Jack Abramoff exaggerates Congress’s corruption

Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s book goes on sale today. His memoir will hopefully be a catalyst for Washington to have an honest conversation about money and accountability in politics. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that conversation has gotten off to the best start.

A few days ago, a headline on USA Today’s website screamed, “Ex-Lobbyist: Most in Congress accept bribes.” Quoted throughout the piece were excerpts from an interview Jack did with “60 Minutes.”

“I am talking about giving a gift to somebody who makes a decision on behalf of the public and at the end of the day that’s really what bribery is,” the former lobbyist said. “It’s done every day and it’s still being done … There were very few members … who didn’t at some level participate in that.”

His comments astounded me. “Is he really saying that there were very few congressmen not engaged in bribery?” I asked myself. I hoped that wasn’t the case. The idea that most members of Congress are taking bribes is ludicrous. Jack and I both know better.

For several years, I was a member of the Abramoff lobbying team, even longer if you count the time I helped Jack’s clients from my perch as Congressman Bob Ney’s (R-OH) chief of staff. My career as a lobbyist ended when Jack pleaded guilty to corrupting members of Congress and their staff, including Bob and I. In court that day, the Justice Department named me a target of their criminal investigation. It wouldn’t be long before I too was pleading guilty to charges of conspiracy.

If I had made different choices, I could have avoided the entire scandal. That is a simple fact. My decisions led to my mistakes, and consequently, my regret. Every other point or counterpoint is just a debate. It is an important debate, though, which is why I so vehemently disagree with Jack’s public comments that only a “few members” on Capitol Hill are not engaged in some sort of bribery.

In his book, Jack explains his views further. “Contributions from parties with an interest in legislation are really nothing but bribes,” he writes. He then goes on to say that “everyone does it” and “it’s the way the system works.”

Before I go further, please know that while Jack was in prison, I prayed on a regular basis for him and his family. And I continue to wish them contentment and peace. Nothing I say here is meant to be personal. In fact, I am glad to see that Jack has taken on the cause of reducing political corruption. But let’s be honest. Selling cynicism by dumbing down the definition of bribery to include anyone interacting with the government is not the way to create a healthier political system. If we want to reduce corruption in Washington, we should start by educating people about the process — the real process. The people can then reduce the influence of big money through the power of their votes. Think about it.

The concept of everyone in Washington being on-the-take is a dangerous narrative. It suggests that people like Jack and I were merely victims of our environment. Under that theory, we were just doing what everybody was doing, as if giving elected officials the gift of a free no-work, six-figure golf trip to Scotland is somehow the same as the Farm Bureau hosting an event on Capitol Hill or a community leader giving a congressman a free sweatshirt from his local university.