Despite Bush’s claims that he didn’t know Jack, Abramoff recently claimed a close familiarity with the president, writing, “The guy saw me in almost a dozen settings, and joked with me about a bunch of things, including details of my kids.” In fact, Secret Service logs released in July show that in the months after Bush was elected, Abramoff came to the White House at least six times.
Abramoff started out as a conservative activist, but eventually left for the private sector because, he said, “I wanted to make money.” That he did, most of it ($66 million over three years) as a lobbyist for Indian tribes seeking casino permits whose leaders he privately called “troglodytes” and “the stupidest idiots in the land.”
His fortunes took off in 1994, when the Republicans took over Congress and Grover Norquist and Tom DeLay initiated the “K Street Project,” which skated right up to the edge of legality. Essentially, K Street lobbying firms would hire lobbyists hand-picked by the Republican leadership, who would then encourage their clients to contribute to Republican congressional campaigns and even lean on congressmen who were bucking the leadership’s wishes on a particular vote. In return, the firms were granted legislative favors sought by their clients and were able to increase their billing rates by demonstrating their enormous access. When a K Street firm hired Abramoff – less than a week after the 1994 election – DeLay’s chief of staff made a point of telling the National Journal, “He is someone on our side. … [H]e has access to DeLay.”
But making fundraising and lobbying an active part of your legislative strategy has its consequences. In a New York Times interview, Abramoff put it aptly: “I just don’t think members of Congress for the most part sell their votes … generally speaking, that is.” But the exceptions – when members of Congress can be leveraged due to their reliance on their surrogate fundraisers – make the difference between the “legal bribery” of campaign contributions and the straight-up bribery of a quid-pro-quo.
Abramoff crossed that line, pleading guilty in January to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to channel gifts, trips and campaign contributions to members of Congress.