Jack Abramoff offered some expert advice on ethics to Kentucky lawmakers, who are bound by state laws aimed at limiting the influence of lobbyists: Be wary of the corrupting power of money.
The convicted federal lobbyist, visiting the state capital Frankfort yesterday, warned the legislators that they can be doing “stuff that’s not illegal, but is wrong.”
The audience of 138 lawmakers listened attentively, laughing at jokes about how aides frequently work harder than their elected-official bosses, and had pointed questions, which they asked anonymously with note cards. Several called it the best ethics session they’d ever attended.
“I was conscious of the fact that what I was saying was hitting them hard,” Abramoff, 52, said afterward. “I will speak to anybody, anywhere, but lawmakers are daunting.”
This appearance, for which Abramoff was paid $5,000 plus travel expenses, marked his first before any legislative body since his time in front of a 2004 U.S. Senate committee that had subpoenaed the Washington lobbyist to talk about his overcharging of Indian tribes with casinos.
In the prologue to his autobiography, “Capitol Punishment,” he wrote that the September Senate hearing was akin to “being tossed to the lions in the Roman Coliseum. You know that, no matter what, you will soon be eaten alive.” In January 2006, he pleaded guilty to crimes related to his lobbying and to the fraudulent purchase of a fleet of casino boats. He was released from federal detention in December 2010.
Former U.S. Republican Representative Robert Ney of Ohio also was convicted as part of the probe, as were officials in President George W. Bush’s administration and senior aides to House Minority Leader Tom Delay, a Texas Republican.
Abramoff, who also has spoken at Harvard Law School and on more than 200 radio and television programs, opened the session by saying he is “trying to do something that is right” by explaining what he now sees as the poisonous influence of money in politics. He told the lawmakers, seated in a capitol complex conference room, that his legal trouble began after “losing sight of the line in the sand” between right and wrong.
John Schaaf, general counsel for the ethics commission, said Kentucky lawmakers probably hadn’t heard much about Abramoff’s misdeeds. “We’re way outside the beltway,” he said.
‘Most Interesting’ Session
“This was the most interesting one we’ve had,” Steven Riggs, a Democratic House member since 1991, said after the 90- minute session. Other featured speakers have included former Representative David Skaggs, a Colorado lawmaker who was co- chairman of the congressional ethics office, and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. Today, they will hear from a pastor who is a religious columnist.
Several Democratic colleagues complained about Abramoff’s appearance, Riggs said.
“Are you not still using us and the system?” one lawmaker asked in an anonymous question, noting that the state was paying him with taxpayer money. Much of any money Abramoff makes, including speaking fees, goes toward a $44 million restitution order for Indian tribes and others he was convicted of defrauding, he said.
Riggs had a different take than his doubtful colleagues. “When the police want to get better at their jobs, who do they talk to?” he asked. “The criminals. It’s called ‘intel.’”
Adam Koenig, a Republican House member in his sixth year, praised Abramoff’s trip to Kentucky as “a great idea” and said he had been “mesmerized” by Abramoff’s November interview on the CBS News program, “60 Minutes.”
Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures, had traveled from Denver to listen to Abramoff.
“I thought he had important things to say,” she said afterward. “He has real words of wisdom.”
The Kentucky legislature is weighing whether to allow slot machines at horse racing tracks, and several lawmakers asked Abramoff, the central figure in a movie called “Casino Jack,” about the power of gaming interests.
Are there “special incentives for lawmakers to push the envelope because there’s so much money involved?” one asked.
Abramoff told a story about representing an Indian tribe trying to protect its tax-free gaming empire in Mississippi. When a state lawmaker proposed taxing Indian casinos, Abramoff dispatched a team from Washington to fight him, he said.
Their tactics included recruiting a candidate to run against the lawmaker. The strategy was so effective, he said, that his target backed off the tax idea and apologized on a radio show to the chief of the tribe.
“I’m ashamed of the fact that I did all this,” Abramoff told the Kentucky lawmakers.
Another lawmaker asked whether part-time legislators, who work as lawyers or in business, are inherently more beholden to their jobs than to the public. The ability to corrupt “resides within the soul of the individual,” regardless of his or her outside employment, Abramoff responded.
Kentucky legislators are sensitive to corruption. A scandal in the early 1990s involving regulation of horse-track betting and hospitals led to the prosecution of more than a dozen top lawmakers and lobbyists on bribery, extortion and racketeering charges. The so-called Bobtrot Operation, named after the House committee that oversaw horse racing, prompted changes in state ethics laws in 1993.
State rules now require annual, mandatory ethics training for state lawmakers and forbid lobbyists from making campaign contributions to lawmakers.
Abramoff praised the laws as strict, even as he noted a loophole: Lobbyists’ clients are allowed to make contributions.
The former lobbyist said he’d funneled “millions” to federal lawmakers’ campaign coffers that way, something he said he now views as legalized bribery.
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