Jack Abramoff: The Man Who Bought Washington

From deep inside the Republican elite, Jack Abramoff brought new excesses to the lobbying game. Who is he, and how did he get away with it for so long?

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DAVID BURNETT / CONTACT

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Their friendship and political partnership continued after the election, with Abramoff becoming national chairman of the College Republicans (a post once held by Karl Rove), Norquist serving as executive director and the two of them mentoring a baby-faced summer intern from Georgia named Ralph Reed, who would later turn the Christian Coalition into a political powerhouse. Abramoff and Norquist dreamed up plenty of headline-getting stunts—like an adopt-a-contra appeal, with posters imploring, ONLY 53 CENTS A DAY WILL SUPPORT A NICARAGUAN FREEDOM FIGHTER. But they also annoyed the Reagan team, to the point that they were barred from a White House reception for the medical students rescued during the 1983 invasion of Grenada, according to Gang of Five, author Nina Easton's chronicle of the conservative movement of that time. Soon after, Norquist and Abramoff also worked for and were later fired by drugstore baron Lewis Lehrman's conservative group Citizens for America, over what a source close to Lehrman told the Washington Post was "lavish spending."

As the Reagan years wound down, Abramoff drifted back toward Los Angeles, where he became a B-movie producer, remembered mostly for the 1989 anti-communist adventure Red Scorpion, starring Dolph Lundgren. Shortly before the film came out, Abramoff invited talk-show host and critic Michael Medved to lunch. "I thought he was interesting—a Reaganite, a fellow observant Jew—and I took a look at his movie," Medved recalls. "The film was awful, and I told him the best help I could give him was never to review it. He laughed and said, 'Yeah, it's pretty bad.' I said, 'No, Jack, it's worse than that: it's unreleasable.'"

Abramoff was undaunted. Despite losing major studio distribution and even enduring boycotts for having filmed in Namibia, which was administered during the Apartheid-era by South Africa—whose government is reported to have provided extras and military hardware—he produced not only that movie, but also its even lousier sequel, Red Scorpion 2. Still, politics, not movies, remained Abramoff's real passion, and as it happened, in 1994 a new kind of opportunity had arisen in Washington for a brash and entrepreneurial conservative who had the right connections.

• MOVING WITHIN THE INNER CIRCLE

There are different stories going around about how Abramoff first met Tom DeLay, the man who once referred to the lobbyist as "one of my closest and dearest friends." Some versions have it that they were introduced shortly before the Republicans regained the House in 1994 by their mutual friend Daniel Lapin, a Seattle-area rabbi who has long been active in conservative causes. But a former DeLay aide tells TIME that it happened during a fund raiser shortly after the election in which Republicans gained full control of Congress for the first time in more than 40 years. In this account, DeLay's then chief of staff Ed Buckham pulled an unfamiliar figure toward DeLay and told the new majority whip that he was an important lobbyist and fund raiser and that they would soon be working together a lot.

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