The excess of ‘business as usual’ in Washington


    A luxury skybox for sports fans in Congress. A dinner party that
    raises thousands of dollars for a political candidate. Helpful
    suggestions on how the guest of honor might phrase a letter to the
    president or a Cabinet secretary.

    Alone and even in modest
    combinations, all are examples of business as usual in Washington’s
    billion-dollar world of government, lobbying and campaign finance.

    What makes it work is discretion.

    What’s blown the lid on it now is lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s excesses.

    It’s
    the unwritten rules as much as the written ones that Abramoff broke:
    Don’t gloat, don’t be too greedy, don’t say out loud what you’re doing,
    and don’t ever, ever, put in writing what you don’t have to.

    There is one other clear difference between Abramoff’s actions and those of other lobbyists.

    “He
    defrauded his clients. That’s a big difference,” said Kathleen Clark, a
    government ethics expert at the Washington University law school in St.
    Louis.

    Abramoff, who faces up to 11 years in prison after
    pleading guilty last week to conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion
    charges, also got caught. A maze of campaign finance laws and lobbying
    rules makes it hard to prove a lawmaker took an official action under a
    “quid pro quo” agreement with a generous lobbyist.

    “The scandal
    with Abramoff is just the enormity of it,” said Roberta Baskin,
    executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a private ethics
    watchdog group. “Who knows if there are others like him out there or
    not.”

    If so, it’s unlikely they had all of Abramoff’s trappings:

    • Foreign
      golf trips arranged for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay,
      R-Texas, and the chairman of the House Administration Committee, Rep.
      Bob Ney, R-Ohio.
    • Fundraisers at his skybox or at his upscale
      Signatures restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue exactly half way between
      the Capitol and the White House.
    • Job offers for top Bush administration officials and senior aides of congressional leaders and committee chairmen.

    “He’s
    exceptional in that he was pushing so many levers at once,” said Frank
    Clemente, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.

    More may be known soon.

    Under
    a plea deal with federal prosecutors, Abramoff’s e-mails and other
    documents will be the stuff of federal court proceedings that will
    expose the mysterious and protected world of Washington lobbying.

    Because
    the law requires limited transparency of lobbyist-lawmaker dealings,
    the differences between Abramoff and other lobbyists are not entirely
    clear.

    Lobbyists, legislators, campaign fundraisers and
    presidential appointees frequently wear different hats over the course
    of their careers. It’s been pretty much that way since the nation’s
    beginning. Even public integrity watchdogs acknowledge that lobbyists,
    properly regulated, are important advocates in the American system of
    government.

    The ethical boundaries get blurred when people play two or more parts, often in the same day.

    Rainmakers
    raise colossal amounts of money that candidates need to wage and win
    campaigns. Lobbyists try to persuade lawmakers and presidentially
    appointed officials to take actions that benefit their clients. Often
    they are one and the same.

    What is hard to prove is whether
    lobbyists press officials _ and whether the officials agree _ to pony
    up these official acts out of gratitude for campaign money or other
    gifts of value, such as skybox seats and exotic trips. The law says
    such a quid pro quo only can be proved when explicitly uttered or
    written down.

    Hence, the unwritten rules: Whatever events or
    contributions might have preceded a public policy decision that
    benefits the lobbyist’s clients, don’t talk about it and don’t put
    anything in writing that isn’t required.

    Abramoff violated both, and the law, in vivid detail.

    “Is
    life great or what!!” he exulted in an e-mail to an associate with whom
    he pocketed $66 million from six American Indian tribes seeking
    influence in Washington.

    In a series of e-mails and other
    documents, Abramoff explained that in 2002 he and an associate secretly
    funneled millions of dollars to consultant Ralph Reed, a former
    Christian Coalition leader, to help shut down a Texas casino operated
    by the Tigua Indians.

    Then Abramoff persuaded the Tiguas to hire
    him and his associate, public relations consultant Michael Scanlon, to
    help reopen the casino.

    “The annoying losers are the only ones which have this kind of money and part with it so quickly,” Abramoff wrote to Scanlon.

    Abramoff
    also explained how some of the money would be doled out: “He (Scanlon)
    divided the $5 million into three piles: $1 million for actual expenses
    and $2 million for each of us.”

    © 2006 The Associated Press