Jailed lobbyist returns to haunt the corridors of Capitol Hill

Washington is still rotten to the core, says man at the centre of 2006 bribery scandal

New York

When the gates of Cumberland Correctional Facility in Maryland, not far from Washington, slammed shut on Jack Abramoff in November 2006, you could almost hear the sigh of relief across the nation's political capital.

Behind bars, Abramoff had been stripped of his status as one of Washington's best-connected and highest-powered lobbyists, and instead could be damned as a criminal who had corrupted US politics, bribed Congressmen and their staffers, and brought public opprobrium on an otherwise reputable system.

In Cumberland he has been snorting with derision at that idea - and now he is out, back in the spotlight, and determined to prove he was no bad apple. Money has rotten Washington to the core, he says, and the reforms Congress instituted after the "Abramoff scandal" have done nothing to mask the stink.

Abramoff's re-emergence, to promote a mea culpa autobiography that went on sale last week, is already causing mischief on Capitol Hill, where Democrats are hoping to reopen investigations into his activities, just in time for next year's elections. The revelations of widespread corruption, and Abramoff's links to senior Republicans, including then House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, helped Democrats to their election victory back in 2006.

It might be "worthwhile" to call Abramoff to testify at a new hearing "in order to complete our examination into the extent of his influence over White House and executive-branch officials" during the George W Bush era, said Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee. Mr Cummings's Republican colleagues, who control the committee, immediately said no to re-opening that can of worms.

Abramoff pleaded guilty to a range of corruption charges, including defrauding Native American clients on whose behalf he was lobbying for casino permissions. In all, more than 20 people were eventually convicted because of their dealings with him, including one Congressman, Bob Ney, who was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for accepting bribes that included a fancy trip to play golf in Scotland.

Beverly Hills-raised Abramoff turned himself into one of Washington's major powerbrokers by plying Congressmen and their staffers with luxury entertainment and box seats at sports games. He even had his own restaurant, Signatures, where everything could be put on the house. The quid pro quo for the freebies and for the lavish campaign contributions was help inserting clauses into new legislation that benefitted Abramoff's clients.

Deals were sealed at early morning rounds of golf - and such was the public revulsion at the whole spectacle that it wasn't until the debt ceiling negotiations this summer, when President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner took to the green, that senior politicians were once again comfortable being photographed playing golf.

Abramoff says he considered calling his tell-all memoir The Idiot's Guide to Buying a Congressman, although in the end he plumped for Capitol Punishment. His self-promotion may extend to a Facebook game for wannabe lobbyists - it is in the works, called Congressional Jack - and a reality TV show.

After serving three-and-a-half years of his six year jail term, he is bitter at the hypocrisy of politicians who singled him out for investigation, despite having taken tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from his firm. And in interviews to promote his book, he has sounded menacingly close to revealing other instances of corruption. He witnessed "at least a dozen" cases of insider trading, he said, for example by staffers who bet against shares in companies while they were working on Congressional investigations.

His most damning claims, though, are that nothing has changed while he has been away, and the rot can only be cut out by the introduction of a lifetime ban on government officials and Congressional staff moving into the lobbying sector.

Otherwise, corruption is as simple as saying to someone "You know, when you're done working on the Hill, we'd very much like you to consider coming to work for us," he told CBS television's 60 Minutes. "The moment I said that to them, that was it. We owned them. And what does that mean? Every request from our office, every request of our clients, everything that we want, they're gonna do."

Facts: in figures

$2.45bn

Total amount spent on lobbying in the United States this year

12,200

Number of registered US lobbyists

$46.2m

The amount paid out by the country's biggest lobbying client, the US Chamber of Commerce

144 per cent

The rise in spending on lobbying since 1998

Source: Center for Responsive Politics

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