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2006-03-30

Abramoff Sentenced to 70 Months in Prison As Senate Passes Lobbying Reform Bill That Excludes Campaign Finance

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The Senate has overwhelmingly approved imposing new rules governing the relations between lawmakers and lobbyists. The ninety to eight vote came just hours after former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff was sentenced to nearly six years in jail. We speak with Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause. [includes rush transcript]

On Capitol Hill, the Senate has overwhelmingly approved imposing new rules governing the relations between lawmakers and lobbyists. The ninety to eight vote came just hours after former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff was sentenced to nearly six years in jail.

Under the bill, lobbyists would no longer be allowed to shower Senators with meals and gifts. Lobbyists would be required to disclose more about their dealings with lawmakers. And it will become harder for Senators to insert pet projects and laws into spending bills at the behest of lobbyists.

But critics say the Senate could have done much more to break the stranglehold lobbyists have on lawmakers.

Two of the Senate’s most vocal advocates for lobbying reform–Democrat Russ Feingold and Republican John McCain–both voted against the bill which McCain described as "very, very weak."

This is in part because the Senate decided not to address one of the most pressing issues–campaign finance. According to the New York Times, the bill does little to break the link between lobbyists and lawmakers’ money-raising machines. The bill steers clear of regulating the fund-raising activities of lobbyists. This will allow lobbyists to continue running political action committees for the same lawmakers they hope to influence and to peddle campaign donations to lawmakers via their clients.

The Senate vote came just hours after Jack Abramoff was sentenced to 70 months in prison on fraud charges stemming from his purchase of a Florida casino. Abramoff is still awaiting sentencing on federal charges of bribing government officials and defrauding at least four Native American tribes out of tens of millions of dollars. Abramoff is at the heart of what is turning out to be one of the largest Congressional scandals in history.

  • Chellie Pingree, president and CEO of Common Cause, a national non-partisan advocacy organization.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk about the Senate vote on lobbying and the sentencing of Jack Abramoff, we’re joined in Washington, D.C. by Chellie Pingree, President of Common Cause. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

CHELLIE PINGREE: Thank you. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Chellie, before we talk about this, I wanted to ask you a quick question.

CHELLIE PINGREE: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: And that is about a recent speech that you gave.

CHELLIE PINGREE: Sure. You want to hear about my visit to Michigan?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes.

CHELLIE PINGREE: Yeah, what was interesting, you know, what could be more mom and apple pie than Common Cause and the League of Women Voters? And I went to a very small town outside of Chicago for a forum on Freedom of Information and sunshine laws, and talked about the PATRIOT Act and a variety of things that are, you know, on people’s minds today, and after it appeared in the newspaper, the head of the local League of Women Voters got a call from the F.B.I. saying that we had mischaracterized the PATRIOT Act. He thought it was inappropriate that we didn’t have someone from the federal government there to debate, and I just have to say, again, you know, it’s about as wonky and boring as you can get sometimes to have a group of people who are willing to come out on a — you know, in an evening to talk about these issues, and for the F.B.I. to be calling up the League of Women Voters and Common Cause and saying maybe we ought to curtail our speech was certainly what seemed to be inappropriate and bordered on intimidation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Did they offer to supply speakers, as well, become booking agents for the PATRIOT Act?

CHELLIE PINGREE: They did, and I have to say, Kay Maxwell, who is the national president of the League of Women Voters, and I were in a meeting yesterday and, you know, both of us had to remark, ’Doesn’t the F.B.I. have more important things to do than worrying about people like us talking about Freedom of Information and sunshine laws?’ I think what’s troubling about it is it really shows how far off the map some of these agencies are, and, you know, we’re probably above intimidation, but think of the people who are being put in positions that are made to feel uncomfortable. This is about democracy. We weren’t even talking about the war in Iraq or anything that’s, you know, challenging sort of issues in our country. We were just talking about how people get access to information.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about Jack Abramoff. And let us know afterwards if you get any calls after the program.

CHELLIE PINGREE: Yeah, I know. You’d think I would after this, but, you know, who knows?

AMY GOODMAN: But tell us about the sentencing of Jack Abramoff. Looks like he is sentenced to something like six years in prison.

CHELLIE PINGREE: Right, and it was somewhat lenient, based on both the fact that he was very remorseful and, as you know, has been cooperating with federal officials, revealing a tremendous amount of information that still has people nervous here in Washington and that has started to implicate some other members of Congress and staff, but is likely to go much further.

But what I thought was interesting, as you were talking about the convergence here of the Senate passing somewhat of a weak bill and Abramoff being sentenced on the same day, he’s the man whose scandals have really cracked open stories about many things that people didn’t understand were going on in Washington. Here you have Abramoff, already on the path to redemption, and Congress, who should be looking for redemption from their constituents and probably have much more redeeming to do, not going nearly far enough, so maybe our criminal gets redeemed first, and it takes Congress a little bit longer to really do what the American public is expecting them to do.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does this tie into lobbying laws, the lobbying law that was just passed?

CHELLIE PINGREE: Well, the sentencing of Abramoff is not unrelated to the separate sentencing that will also go on in Washington that is about corruption and bribery, but as you mentioned, this was about gambling cruise ship lines, and he’s actually being sentenced there for fraudulently attempting to access loans. But there was a tie between him, his operation down there, and representative Ney who put something in the Congressional record to try to smooth this deal, so these things are not unrelated, and it could get more sordid as we find out more of the details.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Of course, he has — he is cooperating and there is a lot of concern, I’m sure, in the halls of Congress about what he is going to be telling law enforcement officials about his — what he did in Washington. Your sense of the impact of this on any efforts or continuing efforts to reform the way business is done there?

CHELLIE PINGREE: Well, I think it was John McCain, who said yesterday when he voted against the lobbying bill that was put forward, he said, 'The good news is there will be more indictments.' And you got a very responsive Congress when things make them nervous enough, but give them a little bit of space, as they’ve gotten from the last set of allegations that came out around Abramoff and they started to get a little bit too comfortable.

So, in a sense, the good news is Jack Abramoff is talking. He’s going to stay out of jail for another 90 days to keep cooperating, and basically they got all his emails. There are boxes and boxes of information being stored and gone through right now, so chances are we’re going to hear a lot more about how far these scandals went into the offices of members of Congress, their staffs, the executive branch offices. I think there’s much more that we’re going to hear.

AMY GOODMAN: Chellie Pingree, talk more about what you came to understand about Jack Abramoff, as the story broke about the representation of, or misrepresentation of Native American tribes, about the extent to which his relationship — how far his relationship went with, for example, Tom DeLay, now indicted.

CHELLIE PINGREE: Right. Well, as you know, Tom DeLay at one point said Jack Abramoff was one of his closest friends. Of course, everyone today is trying to pretend that they didn’t meet Jack Abramoff, they don’t know him. Representative Ney is saying he was duped, he didn’t understand what he was putting in the congressional record, but I think it will be clear, as we see more and more revelations and as more indictments come out and more comes out from the Justice Department, that there were very close ties and that, frankly, many members of Congress, in the House and the Senate, were assisting him in his efforts to help certain Native American tribes, basically directly related to gambling.

He was interested in helping some tribes beat out other tribes in this very, very lucrative business of gambling and the rules around that, and it was extremely far-reaching. Again, there’s much more that we’re going to learn, but a lot of this started to come out when Senator McCain’s committee opened up the investigations around this.

Again, I think that members of Congress, you know, had a very uncomfortable Christmas waiting for the indictments to come down. Then they got a little more comfortable as they started to deal with some of these issues and how to reform them, but I think we will continue to hear much more as this 90 days continues and there are more revelations that come out.

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