A luxury skybox for sports fans in Congress. A dinner party that raises thousands of dollars for a political candidate. Helpful suggestions on how the guest of honor might phrase a letter to the president or a Cabinet secretary.
Alone and even in modest combinations, all are examples of business as usual in Washington’s billion-dollar world of government, lobbying and campaign finance.
What makes it work is discretion.
What’s blown the lid on it now is lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s excesses.
It’s the unwritten rules as much as the written ones that Abramoff broke: Don’t gloat, don’t be too greedy, don’t say out loud what you’re doing, and don’t ever, ever, put in writing what you don’t have to.
‘A big difference’
There is one other clear difference between Abramoff’s actions and those of other lobbyists.
“He defrauded his clients. That’s a big difference,” said Kathleen Clark, a government ethics expert at the Washington University law school in St. Louis.
Abramoff, who faces up to 11 years in prison after pleading guilty last week to conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion charges, also got caught. A maze of campaign finance laws and lobbying rules makes it hard to prove a lawmaker took an official action under a “quid pro quo” agreement with a generous lobbyist.
“The scandal with Abramoff is just the enormity of it,” said Roberta Baskin, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a private ethics watchdog group. “Who knows if there are others like him out there or not.”
If so, it’s unlikely they had all of Abramoff’s trappings:
- Foreign golf trips arranged for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and the chairman of the House Administration Committee, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio.
- Fundraisers at his skybox or at his upscale Signatures restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue exactly half way between the Capitol and the White House.
- Job offers for top Bush administration officials and senior aides of congressional leaders and committee chairmen.
“He’s exceptional in that he was pushing so many levers at once,” said Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.
Abramoff’s plea deal
More may be known soon.
Under a plea deal with federal prosecutors, Abramoff’s e-mails and other documents will be the stuff of federal court proceedings that will expose the mysterious and protected world of Washington lobbying.
Because the law requires limited transparency of lobbyist-lawmaker dealings, the differences between Abramoff and other lobbyists are not entirely clear.
Lobbyists, legislators, campaign fundraisers and presidential appointees frequently wear different hats over the course of their careers. It’s been pretty much that way since the nation’s beginning. Even public integrity watchdogs acknowledge that lobbyists, properly regulated, are important advocates in the American system of government.
The ethical boundaries get blurred when people play two or more parts, often in the same day.
Quid pro quo
Rainmakers raise colossal amounts of money that candidates need to wage and win campaigns. Lobbyists try to persuade lawmakers and presidentially appointed officials to take actions that benefit their clients. Often they are one and the same.
What is hard to prove is whether lobbyists press officials — and whether the officials agree — to pony up these official acts out of gratitude for campaign money or other gifts of value, such as skybox seats and exotic trips. The law says such a quid pro quo only can be proved when explicitly uttered or written down.
Hence, the unwritten rules: Whatever events or contributions might have preceded a public policy decision that benefits the lobbyist’s clients, don’t talk about it and don’t put anything in writing that isn’t required.
Abramoff violated both, and the law, in vivid detail.
“Is life great or what!!” he exulted in an e-mail to an associate with whom he pocketed $66 million from six American Indian tribes seeking influence in Washington.
‘$2 million for each of us’
In a series of e-mails and other documents, Abramoff explained that in 2002 he and an associate secretly funneled millions of dollars to consultant Ralph Reed, a former Christian Coalition leader, to help shut down a Texas casino operated by the Tigua Indians.
Then Abramoff persuaded the Tiguas to hire him and his associate, public relations consultant Michael Scanlon, to help reopen the casino.
“The annoying losers are the only ones which have this kind of money and part with it so quickly,” Abramoff wrote to Scanlon.
Abramoff also explained how some of the money would be doled out: “He (Scanlon) divided the $5 million into three piles: $1 million for actual expenses and $2 million for each of us.”