Jack Abramoff on America's bipartisan culture of corruption

Lobbyists do not see our country's politics in terms of blue or red, but rather green. Jack Abramoff explains just how serious this problem is.

FLORIDA, October 27, 2012 — Regardless of one’s political leanings, chances are that  they believe special interests play far too large a role in the American political system.   

Few people know about the power of special interests in so detailed a manner as Jack Abramoff does. Just a few years ago, Abramoff was one of Capitol Hill’s most powerful lobbyists. In early 2006, he was convicted for various corruption charges and subsequently served time in federal prison. Since being released, he has become an outspoken advocate for reforming the lobbying industry.      

Now, Abramoff tells us about his views regarding Citizens United, the role that special interests play in political polarization, whether or not corruption is more prevalent on the left or the right, and much more.        

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Joseph F. Cotto: This is surely one of the most polarized eras in American politics. Not so long ago, finding consensus on challenging issues was not such a partisan ordeal. In your opinion, have special interests played a large role in political polarization?

Jack Abramoff: I think the polarization is mainly caused by the hardening of ideological positions on the left and right, but there can be little doubt that special interests manipulate what is already an unstable environment, usually to prevent actions harmful of their interests.

Cotto: Due to the Citizens United ruling, millions of Americans have become nervous about the influence which money plays in politics. Do you share these concerns? 

Abramoff: I think their concern is misplaced. Americans should not fear the full and free expression of our fellow citizens’ political views. I share the Court’s desire to keep speech through resources free of government control - except when that right is exercised in order to use the system for a special interest. I have come to believe that any expenditure of resources in our political system, with the purpose of obtaining a special benefit - such as a federal grant, loan or contract - is nothing more than a bribe and corrupts the system. 

I am only troubled by Citizens United in that it seems the justices do not view contributions as a source of corruption. But, as far as the right of those Americans who want nothing back to give all they want in our politics, I’m for it. 

Cotto: Many politicians support the DISCLOSE Act as a remedy to Citizens United. What are your views on the DISCLOSE Act?

Abramoff: I think disclosure is vital and have been pushing disclosure as part of the reforms I feel are vital to fix the system. I am concerned, however, that the Obama Administration (Like some of their predecessors) is undermining the effort to pass the DISCLOSE Act by commencing what seem to be politically motivated prosecutions of large donors in the Republican Party. Whether they intend these actions to intimidate these citizens or not, the result is that many supporters of real reform are backing away from the disclosure provisions out of fear of retaliation. 

Congress should pass criminal sanctions against any employee involved in such pernicious behavior. It is the only hope to get more disclosure in the system. Of course, the President could firmly direct his employees to stop this, but no one is holding their breath.

Cotto: Regardless of whatever legislation is set forth to regulate lobbying practices, do you believe that government corruption is inevitable?

Abramoff: At some level, yes. But that does not mean we should not try to improve the laws to root out as much of it as possible.

Cotto: Activists on the left and right alike believe that the “other side” is inherently more corrupt. In your opinion, is malfeasance an equal problem on both ends of the political spectrum?

Abramoff: Yes. My experience was that the only difference was that the Democrats got away with it more frequently, but the disease does not reside only on one side of the aisle.

Cotto: During the years ahead, do you expect the influence of special interest groups to strengthen? Why or why not?

Abramoff: It’s hard to tell. The elephant in the room is the unconstitutional massive growth of the federal government. The power of the special interests grows as the federal government expands. The only way to eliminate their power is to drastically reduce the size of the federal state. Lobbyists never have a bad year. Three of the five richest counties in America border Washington, DC. There is a reason for this: It’s because our political classes have systematically arrogated themselves power and control beyond the worst nightmares of our founders.

Cotto: For several years, you were a member of the film industry. Were there any strong similarities between your work in Hollywood and your career in Washington, DC?

Abramoff: Lots of similarities between these two worlds. That’s probably why movie people want to be in politics and politicos want to be in the movies! The differences are more interesting. For example, in Washington, you need to be alert to the knife in your back. In Hollywood, they’ll insert it in your front!

Cotto: Since being released from federal prison, you have become a voice for lobbying reform. Why did you choose to adopt new perspective on special interests?

Abramoff:  I wish I could say I came to my new approach while I was in the midst of successful years lobbying, but it took the end of my career and for me not to have a financial interest in these matters to see things clearly. Unfortunately, that inability to see the damage this system does to our nation plagues many of the very fine people who still engage in that business.

Cotto: What was the greatest lesson that you learned from the numerous scandals associated with your lobbying career?

Abramoff: Learn the rules of the game and don’t be so arrogant as to think they don’t apply to you. 

Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering how it was that you came to be such a noted figure in politics. What inspired you to enter the political realm?

Abramoff: The same thing that motivates so many others: A desire to join American patriots throughout the ages in an effort to preserve our freedoms and the majesty of this greatest nation on Earth. Sadly, I failed to live up to many of my goals, but life gives us many chances to try again. 

So, I am trying again.


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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