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Abramoff, PACs, and Campaign Financing

Abramoff is Out of Prison Just in Time to Witness the Buying of the Presidency

Last week it was reported that Jack Abramoff, the former lobbyist, businessman and movie producer who was indicted on charges of fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion after an extensive corruption investigation, will give a talk on ethics at The University of Texas at Austin on May 2. "You Don't Know Jack! A Conversation with Jack Abramoff” will be held at the AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center on the UT campus.

Abramoff, who served four years in federal prison after pleading guilty, will discuss the importance of ethics in government, as well as personal ethics as they relate to his own experiences. He will describe the pitfalls he didn’t see, what he didn’t do, how he came to the point of making only bad choices and how he came to realize his mistakes and work through them.

I don’t know about you but I have a problem with a convicted fraudster going on the speaker’s circuit and making money by telling listeners why and how s/he did what they were convicted of doing. It’s worse when that person gives advice on how to spot fellow-fraudsters. Perhaps it’s just me but the only way in my mind of justifying a speaking engagement for a fraudster is to donate the speaker’s fee to a worthy cause. On that comes to mind is The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.  This is a group of well-trained accountants, auditors, lawyers and investigators who examine incidents of fraud and provide expert information on the causes and results of such actions, and how to prevent and detect fraud in an organization.

Abramoff has the dubious “distinction” of having been involved in the most widespread influence-peddling scandal to date. On September 4, 2008, he was sentenced to a four-year term in federal prison for mail fraud, conspiracy, and tax-evasion charges stemming from an influence-peddling scandal in Washington, D.C. Lawmakers, lobbyists, Bush administration officials, congressional staffers, and businessmen got caught up in the Abramoff public corruption probe including former Ohio Representative Bob Ney (R-GA) who was sentenced to a 2 1/2 year prison term for taking bribes from Abramoff.

Abramoff was released from prison in June 2010 having been confined since November 2006. I guess he received four months off his sentence for good behavior. Perhaps he gave seminars in prison and counseled prisoners on the errors of their ways.

Abramoff has been trying to regain the notoriety he once had by establishing a promotional website and he began to charge for giving talks about corruption in Washington with titles like "How Lobbyists Shape Your Industry" and "Can Congress be Fixed?" Abramoff also made the rounds on talk shows like "Hannity," "60 Minutes," "The Early Show" and "Piers Morgan Tonight" in an attempt to rebrand himself as a whistleblower against corruption. He has a Facebook page and game app called "Congressional Jack," and a feature film called “Casino Jack.” The movie tells the story about how a band of amoral lobbyists and ideologues bought and sold favors from a slew of influential Republicans.

How timely it is that Jack’s lobbying entanglements seem to have ushered in an era of sanctioned influence peddling in Washington, D.C. During the past several months we watched as Political Action Committees (PAC) were used to influence the outcome of primary elections. Critics of Mitt Romney claim he paid for and bought the Republican nomination for President through the operations of his PAC.

We can thank a 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In the case, a bitterly divided court ruled 5 to 4 that the government may not ban independent political spending by corporations, as well as labor unions and other organizations, in candidate elections. The decision and subsequent court rulings led to tens of millions of dollars in donations -- often by wealthy individuals, of as much as $5 million at a time -- to super PACs supporting candidates in the Republican primaries.

We now live in a political campaign environment where there are no limits on how much cash can be raised and spent by anonymous donors seeking to influence elections and legislation. It is a world that would suit the old Jack Abramoff quite well. The 2012 presidential election is almost certain to be the most expensive in history, as the two main candidates set lofty fundraising goals and money floods in to “super PACs,’' independent political committees that have been supercharged by a series of court decisions.

The sad fact is that millions of Americans go hungry every night while politicians and their PACs and Super PAC’s spend outrageous amounts of money to influence a contest that is supposed to pick the next President of the US, a person who should represent all the people.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 16, 2012