Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Convicted lobbyist's prescription for cleaning up Washington


Who better to suggest reform among the lobbyists and lawmakers around us than a lobbyist who just got out of federal prison?

That honor goes to Jack Abramoff, the former Greenberg Traurig lobbyist who made headlines over the last few years for his exploits with members of Congress and a number of Indian tribes that were out to protect their gambling operations.

Abramoff has several connections to Florida:

• He worked for Greenberg Traurig, one of the state's best known law firms with offices in Miami, Tallahassee, Tampa, Washington and lots of other places. Abramoff writes that he knew Greenberg Traurig was going to be the right place for him when Fred Baggett, the Tallahassee lobbyist who is director of government affairs for the law firm, explained how they operated.

"At our firm, we believe it's better to seek forgiveness than ask for permission,'' Abramoff quoted Baggett. "To me, that meant, 'Act now and we'll figure out the consequences later.' Finally I had found a firm that thought just like me.''

Asked about the quote recently, Baggett said he doesn't recall the comment.

"That was 12 years ago and I'm an old man, my memory doesn't hold like it used to,'' Baggett added. "And what I've got to say about him, you couldn't print.''

Greenberg Traurig is among the victims due $15.6 million in court ordered restitution from Abramoff. Most of the others are Indian tribes who paid Abramoff to win favors from Congress.

• Former U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, was defeated in a 2008 re-election bid after word got out that Abramoff took Feeney along on a $160,000 trip to play golf in Scotland shortly after he helped Abramoff with an energy client. Feeney, a former Florida House speaker recently named president of Associated Industries of Florida, paid the government more than $5,600 for the cost of the trip and was never charged with a crime. He did lose his seat in Washington.

• Guy Boullis, owner of SunCruz gambling boats, was murdered in South Florida in 2001 after he sold an interest in the gambling business to Abramoff and a partner. Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud charges in connection with the business and his partner fingered out of town mobsters for the murder.

In Capitol Punishment, Abramoff's recent book, the notorious lobbyist outlines the life he lived in Washington, his ties to antitax guru Grover Norquist and Christian Coalition figure Ralph Reed and others, as well as deals with clients and Congress. Money was apparently no object as he and other lobbyists worked to help their clients get whatever they wanted out of government.

"I was the one who lavished contributions, meals, event tickets, travel, golf and jobs on innumerable federal public officials with the expectation or understanding that they would take official actions on my behalf or on behalf of my clients. … Those activities added to the corruption which engulfs our nation's capital, and I'm not proud of my part in it.''

After describing the more than four years he spent thinking about all this in federal prison serving time for fraud, Abramoff offered advice for others.

"Inevitably, I decided those who rail against the connection between money and politics were right,'' Abramoff wrote. Instead of limiting contributions to candidates, he wrote, we should instead entirely eliminate any contribution from those who lobby government, get federal contracts or otherwise financially benefit from public funds.

Lobbyists should also be banned from all gift giving as well. Instead of limiting the amount a lobbyist can spend on a lawmaker and their staff while wining and dining them, "eliminate it entirely,'' Abramoff suggests.

"No finger food, no snacks, no hot dogs. Nothing. If you are going to lobby the federal government, take from the treasury, or work as a contractor, you shouldn't be permitted to give one penny to any elected official or staff, including the executive branch. Remove all temptations. Eradicate even the scent of impropriety.''

Next, he wrote, we should eliminate the revolving door. If you serve as a lawmaker, you should be "barred for life from working for any company, organization, or association which lobbies the federal government,'' Abramoff suggests. "That may seem harsh — and it is. But there's a reason. Congressmen know better than anyone how to get around a ban on lobbying. They "consult.''

If you choose public service, choose it to serve the public, not your bank account, Abramoff suggests. When you are done serving, go home. Get a real job.

As a lobbyist, Abramoff opposed term limits lest he loose his valuable contacts, but he now concludes that letting people stick around for decades "is a recipe for disaster.''

Taking his suggestions one step further, Abramoff says lawmakers should be barred from proposing, lobbying for and perhaps even voting on projects in their home districts.

And lawmakers should have to follow the laws they pass for others. No more exemptions from laws that others must follow.

Abramoff realizes his suggestions will not be taken kindly, in Tallahassee or Washington.

Perhaps they hit a little too close to home.

Lucy Morgan is a senior correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times. She can be reached at [email protected]

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