FRANKFORT — Disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff explained political corruption Wednesday to rapt members of the Kentucky General Assembly.
Abramoff, a Republican insider who made tens of millions of dollars influencing Congress before going to prison in 2006, was the featured speaker for an ethics class that is required of Kentucky lawmakers every winter.
The Legislative Ethics Commission paid Abramoff $5,000 for his 90-minute talk, but the money won't rest in his pocket. He owes $44 million in court-ordered restitution to Indian tribes and other clients whom he cheated, a debt that he said he'll struggle to pay over his lifetime.
Among the hard-earned knowledge that Abramoff shared with lawmakers: Politicians who act unethically seldom think they're doing anything wrong. But any gift to a politician by someone who wants a favor from government — whether that gift is as small as a campaign donation or as big as a golf trip to Scotland — spells trouble, he said.
Lobbying depends on access, and politicians grant access to people who do nice things for them, he said.
Abramoff organized political fund-raisers and directed millions of dollars in campaign donations. He showered members of Congress, their families and their staffs with meals, vacations, sports tickets and jobs. At least 100 members of Congress were happy to file bills at his request, he said.
"I certainly didn't think I was Satan," Abramoff said. "I thought I was a good guy. I was working for my clients, and we were winning most of our fights."
"I didn't realize that I was doing some really bad stuff until someone hit me on the head with a two-by-four," he said.
Following newspaper reports of his activities and a U.S. Justice Department investigation, Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy. He took down several Republican congressmen and congressional aides along the way, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
Having served more than three years in prison, Abramoff is on a tour promoting his book, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist.
Government is "ordinary, decent people slowly accommodating themselves to a system that is rife with moral predicaments," he told the lawmakers Wednesday.
The safest path bypasses temptation entirely, he said. No lawmaker should be allowed to take anything — including campaign money — from lobbyists or their clients, or anyone seeking government awards, he said.
Kentucky's legislative ethics law bans campaign donations to lawmakers from Frankfort lobbyists but not from their clients, creating a clear path for money to flow from people hoping for influence, he said.
Abramoff also recommends term limits for lawmakers and their aides, to curb a culture of "arrogance," and a lifetime ban on their joining the ranks of lobbyists. It's remarkable how many longtime members of Congress use their positions for inside advantage and become millionaires on public salaries of less than $200,000 a year, he said.
"People ought to come, serve the public and go home," he said.
During the question-and-answer session, Abramoff warned lawmakers about the risks inherent in politicians getting involved in casino gambling, a subject that Kentucky's legislature is poised to debate again this winter. Some of Abramoff's crimes were related to his Indian casino clients.
Without condemning or condoning gambling itself, he said, it brings in huge sums of money, which creates temptations for politicians who award casino licenses to a lucky few and divvy up the winnings.
"Gambling is entirely political," Abramoff said. "Understand the power of the money in that industry."
After the class ended, state Rep. Carl Rollins, D-Midway, said it was fascinating to hear about corruption from a master of the craft. Many of Abramoff's recommendations are good ideas, such as an end to the revolving door between public service and lobbying, Rollins said.
"We've had some legislative staff members and legislators who have gone on to become lobbyists here in Frankfort," Rollins said. "You can see where there would be room for abuse."