By Kris Kitto - 11/15/11 12:25 AM EST
Whenever Jack Abramoff’s name shows up in print, the words “disgraced,” “influence-peddling” and “corruption” aren’t far behind. But the former lobbyist, who finished serving a three-and-a-half year prison term last year, is trying to change that.
In his new book, Capitol Punishment, Abramoff explains how he became one of Washington’s top lobbyists before his epic fall in 2006 and offers proposals for changing the system. He spoke to The Hill about prison, his views on lawmakers, and his new life.
A lot of it’s going to repay companies that tried to get the book out, publishers and stuff. Second is to restitution — I owe a lot in restitution. And if there’s anything left, it’ll probably go to the debts that we owe.
Q: Why did you choose WND Books as your publisher? It’s an affiliate of Worldnet Daily, which questions the authenticity of President Obama’s birth certificate.
I had some interests and offers from some major publishing houses, but they wanted to go next year, and I wanted to go this year. And WND was the only publishing house that could go this year. And I think they’ve done a spectacular job. I’m glad I went with them.
Q: Why did you want the book to be released this year?
Next year’s the election, and I think the book would get crowded out.
Q: Here’s an example of one of the blurbs on the book jacket: Paul Begala says, “Jack Abramoff, he’s scum.” There are seven more that are similarly negative. Why’d you put these character attacks on your book cover?
Because the publisher asked me to come up with the usual advance praise people get for the book. I hadn’t shown the book to anyone, so I didn’t have any advance praise. I thought it’d be more provocative, and people who were picking up the book would say, “Hmm, this would be interesting.”
Q: Are you still close with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.)? How often did he visit you in jail?
I think he came twice. Yes, he’s a friend. He’s been a friend for years, and he’s still a friend.
Q: Did any other members of Congress visit you in jail?
I’m not saying they have or they haven’t. [Rohrabacher’s] the only one who said I could mention him.
Visiting me was probably not the most uncontroversial thing people could do, so I want to respect the requests of people who would prefer I not talk about it.
Q: Do you continue to have relationships with Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, Bob Ney, Tom DeLay, Mike Scanlon or any of the other people you worked closely with in the past?
Well, of that list, I’ve talked to Tom DeLay, and Scanlon’s in prison, so I can’t have any contact with him.
Bob Ney sent me a note on Facebook.
I haven’t had any contact with Grover, and Ralph Reed, I haven’t had any contact with.
Q: Did you make any friends in jail?
[Laughs.] You can’t be somewhere for 43 months and not make any friends and survive it. Sure, I met some very interesting people. I don’t have any post-prison relationships because that’s not permitted, but while I was there, I met some very interesting folks.
You go after a lot of members of Congress in your book and at one point call them lazy, but you reserve good words for Rohrabacher and a few others. You say of Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) that you “thought him to be one of the finest men in the Senate.” Do you continue to look up to him — or any sitting members of Congress?
Not really. I don’t really focus on them, to be honest with you. My world has changed. It’s just not something that’s important right now for me to be focused on.
Q: What are you doing now?
I have the book out. I’m doing a lot of media and will be doing some touring and speaking about the book.
I’m trying to avail myself of the various technologies to get the message that Washington needs to be cleaned up, that the system that’s in place is not what’s beneficial in the country. The feedback that I’ve gotten is that this is very much supported out there.
I even had a very interesting and meaningful conversation with [filmmaker] Michael Moore on this.
One of my personality defects, perhaps, is that I’m rather ADD, and I work on a bunch of things at once.
Q: At one time your M.O. was, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” Is that still the way you operate?
No, it’s not. In those days I didn’t have a regard for the lines in the sand, and now I do. I do in more ways than one.
I’m on probation—and this has been a very severe lesson in following all the rules.
Q: What does probation mean for you?
All of my finances are controlled by the court, my movements are controlled, what I can do for a living is controlled, who I can affiliate with or hang out with are controlled. There are a myriad of controls on me. I’m freer than I was, but I’m under the control of the court.
Q: What else did you do in jail to pass the time? Did you get back into power-lifting?
There are no weights in many of the federal prisons; there weren’t any in mine. I did what was allowed — pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups, that sort of thing. I got in a little bit of better shape, but not much.
I’d get a lot of mail, and I’d answer all the mail I got, except all the hate mail.
I taught inmates how to type, and public speaking, basic business skills, so they could break away from the drug-dealing scenario.
I taught both Jewish and some of the Christian religion classes.
I organized movie nights for the guys who were sick of not being able to watch anything on television.
I had a job, working in the chapels. I worked in the kitchen to start, cleaning dishes. I got the full experience.
Q: Did you write your book while in prison?
I wrote hardly any of it. You don’t have a lot of privacy there.
People think, you’re in prison, you sit around all day. You don’t; they move you around all the time.
It’s a misery in there; it’s a horrible place to be. I spent time trying to figure out what my life would be like after prison … and what my life was. I made a decision to come up with a reform plan, and the metric I used was: What would I hate if I were still lobbying?
[For my book] I wanted to get a ghostwriter, and I had a couple of ghostwriters work with me, and I didn’t like what they wrote, so I wrote it myself. I guess I wrote about 850,000 emails, so I could write a book. It took me about 28 days to write the book.
Q: How has this chapter in your life affected your faith?
I stand where I always stand. I believe in God. I hope that I will obey him a little bit better sometimes. I’m a human being. I’m not perfect.
I believe in a divine plan, and I think this is part of that, and I played a role in igniting this … but I’m hopeful that it’ll all work out for the best at the end of it.
Q: You thank memoirist Augusten Burroughs in your acknowledgments. How do you know him? Did he help you write the book?
He didn’t help me write the book. I met him because we had the same agent and we’re friends. He’s a great guy.
Q: What do you have in common?
I don’t know that we have hardly anything in common. I think we have an appreciation for each other; I know that my wife and kids have a tremendous appreciation for him. He’s got some real wisdom in certain areas that are important to us, and we’re just grateful to know him.
Q: Whom are you supporting in the 2012 presidential campaign?
Well, whoever I’m supporting, that’ll be the end of their presidential campaign, so I’m supporting Obama. I’m kidding. But I know that I can’t do that. There are people who are still living in the old paradigm of, I’m the big villain, and I don’t want to hurt anybody.
Q: Do you still own the infamous black fedora?
It was just a rain hat, by the way. It was raining. Sure, I still have it, in case it rains. I’m not putting it on. Museums have asked for it. Maybe someday I’ll do something with it.