Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff was sentenced Thursday to four years in jail for corruption and tax offenses. Abramoff is already serving a nearly six-year term on unrelated charges. The new sentence will be served at the same time, meaning he will not spend any extra time behind bars once his original sentence ends in 2012. We speak with journalist Peter Stone, author of Heist: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies, and the Buying of Washington. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
We’re broadcasting live from St. Paul, where the Republican National Convention has just wrapped up. Well, Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff was sentenced Thursday to four years in jail for corruption and tax offenses. It happened just hours before Senator McCain accepted the Republican nomination for president. Abramoff is already serving a nearly six-year term on unrelated charges. The new sentence will be served at the same time, meaning he will not spend any extra time behind bars once his original sentence ends in 2012. Federal prosecutors have asked the judge to be lenient on the sentencing, because Abramoff is now cooperating with an FBI investigation.
On Thursday, I spoke with reporter Peter Stone, author of the book Heist: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies, and the Buying of Washington. I met him at the National Journal booth at the Republican National Convention, where he is reporting. I asked Peter Stone to explain Abramoff’s sentencing.
Abramoff is being sentenced on three basic charges today in Washington, charges that he pled guilty to in early 2006. The first is corrupting public officials, conspiracy to corrupt public officials. This charge has already led to the conviction of several public officials, Bob Ney, former congressman from Ohio, who went to jail about almost over eighteen months ago and has just been recently released; a couple members of the Bush administration. The number two official at Interior went to jail on lesser charges. But Abramoff is being — that’s the first charge Abramoff will be sentenced on today.
A second is bilking his clients, Indian casino tribes, out of over $20 million. And he and a covert partner, former aide to Tom DeLay, bilked four tribes out of over $40 million in a scheme where they hid their relationship, their business relationship. So that’s the second charge he’s being sentenced on.
The third charge is tax evasion, tax fraud. He’s agreed to pay back about $1.7 million that he owes the IRS. He has to pay back the Indian tribes over $20 million. And the Justice Department has recommended a considerable leniency for Abramoff in the case, based on his cooperation to date.
To date, over twelve individuals have been convicted. The investigation is continuing. And a couple members, former members of Congress, are still being looked at in the investigation. But the original sentencing guidelines called for a sentence of nine to eleven years. It appears that he will get maybe half of that, because he has been a cooperating witness for two years while he has been in jail on separate charges involving a fraudulent purchase of a casino in Florida in 2000.
So the sentence today is the culmination of the major Abramoff investigation, which the Justice Department began in early 2004 and which is still continuing, and keeps Tom Delay, former House Majority Leader, under scrutiny, as well as Congressman John Doolittle from California, who is retiring this fall, but he’s been badly charred by the scandal, as well.
Do you think John McCain did a good job of investigating Abramoff?
McCain did a good job in many respects. I mean, he uncovered a great deal about the Indian fraud. He looked into many of the connections of Jack to lobbyists on K Street and to — in part to Bob Ney. There were some members of Congress who were not too happy about the investigation and, at some point early on, indicated to McCain they hoped that the investigation would not really focus on members too much. And it appears that, you know, McCain emphasized, shortly after this meeting with some senators, that the investigation was really focused on Indian — you know, what Abramoff had done to rip off the Indians. Nonetheless, the investigation did reveal incriminating evidence against Bob Ney, who ultimately went to jail for a year and a half, and Ney has just gotten out of jail.
There are parts of the investigation that perhaps did not go as far as the trail might have taken it. He did look into Jack’s close allies, key members of the conservative movement like Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, and Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, who were old, old friends of Jack’s, going back to the early ’80s in College Republicans, and who were parts of his lobbying machine. They were not lobbyists themselves working with Jack’s firm, but they helped do work, grassroots work and others, for Jack and got a piece of his action.
And what about Ralph Reed? Where does he fit into this picture and the embarrassing recent fundraiser with John McCain?
Right. Well, Reed surfaced about a month ago as — in an invitation that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution dug up, an invitation for a fundraiser in Atlanta for McCain and the RNC that was held a couple of weeks ago. And Reed invited people to come to the affair. Obviously, as soon as the word got out that Reed was a co-host of this McCain affair, a number of people started raising their eyebrows about why McCain would go to an event that Reed was co-hosting. And it appears that Reed got the message fairly quickly that he might not be too welcome at the affair. Ultimately, the fundraiser was held, and, according to press reports, Reed did not show up. So it seems like Reed got the message.
Reed’s whole career has been terribly tarnished by his close ties to Jack Abramoff. He lost an election for lieutenant governor that he was considered a shoe-in to win back in early 2006 and largely because word got out in the Georgia community that Reed was a partner, in effect, not a — you know, was taking money. Reed got millions of dollars — I think the total was around $6 million — from Abramoff’s clients for helping to shut down Indian casinos that were rivals, threats, to the Indian casinos that Jack represented. And much of this money was hidden through conduits, including a think tank at the beach in Delaware, through Grover’s — Grover Norquist’s organization. So it was done to protect Reed’s squeaky clean image as a social conservative, evangelical Christian, who would not take money from Indian casinos, or any casinos, for that matter. So they did an inordinate amount of work to hide and funnel the money through other entities.
Anyway, he was a key ally of Jack’s for many years. And it certainly was ironic that in 2008, or — we see him offering to host a fundraiser for McCain. I think the reason he offered to host the fundraiser was that he has been on the outs with many Republicans since the scandal. And I think he’s been looking for ways to get back into the good graces of, you know, key Republicans. But obviously it’s a tricky task for him and will remain so.
Peter Stone is a money in politics reporter for the National Journal. His book is called Heist, about the — well, the indictment of, the conviction of and the sentencing of Jack Abramoff, the superlobbyist.