'Money is a tool'

And so is disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But is he a tool of political reform or just his longtime allies among the rich and the right?

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Jack Abramoff spoke to USF students on June 6.
AP PHOTO BY CHARLES DHARAPAK

Jack Abramoff says "legalized bribery" is corrupting our political system, and as a lobbyist who went to prison for taking the practice of buying favors from Congress to obscene new depths, he should know. But if we're relying on him to help reform that system, a cause he's now taken up, we could be in real trouble.

Watching Abramoff address "public ethics" at a University of San Francisco class of aspiring political professionals on June 6 was a little surreal. Part charming rogue, part penitent reformer, Abramoff told inside tales of how easily money corrupts even well-intended people who work in Congress.

"I didn't create a new way of lobbying, I just did more of it," Abramoff told the students, noting that while some lobbyists had a few good tickets to Washington Redskins or Wizards games to give away to members of Congress, he had 72 of them. And while some lobbyists would take members golfing, "I would put them on a Gulfstream and fly them to Scotland. What's the difference? It's still playing golf."

It was particularly strange for someone of Abramoff's obviously questionable moral fiber to be addressing political students at this Jesuit-run academic institution, whose local advertising slogans include "How to succeed in business and still go to heaven" and "Wicked smart without the wicked part."

Yet forgiveness is supposed to be divine, and the instructor who lured Abramoff to speak with his class, local lobbyist and political consultant Alex Clemens, was certainly pleased to attract someone with Abramoff's inside knowledge, avoiding Abramoff's usual speaking fees of up to $20,000 by piggybacking on a Southern California speech he gave and paying only his airfare.

I was a bit more skeptical of a guy who equates political donations with bribery while hawking a book and narrow reform proposal -- while at the same time soliciting corporate lobbying clients and telling the San Francisco Chronicle that Silicon Valley should be spending far more money to influence politicians.

"It needs a much bigger view of political involvement," Abramoff told the Chron. "It should be spending much more. They're not playing as smart as they should, and they could lose big."

That's part of the muddle of contradictions that defines Abramoff and his advocacy today, which is consistent with the anti-government, wealth-worshipping conservatism he has pushed with missionary zeal since his college days, along with pals Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, who still play key roles in keeping religious fundamentalists and the rich in the Republican Party fold.

"I'm not against money in the system, I'm against money being used the wrong way in the system," Abramoff told me after the talk, as I probed the contradictions in his statements and views. My efforts to pin him down caused him to scornfully brand me a "socialist," the old bully replacing the affable face he showed the students.

"Money is a tool," Abramoff told me.

Abramoff is also a tool, I decided as I listened to him, although it's still tough to discern who is wielding him now and where this effort may be headed.

LESSON FOR STUDENTS

Abramoff told the students that even after he got busted in 2005, for a long time he indignantly wondered why he was being prosecuted for the same sorts of actions that were endemic to Washington DC. Eventually, he began to realize he had done something wrong.

"I thought maybe some of this [the charges against him] is right," he said. "I decided to be honest with myself. Am I the saint I always thought I'd been, or the devil they said I was?"

Yet in the end, Abramoff never did really rethink his own worldview and history — from his early days of shilling for the South African government against efforts to end apartheid to later bribing members of Congress to oppose regulation of sweatshops and sex trafficking in US territories — he just blamed the political system.

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