CAMBRIDGE, MA — On Tuesday night, disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an invited guest of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center For Ethics, for the first event in a series at the center featuring interviews with “the guilty, not the innocent or inspirational.”As you may have heard, Abramoff, having served his time in prison, has been attempting a kind of rehabilitation tour. He’s got a book out. He’s been doing interviews. (He spoke with TPM last month.) He’s Tweeting.
In his conversation with Professor Lawrence Lessig, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center, Abramoff was by turns genial, contrite, wry, and reflective. He seemed more like a lovable yet hopeless uncle than the villain at the center of one of the biggest D.C. corruption scandals ever — although of course there’s no reason he can’t be both. (Abramoff couldn’t help but smirk when Lessig introduced him as “America’s most famous, perhaps infamous, lobbyist.”)
“I’ve got some role to play in solving this problem,” Abramoff said, when asked by an audience member to explain “why you’re doing what you’re doing right now.”
“It’s a problem, I’ve come to recognize it as a problem,” Abramoff went on. “I mean, you all recognize it intuitively right now, I’m pained that I didn’t… And not only didn’t I recognize it, I was in it. And not only was I in it, I might have led it.”
Lessig opened the event saying “we’re not here to re-litigate the guilt or innocence of a lobbyist,” and instead saying Abramoff was there “to help all of us understand a bit more a system that practically none of us respect.” Lessig, a law professor who is well known for his work on copyright and technology issues, has turned his attention to “institutional corruption” in recent years. In 2010, Lessig launched the Edmond J. Safra Research Lab, a five-year project at the Center for Ethics that seeks to understand corruption at a range of institutions.
Once things got rolling, Lessig asked Abramoff if he had a sense of how the relationship between money and politics had changed over the years. Abramoff said that he thought things used to be “less subtle.”
“When LBJ would call you in, there wouldn’t be any niceties, he’d say ‘where’s your hundred thousand dollars?'” Abramoff said. “I think today one of the ways that members of Congress get around feeling horrible about themselves is they’re subtle… ‘Gee, by the way, I’m having a fundraiser next Tuesday night, just in case you happen to be in the room with extra money falling out of your pocket.'”
Lessig also asked Abramoff if his practice of hiring and looking to influence congressional staffers (“I always hired staff, because the staff were hungry and they were killers”) was a personal innovation.
“I didn’t innovate anything,” Abramoff answered. “As I look back on my career of infamy… I learned everything I did. I may have pushed over the normal boundaries, which is what in part got me in trouble. But there are a lot of smart people in Washington, and they think of everything. And one of the reasons lobbyists laugh at most of the efforts to reform the system is because they know that no matter what is thrown at them, by the people throwing it at them, they are going to recover.”
Around a half hour into the talk, Lessig noted that none of the issues that Abramoff has been speaking out about lately “have anything to do with those particular crimes” for which he was convicted.
“There are very few criminals in the system,” Abramoff said in response. “There are very few Randy Cunninghams, and Bill Jeffersons and Jack Abramoffs. I just couldn’t care where the line was, I was going to win. So I just kept going. There aren’t a lot of people like that… The problem that I try to focus people on is that it’s not what’s illegal that’s the problem, it’s what’s legal that’s the problem. The lines in the sand are so ridiculously drawn, one would actually have to ask oneself, ‘well, why would you even need to go over those lines if they’re so absurd?’ And that’s a good question that I hope one day to answer for myself.”
At one point, Lessig posed a hypothetical: say the reforms Abramoff is now promoting were all enacted, and Lessig hired Abramoff-the-lobbyist to push some special interest legislation, what would Abramoff do to work around the new rules? Abramoff asked for a clarification.
“Well, you’re hiring the Jack Abramoff that’s not going to break the law?” he said, drawing laughs from the audience.
Later on, when Lessig again pressed Abramoff on the reform ideas he came up with in the clink, Abramoff seemed a little hesitant to wade in too deep.
“It’s hard for me to drill into the details of this, because I didn’t create my book in that way,” he said.
Near the end of the event, during a question and answer session, Abigail Brown, a fellow at the Safra Center, asked Abramoff to “walk us through how you go about corrupting” a member of Congress. Abramoff began by saying that freshmen lawmakers, saddled with campaign debt and needing money, are introduced to lobbyists by party leadership, who want to retain those seats.
But then Abramoff changed directions, and described something deeper.
“If somebody does something for you, and you’re a decent person, what’s the thing that you’re going to think in your mind? ‘Hey, that person did something nice for me,'” he said. “Now you can either be a jerk and just say ‘I hate them,’ so if you do something nice for me I hate you — a lot of parents complain that sometimes kids act like that — or you can be a decent person… That’s how it starts.”