Lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleads guilty and Washington trembles
To understand the nature of the Abramoff scandal that is now rocking Washington, it is especially helpful to look at the email files that John McCain and the US Senate Indian Affairs Committee have put on the Internet.1 These emails reveal a sordid, day-by-day account in Abramoff's own words documenting how he maneuvered government officials and others in Washington to transfer millions of dollars in fraudulent fees from his clients into the coffers of the political establishment in Washington (How Abramoff Spread the Wealth). The testimony during three committee hearings held from November 2004 through November 2005 and presented in the emails and other documents put on the Internet by the committee, help to create a portrait of political corruption that rivals any other in US history.
But this is not about a soap opera, or a who-dunne-it Hollywood style. Rather this is real documentation of what happens in Washington. What is rare is that the corruption that is usually concealed has been brought out into the open via the Internet and the Congressional Hearing process.
The announcement of Jack Abramoff's plea bargain with the Justice Department in Washington made on Tuesday, January 3, 2006, was followed by a plea bargain the following day in Florida. Abramoff admitted to criminal acts which include wire fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe various public officials.
Abramoff had been an influential Republican lobbyist. He was part of the transition team when Bush came to the White House in 2001. He was one of the elite group of 'pioneers', those fund raisers who raised more than $100,000 for Bush's reelection campaign. The documents describing the felonies that Abramoff agreed to in his plea bargain are also online. They document several forms of fraud and corruption of both political officials and political procedures (see for example: Plea Agreement or Allegations).
The guilty plea on these felony charges followed the plea bargains of several former associates, Michael Scanlon, Adam Tivor and David Safavian. Scanlon is a former staffer for Tom DeLay, Tivor was a businessman who bought Florida gambling casinos with Abramoff, and Safavian, a former Bush administration official, was chief of staff of the General Services Administration.
Abramoff's plea bargain referred to bribing at least one Congressman, though several others are concerned about whether they will be implicated. Just days after Abramoff's guilty pleas, Congressman Tom DeLay, who had already been indicted on charges in a Texas case, resigned his position as House Majority Leader. DeLay had asked that his leadership position in the House be held open for him while he tried to clear himself of the charges of election fraud he is facing in Texas. Because of DeLay ties to Abramoff, however, he was convinced by other Republicans that he had to resign from his leadership position.
Plethora of tactics
Hearings held by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs from 2004-2005, along with a large number of emails to and from Abramoff and various political cronies provide a detailed record of corrupt activities. These emails document the manipulation of government processes and power´for those who can and will pay, with the lobbyist middlemen as the beneficiaries.
The Abramoff saga includes for example, all expense paid junkets to resort vacations in the Marianas, a US territory kept free of labor regulation by the influence wielded in Congress and the administration by Abramoff on behalf of his clients, the Islands' factory owners. The saga includes the creation of various named NGOs to launder funds from Abramoff's clients to pass onto politicians for favors for those clients. The plethora of tactics Abramoff offered even includes direct mail campaigns to put pressure on government officials in case the other forms of influence were inadequate.
The pressure Abramoff and his cronies brought to bear on government officials with regard to regulation in the Marianas is an example of a nexus between Congress and the Bush administration and the Abramoff corruption. Since the Northern Mariana Islands are a US territory, clothing made there can have a label that says "Made in the USA". Name brand clothing manufacturers would use the factories there. Conditions in the factories, however, approached slave labor conditions, as workers were "indentured aliens" and had no labor rights. They were working to pay off the loans that they had taken to come to the islands. To maintain these conditions on behalf of his Island clients, Abramoff had numerous contacts with Bush administration officials, both when Bush was governor of Texas, and then when Bush took office in 2001.
A staffer for Abramoff, Patrick Pizzella, was appointed as an assistant Secretary of Labor by the Bush administration in 2001. Bush's reelection campaign also received contributions from Abramoff's Mariana clients, notably the owners of clothing factories. Congressional action to oppose efforts to extend minimum wage protection to workers on the Islands was opposed by those Abramoff supported, including Congressman DeLay, even though such legislation would worsen the labor environment for workers in their own states.
Visits to the factories in the Marianas were included as stops on trips to the Islands for politicians and public officials organized by Abramoff, as an example of free market success.2 Describing the contacts that Abramoff had with the Bush administration, an AP reporter, in a story in the Washington Post writes, "His team also had extensive access to Bush administration officials, meeting with Cheney policy advisers Ron Christie and Stephen Ruhlen, Ashcroft at the Justice Department, White House intergovernmental affairs chief Ruben Barrales, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles and others."3
There are other instances of how Abramoff's dealings reached into the White House itself. For example, a large corporation got contracts it wanted and was able to get department freezes lifted after intervention by Abramoff with White House officials. Visits to meet with Bush were also among the favors Abramoff provided for clients for a price. Another example is the meeting on May 26, 2004 between George Bush and Gabon's President Omar Bongo. Abramoff arranged for the meeting and the fees he sought from the African President's office of $9 million were to be paid to a small Maryland lobbying firm, GrassRoots Interactive, Abramoff was said to control. The New York Times reporter writing the story4 about this meeting commented that Gabon's "government is regularly accused by the United States of human rights abuses, as routine."
In November 2005, a letter was sent by the Democratic leader in the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) to the White House legal counselor requesting all the documents related to this meeting.
Is corruption endemic to the US government?
The list of the cronies that were part of Abramoff's wheeling and dealing reads like a Who's Who of the conservative right wing of the Republican Party. Journalist Robert Scheer predicts that this scandal "not Iraq...will unravel the Bush empire." An article in the Wall Street Journal predicts that there are 60 Congress people or staffers who are potentially exposed by their connections with Abramoff and his corrupt activities.
There is a widespread belief among the people in the US that such corruption is endemic to the US government. Many of these people would like to see the criminality punished. Those in Congress, particularly Republicans who do not want to be tainted by their association with the Abramoff scandal, see themselves in a serious quagmire. How do they give at least the appearance of cutting their ties to the corrupt activities that have been exposed by the Abramoff affair?
The set of hearings held by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, along with posting large files of emails and other documents on the Internet web site of the Committee, document Abramoff's day to day activities and thoughts. Making the record of the hearings and the email files public and available on the Internet, has helped to begin a process for public education and exposure of these practices. That will be necessary if any means is to be found to fight against such corruption of government. This scandal only reinforces the already widespread understanding that such corruption of government processes and officials is commonplace.
The Democratic Party has been trying for many years to hue a conservative path in order to compete against the corrupt Republicans. The exposure of the corruption also implicates many among them. A case in point is the Democratic Vice Chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Representative Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) received $60,000 in campaign funds from Abramoff. Also he inserted into a bill language in support of activity desired by one of Abramoff's clients. The question has been raised as to whether Dorgan should have had to recuse himself from the hearings, or at least make a statement indicating his possible involvement.5
The Justice Department promises a broad ranging investigation into the pattern of corruption revealed by the scandal. The investigation is, however, already tainted by the fact that the Justice Department spokesperson Alice Fisher, Assistant Attorney General, who announced the plea bargain agreement, was herself an interim appointment by the Bush administration sidestepping the appointment processes of Congress.6 While her appointment reflects the crony environment in Washington, along with the disdain for legitimate procedures, the fact that her official act has been to declare that "government is not for sale" shows the tenuousness of the governing structures in the US which are so imbued with corruption. The focus of the struggle within the Republican Party and the contest for who will replace DeLay is an opening salvo into the fight that is brewing between the "business as usual" set of cronies and those who recognize the need to give an appearance of cleaning up the shop.
Where is the press?
A serious question raised by all this is where is the press? While there have been general stories carried in various newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times over the course of the almost two year investigation into Abramoff's activities, very little understanding of the nature and scope of the scandal is being conveyed to the public by the media. For the most part, with the exception of journalists like Robert Scheer and a few others, this is being treated as an in-house affair. The emphasis in the US press has been put on whether the Republicans will bear the brunt of the scandal or whether Democrats will be drawn in. Speculating about an outcome rather than independently investigating and exposing new details and connections, is sadly the role of the US press.
A recent article in the Houston Chronicle acknowledged that something significant is at stake. The reporter wrote, "Bush was mute through Friday on the Abramoff scandal, which is shaping up to be a maelstrom with the potential to blow the roof off two particular houses." But for now few seem to recognize the deep crevice that has opened in the political landscape in Washington. A Wall Street Journal editorial on January 9, 2006, warned Republicans, "Our sense is that Republicans don't yet appreciate the trouble they're in."
Also journalists for media outside the US are beginning to recognize that there are huge stakes underlying the events taking place in Washington, and that it is important to identify the actual problem that such corruption in government represents. In an article in the Guardian of London, by Gary Younge, the columnist writes:
"So long as big money has bought up both sides of the aisle, the poor will never get a fair deal. Never mind the red and blue states: whoever you vote for, the green always wins...."
The word more and more used to describe the political scene in Washington DC is "stench." The bad odor is so strong because it has multiple sources. In US history such scandals have almost always put the arrow on the President. At least journalist Bob Scheer is predicting that Bush too is likely to share this fate. (Ronda Hauben)