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January 11, 2012

Thinking of Abramoff

If Mitch McConnell is the mother of all madams in the whorehouse that is Congress, Jack Abramoff was the godfather among lobbyists. His selection as the keynote speaker for state lawmakers’ mandatory orgy on ethics last week was a big frickin’ deal. After all, he committed some of the biggest frickins in Washington. Frickins big enough to fill books, documentaries, a movie starring Kevin Spacey and a “60 Minutes” segment.

In 2006, the government made the godfather an offer he couldn’t refuse: He pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy, then served three-and-a-half years in a minimum-security prison.

He’s hailed as a migrant from the dark side uniquely qualified to beat the devil. But we’re conflicted — unsure he really wants to fix the broken system that enriched him. He proposes a remedy, yet we wonder if it’s a poison pill worthy of Machiavelli or McConnell.

We’re skeptical because he’s made a fortune exploiting loopholes and losers. Now he’s free to capitalize on his criminal celebrity. We’re jaded by the likes of Bernie Madoff. Abramoff isn’t so radioactive. He’s charmingly, charismatically controversial.

It was his first paid address to a state legislature. For the first time, the annual ethics training was open to the media, but lawmakers would submit questions anonymously, in writing. The stage was set for some unprecedented, unscripted moments.

The best came with the first question. “Are you not still using us and the system? I do not agree with using Kentucky taxpayer money to pay you. How much is your fee for this talk?”

John Schaaf, general counsel of the Legislative Ethics Commission, took a candid stand. “It was $5,000,” standard for the speech. “I think it’s a worthwhile expenditure. I made the decision, and if any of you disagree with it, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”

Meanwhile, Abramoff contritely confessed how well he understood and exploited human nature to infiltrate 400 congressional offices. How his fundraising won access to debt-ridden freshmen. How he co-opted staffers aspiring to lobby. How his firm became the Ticketmaster for sporting events in Washington. And how easy it is to seduce virtuous public servants.

“When you do a favor for somebody, when you give somebody something, if that person is a decent person, that person’s gonna have gratitude,” he said.

And therein lies the rub: Lobbyists rely on favors to win influence with people, and that subverts service in the public interest.

Thus Abramoff said no lawmaker should be permitted to take anything from lobbyists, their clients or seekers of contracts. He urges term limits for Congress members and their staffers. Washington is an arrogant place you should escape before you get mugged or mug someone.

“I was so deeply enmeshed and immersed in this system that I didn’t realize that I was doing some really bad stuff until someone hit me on the head with a two-by-four,” he said. Reforms, such as modest ones enacted in the wake of his scandal, are meaningless unless they’re systemic.

His recipe for real reform includes a bipartisan agenda, signed pledges to co-sponsor and push it and “get their grassroots organized and come march into town like an army.”

Nobody seems to believe that will happen. Abramhoff himself repeatedly reminded lawmakers how clever and cocky lobbyists are.

By turns, Abramoff gave an amusing, authentic, uplifting and depressing presentation. To the extent he enlightened the vulnerability of ordinary people to dark and powerful forces, it was priceless.