WASHINGTON — Of all the places where disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff has been spotted since emerging from prison more than a year ago, his appearance Monday was surely the most unlikely of locales.
Seated beneath a floor-to-ceiling banner headlined with the phrase “Standing Up To Corporate Power,” Abramoff told Public Citizen President Robert Weissman he wants to be “helpful” in cleaning up the influence industry in which he was a power player until his political corruption conviction in 2006.
The government watchdog group represents the kind of accountability advocates that he once disdained — “frankly, those in this building,” he said, peering out over an audience that also included several members of the Sunlight Foundation. Now, he said, his personal recovery includes reaching out to these organizations.
“If somebody told me a number of years ago that I’d be in this building, speaking to you… I would probably not believe them,” Abramoff said as he started discussing four concerns he believes both Republicans and Democrats can tackle in the lobbying industry.
First, Abramoff argued, no lobbyist should be able to contribute to a political campaign. “Period. Not a dollar.”
He pointed to GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich as the poster boy for his next concern: That there exists a “revolving door” between public servants and “cashing in on the influence industry.” Those in federal office should not be allowed to walk off Capitol Hill and onto K Street, Abramoff said.
Gingrich has been criticized for accepting more than $1.6 million in consulting fees from housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In his opening remarks, Abramoff took a swipe at the former House speaker, joking lobbyists today can be considered history professors if you twist the definition enough.
Abramoff’s third point reinforced that so-called “congressional insider trading” should be explicitly banned. The Senate on Thursday passed a bill that would prohibit federal lawmakers from trading stocks based on private knowledge gained while working on Capitol Hill.
And Abramoff said lobbying reform should include term limits for anyone in the industry who may become too accustomed to its dirty tricks and backroom corruption.
But he stopped short of vowing to bring down the next Jack Abramoff, saying he would not wish prison time on his own “worst enemy.”
“Having gone through what I went through, having my family torn to shreds, I can’t be the agent of doing that to someone else,” he said.
Afterward, Weissman said he believes Abramoff when he says he wants to curb unsavory lobbying practices.
However, Weissman conceded there are issues on which Public Citizen and Abramoff are fundamentally split. Abramoff told the audience he still considers himself a conservative and his political beliefs “haven’t changed in their entirety.”
Weissman said that although his group had invited Abramoff to speak, it has not coordinated any further events or reform efforts with Abramoff.
“He’s going around and putting forward a good message,” Weissman said. “For now, as best as I can tell, he means it.”
The appearance highlighted Abramoff’s recent transition to an even more inconceivable role: Special-interest watchdog.
Late last year, he launched a media tour to promote his tell-all book, “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist.” On Monday, Abramoff insisted he has only made “a few thousand dollars” off the tome since he never received an advance on it.
He added he’s been living off loans from personal friends and writing on the side, as well as toying with returning to Hollywood, where he once was a producer and writer, and “working very hard on putting together businesses related to the political arena.”
“It’s hard,” Abramoff said. “It’s hard for a felon in America to make money, to be honest with you.”
Abramoff’s pleas for sympathy did little to sway audience member Tom Rodgers. Rodgers, a Native American lobbyist, is also known as the main whistleblower in the scandal that landed Abramoff in a federal prison for three and a half years.
Abramoff was convicted on fraud and corruption charges stemming from lavishing lawmakers with trips to England and Scotland while misleading Native American tribes that were paying him millions to lobby for their casinos.
In an interview afterward, Rodgers said Abramoff’s recent appearances have revolved around three words: “Buy this book.”
“The statements Jack have made about the Native American population and his role have either been rooted in fiction or an excuse,” he said. “Fiction as in what he did — ‘Oh, I was very charitable.’ That’s because you raised money from us under fraudulent pretenses and then using it for your charitable items that you thought were charitable.”
Another chapter in Abramoff’s personal rehabilitation tour was unveiled Friday, when he was named a lead blogger at the newly launched Republic Report, which aims to expose financial corruption in politics.
But on Monday, Abramoff was still plagued by skepticism that he’s a changed man.
When asked why the audience should take anything he says seriously, Abramoff said he’s not trying to win a popularity contest.
“As to whether or not I changed,” he continued, “it’s going to be impossible for you to read what’s in my heart.”