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Casino Jack On Ridding Money's Political Influence


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes, we will speak with Jack Marshall. He is a professional ethicist. We want to talk about the Penn State scandal and we wanted to ask even if some people adhere to the letter of the law, did they follow an ethical standard?

But first, back with a man who's faced ethics challenges of his own, former lobbyist, Jack Abramoff. He spent three years in federal prison on corruption charges. He's now out and he's talking about what he learned from that time in his life. We're also talking about his new book, "Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist."

Let's talk about the reforms that you think are needed here, based on your experience. Is there a reform that you can envision that would diminish or eliminate the influence of money in the American political system?

JACK ABRAMOFF: Absolutely. You know, Michel, when I was in prison, I started thinking about how to fix the system that is there because, obviously, throwing Jack Abramoff in jail didn't clean up the system. It gave everybody an opportunity to pat each other on the back. But anybody who thinks that everything was taken care of at that point, I think, is naive.

So I put my lobbyist hat on, actually, as I paced the track at the prison. And I started to think through what would I, as a lobbyist, hate and stop in terms of reform? Because the reform they do now is a joke and they purposely, frankly, go through these little charades and exercises.

MARTIN: Yeah? Why?

ABRAMOFF: Well, because they want to show the American people that they're cleaning up Washington, which of course they don't want to because they're the beneficiaries with perquisites and all the largess that's coming their way. Or, worse, they want to be lobbyists when they're done.

So, the very people who are passing these rules are looking forward to featherbed going on. And so, I started thinking, what would I put in place that would really hurt them and what would I put in place that I would try to stop? And I came up with certain things.

Number one, I would shut the revolving door between public service and cashing in totally. Meaning not this two-year moratorium on lobbying, which is nonsense, anyway, because they join the lobbying firm and they just communicate with their friends on the Hill, saying, oh, well, I can't lobby you myself because, you know, I have a ban, but you can talk to my friend Sally. She can lobby you. And they get around it.

What I would do is say, you can't draw a check from a lobbying organization to lobby if you are in fact a congressman or if you are a staffer on Capitol Hill.

MARTIN: Forever?

ABRAMOFF: Period. Forever. Number two, the nexus of money to these decisions has got to be separate. We have to cut the money out. So, how would I do that? There's a lot of talk about campaign finance reform and public campaign financing, things like that. I have a more simple step, which is as follows. If you're a lobbyist or you hire a lobbyist or you're at the public trough getting government grants or contracts or whatever, you can't give one dollar politically, federally. If you make the choice yourself to do that, then you have given up the choice to give politically.

And I have a few others, also. For example, I used to be against term limits, all right, as a lobbyist and also, you know, I'd dress it up in thinking, well, you know, people should be able to vote for whomever they wanted. But the truth is, once you've bought an office, if you're a lobbyist, you don't have to go buy that office again if somebody new is coming in every few years. It's very disruptive to the lobbyists, which is good. So, I think that new blood, new people coming in and out of town, I think, is a good thing.

And then one of the other ones I talk about is that the laws they pass in Congress have got to be applied to them. We've all seen, in the recent days, this insider trader thing, which is an outrage. And, you know, I think everybody inside knows that this is going on. They have all this information. They have worse than insider information, I think. Insider information in companies, you know what the company's doing. You work in the company. These people know what's going to happen in these companies before it ever happens. So, that's the kind of thing that I would put into...

MARTIN: Banning people from trading in areas that they're legislating?

ABRAMOFF: Yeah. And every bill that they pass on anybody else applies to them.

MARTIN: Well, finally, before we let you go - and thank you for coming. Do you have some thoughts about the presidential campaign coming forward? I mean, there are a couple of candidates, one in particular whom you mention in the book, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who's recently surging in the polls. And at the same time, he's had some harsh things to say about executives at those mortgage - the government - well, it's hard to describe Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but then he also was - it's been revealed that he had something like $300,000 from one of them or more than that.

ABRAMOFF: No. Much, much more.

MARTIN: Almost two million?


MARTIN: Your thoughts about that?

ABRAMOFF: Well, I'm sorry to say - I like Newt - but I'm sorry to say that's corruption. I mean, it may not be illegal, again, but he may not - I doubt he broke the law. I don't know the details, but I doubt it. The problem is that he didn't break the law. That's the problem. This is exactly the kind of cashing in on public service that I'm talking about.

Now, he's essentially claiming he's not lobbying. I don't know whether that's true or not. Some of the people over at Fannie Mae are saying differently. By the way, there's - on the other side, there's Solyndra and things like that going on that are also obvious signs of corruption.

What I try to do in the book and what I'm trying to say is it isn't productive to point to - oh, it's Republicans. Oh, it's Democrats. Oh, it's this guy or that gal. Everybody falls prey to these. We've got to change these rules.

MARTIN: Jack Abramoff's new memoire is titled "Capitol Punishment." In it, he describes how he became the center of a Washington scandal that led to political resignations and jail time. And he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Mr. Abramoff, thank you so much for joining us.

ABRAMOFF: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.