Just over 14 years ago, The Washington Post began dropping its jilted-lover inspired bombshell stories on the Jack Abramoff lobbying affair. The Post’s stories led to literally thousands of additional follow-up pieces from just about every publication on the planet. The pieces led to congressional hearings, finger pointing at others and plenty of guilt by association. There were books and movies. There were approximately two dozen criminal convictions — including myself.
As one of Jack’s lieutenants, I unfortunately had a very public front row seat to this mess that lasted, for me personally, for nearly a decade. It changed my life in many ways — finances, profession, friendships and of course, my criminal record. Most importantly, it also changed some individuals’ perceptions of my character.
If you look at the Justice Department’s kill sheet, there is one common thread in nearly all the convictions. Team Abramoff gave a stream of “things of value” (or “TOVs” as the prosecutors and FBI agents on the case liked to say) to government officials to build relationships in an effort to influence “official actions.” The Abramoff case was not about traditionally bribery — a fact many pea-brains in the mainstream media who write about Abramoff get wrong to this day. It’s far more subtle.
DoJ’s go-to statute for this sort of gamesmanship is Honest Services Fraud. Most legal scholars — including the Supreme Court — have had difficulty keeping up with the evolving definition and application of this statute. What’s clear is that it’s so vaguely written that prosecutors can warp it any way they want. Thus, it can be applied to just about anything involving politics. That’s why it has been used in nearly every major political scandal in recent memory — Senator Menendez, Governors McDonnell and Blagojevic, etc. More concisely, it has been broadly interpreted, requires a very low bar to prove and it has real teeth as far as the sentencing guidelines are concerned.
Debating the merits and fairness of Honest Services Fraud is a conversation for another day. What’s not debatable, is that its application by the Justice Department must be evenly distributed — and that’s definitely in question right now.
Last Thursday the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General released a report that says FBI agents received TOV (“things of value,” remember) from reporters which included “tickets to sporting events, golfing outings, drinks and meals, and admittance to nonpublic social events.” The inspector general went on to say that it “…will separately report on those investigations as they are concluded, consistent with the Inspector General Act, other applicable federal statutes, and OIG policy.”
When I read that section from the report I literally spit out my Diet Coke because, well, that’s what I (and my colleagues) were accused of. And we paid a pretty high public price.
First, unlike today, many of the TOV Team Abramoff handed out weren’t even against ethic rules at the time given our client base. The gift ban rules were tightened in 2006 after the national Democratic Party and the Beltway press bubble ran on the “Culture of Corruption” to accuse and point fingers at every GOPer in Abramoff’s orbit. (Oddly, Abramoff ran a bipartisan firm at two different law firms, but only Republicans were in the media crosshairs).
Second, it’s clear the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General knows the name of these agents. Why are the identities of these agents — and the names of the reporters and the names of the press organizations — kept secret?
If lobbyists or congressional staffers break the rules, their names are blasted across every press-outlet in D.C. They lose business. Their reputations and probably their jobs.
That is not fair.
Third, this latest scandal isn’t the first time the Justice Department has acted to protect its own. Remember the case of Senator Ted Stevens? Prosecutors knowingly withheld exculpatory evidence and destroyed him. These prosecutors were suspended for 40 and 15 days respectively in 2012, but did not lose their jobs. Not surprisingly, a swampy government system known as the Merit Systems Protection Board partially cleared these guys two years later in 2014. I’m assuming they still practice law. I would love to hear Senator Stevens comments about this decision, but he unfortunately died in a plane crash in 2010. (This piece from Business Insider has more background if you want a quick refresh of the post-Stevens backstabbing fest that occurred after the Department of Justice’s actions were made public).
Senator Chuck Grassley: The individual names at the DOJ and news organizations need to be unmasked because the definitions within what is appropriate behavior are well stated in the U.S. Code. The inspector general’s report claims there were 330 undocumented instances of unauthorized communication with the media. You have been around town long enough to know that these reporters weren’t plying government officials with TOV for their health. They were seeking information, and according to past uses of Honest Services Fraud in recent criminal prosecutions, giving information (particularly embargoed information) or guidance is an overt act.
I am speculating now, but even if these 330 leaks don’t line up with a TOV from a news organization, clearly, they were against FBI federal employment contracts. Simply because someone calls themselves a “reporter” and not a “lobbyist” doesn’t mean they can break the rules, because they are often seeking the same thing — information and access. I have written about this issue from the government lawyer perspective in the past.
Sen. Grassley has long advocated for more transparency from our nation’s justice system, and this is one time where the information is needed more than ever. As Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Grassley can’t fix the culture of the Justice Department and FBI and reestablish balance, if you don’t understand how broken it really is.
Finally, although it’s been over 10 years ago now, many in the Beltway speculation bubble tried to tie my friendship and working relationship with representatives and senators as something nefarious. Most may not remember all the details of the accusations, but I sure as hell do. And they were flat out false. Given what’s transpired the last two years with President Trump, Comey, McCabe and the DOJ/FBI leak factory, I’m beginning to believe the worse about our justice system.
The playing field is not level when it comes to internal maleficence at the Justice Department and how they apply the law to the outside. Their political mouthpieces and defenders who argue otherwise are either partisan hacks or defenders of the establishment at the Department of Justice.
Todd A. Boulanger is a longtime Republican operative.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.