Jack in a Box

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BEN VAN HOOK FOR TIME

The Lobbyist: Abramoff

Since he emerged as a leading character in the controversy over House majority leader Tom DeLay's ethical standards, Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff has been famously tight-lipped. A central issue is whether some of DeLay's overseas travel was funded, at least indirectly, by Abramoff, in violation of House rules barring legislators from accepting travel paid for by lobbyists. Abramoff, 46, an orthodox Jew who espouses conservative values, was already under investigation by two congressional committees and the fbi for allegedly bilking his Indian-tribe clients and possibly abusing tax exemptions on charities he set up. Abramoff spoke to TIME's Adam Zagorin about the questions swirling around him. Excerpts from their conversation, conducted by phone and e-mail:

TIME:Tom DeLay has called you one of his "closest friends." Do you consider him a close friend?
ABRAMOFF: I do.

TIME: Did you get too close to DeLay?
ABRAMOFF: No. Tom DeLay is a dedicated public servant. I was drawn to Tom because of our shared interest in the Bible and like political philosophies. He's a man fortunate enough to have a loving and devoted wife who shares his faith and philosophy.

TIME: There is evidence that you paid for DeLay's travel. What is your explanation for this apparent violation of House rules?
ABRAMOFF: I did not base my lobbying on the stereotypical Washington image that lobbyists provide little more than a "wink, wink, nudge, nudge"--or gifts and gratuities. In my view, no worthy members of Congress or their staff would ever change their position on an issue based on anything other than their constituents' interests or their own deeply held views. My lobbying efforts were focused on presenting my clients' causes in a way which was consistent with the philosophy of my friends on Capitol Hill. That's why I had such a record of success--not because anyone received gifts or traveled with me. As for the travel, like virtually every lobbyist in modern time's, I've traveled with members of Congress and staff. Lobbyists will travel with a member or staff because their presence will help the educational value of a trip. Often time's, the lobbyist is a personal friend, though, and will travel in the same way that any friend will join another friend. Media attempts at endowing innocent congressional travel with nefarious intrigue sadly typify what has happened in this story.

TIME: Whose idea was the trip DeLay took to Scotland and London? How did you come to make some of the travel arrangements and pay some of the bills?
ABRAMOFF: It's hard to remember the details of trips which occurred five or more years ago. The trip to the U.K. was sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research, on whose board I then sat. Having the most powerful member of Congress meet with one of the three greatest leaders of the 20th century--Lady (Margaret) Thatcher--was a worthy activity. As to the logistical details, I don't recall the arrangements, but I'm certain that everything was done with the intent of adhering to the law. I participated in many trips involving Congressmen, their staffs and other policymakers over the years. Trips are an essential way for members of Congress and others to get firsthand knowledge of important issues and regions around the world.

TIME: What did the side trip to golf in Scotland have to do with that?
ABRAMOFF: I have already explained my view of trips I have taken with congressional members and staff. Your question would seem better directed to the Congressmen themselves rather than to me.

TIME: How did it come to pass that two of your gambling-industry clients deposited $25,000 each with the trip's official sponsor on the day DeLay left for the trip?
ABRAMOFF: I have no knowledge of this. You would have to ask them.

TIME: We reported this week that you gave expensive gifts to members of DeLay's staff, including a weekend trip for aide Tony Rudy. DeLay's current chief of staff admitted he accepted a golf club from you. Wasn't that a violation of ethics rules?
ABRAMOFF: What constitutes a violation of congressional ethics rules is a question better suited for members of Congress or their staff who are subject to these rules.

TIME: You are said to be a religious person, yet in e-mail communications you describe your Native American clients in terms (as "monkeys" and "losers") that could have been lifted from the Howard Stern Show. What were you thinking?
ABRAMOFF: I regret that in the heat of the locker-room atmosphere of the lobbying world, I sometimes--rarely, but sometimes--resorted to language more common to a drill sergeant or a football coach. These regrettable utterances were not directed at my clients. They were usually reserved for those attacking my clients. Many of my e-mails have been maliciously taken out of context. As a result, I've been portrayed as a cynical barbarian preying on the very clients I was charged to defend. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have a solid record of years of achievement for the tribes, and my respect for them is unbounded.

TIME: A Senate investigation showed that you charged excessive amounts to certain Native American tribes and delivered little or nothing in return. Did you?
ABRAMOFF: Over the 10 years that I lobbied for Native Americans, my tribal clients continually praised our efforts as delivering far in excess of the amounts charged. We delivered literally billions of dollars in value. That we charged millions of dollars for these services might seem high, especially compared to the typical Washington lobbyist who charges less and delivers almost nothing. But the return on investment for these tribes--and all my clients--is far better than anything they or we could have imagined. The Native Americans I served are sophisticated business people. They are running a multibillion-dollar industry. They realize that spending millions to save billions is just good business.

TIME: Are you cooperating with prosecutors? Have you cut a deal?
ABRAMOFF: I have not commented and will not comment on ongoing investigations.

TIME: It was recently suggested in a published story that you might turn state's evidence on DeLay. Did you really indicate that you might do that?
ABRAMOFF: I did not. The reporter who went with that story did so in the face of flat denials, not only from me but from others.

TIME: Much has been made of your lavishing favors and gifts on members of Congress, including allowing use of your skyboxes at sports venues and of your gourmet Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant. You also raised millions for members, their political committees and charities. Is that the way things ought to be done?
ABRAMOFF: Politicians run for office, and they need resources to do so. I've dedicated my political life to helping those I support legally obtain the resources they need to get re-elected. Every night scores of fund-raising events take place, and liberals, conservatives and moderates all participate. And I can't imagine there's anything I did that other lobbyists didn't do and aren't doing today. The focus fell on me because the media built me up as a Washington powerbroker. Reading the press, it almost seems as if I invented political contributions by lobbyists, travel with Congressmen, the hiring of former Capitol Hill staffers, etc., etc. It's almost comical how my every action and thought have been scandalized.

TIME: Are you now in financial as well as legal peril?
ABRAMOFF: It used to be that I had a lot of clients paying my law firm a lot of money. Now I have a lot of lawyers to whom I pay a lot of money, no clients. Quite a reversal of fortune.