If one thing was clear at a Monday event held by the nonprofit watchdog group Public Citizen, it’s that good government types are split into two camps on the subject of Jack Abramoff. There are those who think his perspective as the world’s most notorious lobbyist give him valuable ideas on how to fix the system, and there are those who think he’s - frankly - full of it.
Six cameras, about as many photographers and rows of reporters packed into a room at Public Citizen lined with historic photos of founder Ralph Nader (a connection Abramoff found ironic, given how he’d opposed Nader’s work during his career) for a chat between President Rob Weissman and Abramoff.
Abramoff explained to the crowd how he went through a “metamorphosis” during his trial and time in prison, his disdain for “Super PACs,” his current work for reform and his desire to return to the movie industry (he previously produced the 1989 film Red Scorpion and its 1995 follow up, Red Scorpion 2). Abramoff recently began working as a fellow with United Republic and the affiliated publication the Republic Report, which are dedicated to fighting the influence of big-moneyed special interests in Washington.
Abramoff said Monday that sales from his book “Capitol Punishment” had only generated a few thousand dollars so far (he said there was no advance from his publisher, WND Books). He said his family was surviving from donations made from friends as it was “hard for a felon in America to make money.”
Two officials with the non-profit Sunlight Foundation took time during the question-and-answer session to ask why Abramoff wouldn’t “name names” and disclose other politicians or staffers involved in his corrupt dealings.
Abramoff said he didn’t feel that naming names was his role and that he instead intended to focus on broader reform issues. This prompted outspoken disappointment.
“Sunlight believes if he’s serious about creating a new push for reform, he will help all of us tell the story — naming the names — that’s how reform happens in Washington,” Sunlight Foundation Executive Director Ellen Miller told TPM after the event. “That’s the way we told him we’d work with him, and he’s obviously refused to do that.”
“He needs to name the names rather than just talk about the need for systemic reform. I don’t see how he’s helpful other than that. I mean, he is a convicted criminal. He did cheat, and lie and bribe,” Miller said. “So I don’t know — unless he gives us new information about who he bribed and had under his control — how he can be helpful to us. It’s not an institutional argument between us and other reform groups, we just have a different strategy.”
Public Citizen’s Weissman said he’d agree it would be helpful for Abramoff to disclose the names of some of the members of Congress he thought he had been corrupted.
“We don’t disagree that highlighting concrete cases helps create policy changes, so we don’t disagree on that,” Weissman said.
“He’s going around putting forward a good message,” Weissman said. “Because of his history, he has a platform that’s different from those of us who work on this.”
Weissman said he hopes Public Citizen can “leverage” Abramoff’s voice in the future and that while there were no events on the agenda now the group would be open to working with Abramoff in the future.