkets. He spent about $1 million a year on his skyboxes at Camden Yards, the MCI Center, and FedEx Field, where members of Congress held about six-dozen fundraisers from 1999 to 2003. Abramoff also dropped over $3 million to start a swanky D.C. restaurant called Signatures, which became a gathering place for conservative lawmakers. During the restaurants first two years, it gave away at least $180,000 in free meals and drinks.
Another crucial cog in Abramoffs machine was Team Abramoff, his cabal of ambitious, mostly young associates. Many of Abramoffs most profitable relationships with lawmakers were cemented by former staffers whom he had lured from the Hill to work for him, such as Volz, Neys former chief of staff. As one ex-leadership aide told Stone, Abramoff looked for staffers to up-and-coming members … who were aggressive and highly social, who were impressed by important people. Abramoff acted as a kind of queen bee, dispatching his protgs to call in favors from their former bosses. Its no coincidence that the lawmakers reported to be the most likely targets of prosecutorsNey, Doolittle, DeLay, and Burnsall had staffers (and in the case of DeLay and Burns, more than one) who went to work for Abramoff.
The final, and perhaps most underappreciated, aspect of Abramoffs strategy was his knack for framing his lobbying efforts in language that echoed the conservative principles embraced by his allies, as Stone describes it. Throughout his career, Abramoff banked on his conservative bona fides as well as his clients money, couching their causes in the rhetoric of the Republican Revolution. Conservatism proved a surprisingly plastic ideological cover for Abramoffs friends in Congress. If, at Abramoffs prodding, members of Congress sought a tax break for a casino-owning tribe, it wasnt because of the skyboxes, the free meals, or the hundreds of thousands in contributions, but because the effort aligned with conservatisms anti-tax principles. If they worked to prevent an Indian tribe from opening a casino that might compete with Abramoffs clients casino, it was because of conservative opposition to gambling; if they worked to help a tribe open a casino, it was because conservatives wanted tribes to be fiscally independent and off the government dole; if they fought off legislative attempts to improve the lot of exploited immigrant laborers in a U.S. territory, it simply accorded with the conservatives traditional distaste for federal regulation. In fact, one conservative think-tank official complained to Stone that the weekly meetings for high-powered Republican strategists and lobbyists convened by GOP luminary Grover Norquist had turned into a freak show, in which Indian casinos and the Northern Mariana Islands were suddenly treated as central to the conservative movement.
And in one way, this assertion wasnt as absurd as it first appears. As Stone details, Abramoff was an instrumental part of the apparatus that helped nurture and expand the Republican majority. After Republicans took control of the House in early 1995, Abramoff immediately made himself an integral part of the GOP fundraising effort. That February, Stone reports, Norquist wrote to DeLay, whod just become majority whip. It would probably be worthwhile for Jack Abramoff to stop by and brief you on the K Street Project, Norquist wrote, adding that Abramoff is moving his clients to help our side, both through PACs and through giving to our coalition groups. This might be considered the founding document of the K Street Project, Republicans long-time strategy to purge key lobbying firms of Democrats and turn K Street into a GOP money machine. For Abramoffs entire lobbying career, his clients poured money into lawmakers committee accounts, as well as into conservative groups like Norquists Americans for Tax Reform. In return, their needs were tended to. So it was that Ralph Reed, speaking to Stone in 2004 before Reeds ill-fated run for lieutenant governor of Georgia, but after hed been paid some $6 million by Abramoff for consulting workcould say with a straight face that Abramoff had been no mere lobbyist, but a strategist and builder of the Republican majority.
Its clear from Heist that Abramoffs enterprise, which for the most part worked fantastically, might still be buzzing along to this day if he had not so flagrantly defrauded his Indian clients. Abramoff, Stone argues, was neither a unique phenomenon (as K Street and the Republican leadership would have us believe), nor the predictable spawn of a corrupt culture (as government watchdogs would have it). Rather, he was a remarkably greedy lobbyist who thrived because over the last 10 years, Washington has increasingly come to run on money. He was a man of the times, but more somore ambitious, more wily, a harder worker, and well, more corrupt.