Yesterday I posted a Diary that looked at the active and expanding investigation into the massive scandal known by the name Abramoff. Tonight I want to take a look at the man behind that name, Jack Abramoff.
Earlier this week the Court released a transcript of Abramoff’s Sept. 4, 2008 Sentencing Hearing. It is a fascinating document. When he addressed the Court, Jack Abramoff admitted that he was an ass and apologized (we’ll get to that on the jump). He also managed to state the core problem of the modern conservative movement:
"And perhaps it was out of an arrogant self righteousness, wanting the things I thought were right to happen, and slowly losing bearing, losing track of the means to make those things happen and allowing corruption and bad behavior and things that ran right to the core -- against the core of what I did believe to take over all in an effort to believe that the ends would justify the means, and they don't."
Let's go to the jump...
In my research I have become a big fan of trying to walk things back to the source material: an email, a document, a transcript or whatever.
Back in September I read the reports about Abramoff being sentenced by Judge Huvelle for his crimes in Washington. He could have been sentenced to 11 years in jail. Because of his cooperation with the DOJ he was given 48 months to be served concurrently with the 70 month sentence he was given for his crimes down in Florida. According to the reports Abramoff apologized for his crimes and two Native American victims of those crimes spoke in favor of a harsher sentence. Snippets of what was said were included in some reports.
I checked for a transcript and found that one would not be released until December 29, 2008. So I waited. Last Monday, I downloaded a copy of the transcript. It is far more interesting than the news reports and I thought I would share the highlights.
Most of the discussion was between DOJ Prosecutor Mary Butler, Abramoff’s lawyer Abbe Lowell and the Judge, Ellen Huvelle. There was a lot of back and forth about how the sentence for Jack’s DC-based crimes might be brought in line with his sentence for his Florida-based crimes. Just months before Abramoff’s sentencing hearing the Judge in Florida had cut the sentence of Adam Kidan in half because of Kidan’s cooperation with prosecutors in several investigations. Kidan was Jack’s partner in the scam to buy a fleet of gambling ships without spending any money. There was an expectation that Abramoff would get a similar reduction in his sentence, which would have been 35 months.
There was agreement that Abramoff’s sentence for his corruption in Washington would be served concurrently with his sentence from Florida and that he would get credit for the time already served. The prosecutor argued for 39 months in prison. Abramoff’s lawyer argued for 43 months coupled with an early release to a halfway house and/or probation.
In the end, Judge Huvelle gave Jack four years. A few days later the Judge in Florida reduced the sentence he had given Abramoff by two years so that it matched the sentence in DC.
In the transcript, Prosecutor Butler made her case for Abramoff’s cooperation and a more lenient sentence (emphasis added):
This defendant has spent a huge number of hours preparing to meet with agents to identify important evidence, but also to be debriefed. He has been debriefed by a number of different organizations, federal investigative agencies, investigating mostly offenses related to the FBI's main case here, but also on some unrelated matters.
He has helped us enormously in ferreting out from a huge database of allegations, what really is criminal and the responsibility of the Justice Department, and what really is perhaps an issue of an ethical or administrative violation, or it is nothing. And that help alone saved the government countless resources because of our responsibility to get to the bottom of the allegations, no matter what the source.
At the same time, this defendant we believe his assistance has led directly and indirectly to the successful prosecutions of nine people and the prosecution and retrial that is pending for another. These people were not -- were both high-level government officials in the executive branch and in the legislature, and middle level.
There's no reason to think that Mr. Abramoff has held back from cooperating with the government with regard to some of the most powerful of the people that he had unlawful relationships with. And that really is an important measure of the thorough and forthcoming cooperation he has provided. At the same time, Your Honor, we need, in making the recommendation that we do, to send a message to Mr. Abramoff, but also to our other cooperators in this investigation, many of whom this Court has already sentenced.
Abramoff’s lawyer also made his case for a reduced sentence based on remorse and cooperation:
We have heard a lot of numbers in court today, Judge; millions in fees, thousands in gifts, hundreds of thousands in taxes. But I would like to give the Court just a few more numbers. Twenty-nine, that is the number of months before there was a plea in court when Jack asked me to contact the various law enforcement authorities after his law firm confronted him, to let them know that he had done wrong and wanted to do something. With this moment, was before there was a deal, before there was an inclining of a deal, just Jack Abramoff's desire to start down a different path.
Mr. Sprague, I'm afraid, got it wrong. He went to the Justice Department. Indeed, when I looked at my computer today, I saw that the first communication between Ms. Butler and I was in the spring of 2004.
The next number is $1 million. That's the amount that Jack liquidated from the only retirement plans he and his family had, long before he pled guilty in court to begin the restitution process for his victims in Florida.
Three thousand. That's the number of hours Jack Abramoff has worked with various law enforcement agencies over the past three years, to provide important information, very often that which the government did not know and that would have taken them years and countless hours to find out themselves.
One hundred. That is the number of agents and attorneys from the many different agencies and offices with whom Jack has spent those many hours.
Five hundred thousand. That is the number of documents and e-mails Jack has reviewed, often late at night and on weekends, to cut down on the work of the government, to allow them to act efficiently and effectively. He searched them, he interpreted them, and they never would have been able to figure it out without him.
Thirteen. That is the number of convictions that has occurred since he came back. The government has given him full credit for ten; I think this Court knows better the number that have appeared before you, and doesn't even represent all the help he has provided, all the help he's still providing and all the help he will provide in the future. There are active matters in which he is still assisting the government and he will continue to do so.
Fifteen. That's the number of years, Your Honor, that Congress was talking about overhauling the system of lobbying and ethics that did not occur before Jack decided to come forward and reveal not just what he did, but what the system allows to be done. He doesn't take credit for the changes that were made, but there can be little doubt that he was the catalyst for them. And this Court can confirm this by looking at the articles and editorials at the time the reforms were made, calling them the Abramoff ethics rules, or by asking the then public integrity section chief, now federal judge, who called Jack's decision to come forward a watershed moment in the ability to make corruption cases and to address the ills in the system. And said that they would not have occurred had Jack decided to fight it out and take his chances.
Abramoff’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, comes off in the transcript as a bit of a jerk. Perhaps he is a wonderful guy, but he often sounded like a jerk to me, especially when it came to the half-hearted and dismissive way he discussed the victims of Abramoff’s crimes. In the section above he went after Bernard Sprague, a representative of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan. Mr. Sprague was one of two representative of Abramoff’s victims who spoke at the hearing. The other was David Sickey of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana. Both went into some detail about how Abramoff and his team ripped off these Tribes and the lasting damage it has caused. Mr. Lowell in his defense of Abramoff went after them:
So, Judge, in what I hope will not be inadequate, I will do the best I can to present a little fuller picture. Let me start with the offenses committed. I don't have to dwell on those crimes. Jack has never run away from admitting what he did, and we've described them in great detail in our plea agreement that was signed two years-plus ago, and our recent sentencing memorandum, and the Justice Department and probation officer has set them out as well. They are not to be minimized. And they involve lying to clients about the money that was being paid to, defrauding his legal partners about how clients were paying him, conspiring with public officials to give them gifts for their official actions, and cheating on his taxes.
But as bad as they are, they're not all that he has been accused of, or reported, or even stated today. Take the two tribes who have come forward, the Louisiana Coushatta and the Saginaw Chippewa. The Coushatta paid in all the law firms and all the consultants, according to the statistics that we've been able to compile, I think now $11 million over four years that they say they should not have paid. And Chippewa, $540,000 over two years. There is no allegation that they didn't know that they were paying these fees to get a certain result, only that Jack was not honest with them as to how that money was being split, and that money that was being paid to others, he was getting a piece of. That was wrong. In fact, it was illegal.
But, Judge, that's an example of how the myth can overtake the fact, and it can be confusing on this very important day. Because, for example, in the letter that you received from the Coushatta and in the statements that were made on their behalf today, they stated that they were not well off, they state that they were abused. They state that Mr. Abramoff did not provide the services that he said. And they failed to point out that Jack did what they asked him to do. He got their casino license renewed over the fierce opposition of people in the state. They failed to mention that he prevented the competition from commercial riverboat casinos in other Native American tribes. They failed to mention that their gambling revenues that Jack helped them save are $400 million a year. And that over the time that Jack helped them, that amounts to billions of dollars. And that in the 841 members of that tribe, that amounts to revenue of $500,000 per tribe member, per year, for every year that Jack helped them.
And for the Chippewa who write and they say that he had, quote, no regard for the people is what Mr. Sprague said, and he totally destroyed the tribe, they didn't point out that Jack prevented five rival casinos from opening, helped them obtain several millions of dollars in appropriations for senior centers, hospitals, drug treatment programs, nor did they point out that the revenue that Jack helped them save, accounting for the lack of competition, was even more than the $400 million dollars of the Coushatta. And that his efforts over the years amount to, again, billions of dollars. And while they have 2800 or so members of their tribe, that would amount to a quarter of a million dollars for every tribe member for every year that Jack helped them.
I'm not suggesting that these former clients are not real victims. They are. Jack has addressed, and he will address the harm that he did to them. And I point this out because the wrongdoing he did is serious enough without them or others, for whatever motives today, rewriting history or making claims that are not true.
With all due respect for the feelings that he has, Mr. Sprague is wrong. Mr. Abramoff apologized to him and all of his other clients the day he appeared in this courthouse and took the plea of guilty. He has stated it publicly on occasions. And while we cannot address the wrongs that these tribes and other Native Americans have had happen to them for centuries, Mr. Abramoff has been trying as hard as a person can to make amends for what he did.
As I said, Lowell strikes me as a bit of a jerk and if his view is a view that Abramoff shares then there is little remorse on Jack’s part and his apologies are half-hearted at best.
Mr. Lowell glosses over the damage done to the Tribes that work with Jack and the deeper damage to any Native Americans that seek to be involved in the political life of of the United States. Because of Abramoff’s actions every donation from any Native American Tribe is suspect and legitimate efforts to lobby the Federal Government to meet the very real needs of Tribes are often rebuffed as being automatically corrupt just because they are Native Americans.
In their statements to the Court both Mr. Sprague and Mr. Sickey pointed out how damaging this Abramoff taint of corruption is for the Tribes that hired him and the Tribes that did not. Bernard Sprague of the Saginaw Chippewa went first (emphasis added):
But Mr. Abramoff was messing with the Saginaw Chippewa tribe and its members. And I took an oath to defend the members of our tribe against all. And so I ignored the warnings, and we're here today because Mr. Abramoff was exposed for what he was and what he was doing. And to this day, the Saginaw Chippewa tribe has not received any apology in any form from Mr. Abramoff; verbal, in writing, from him, from his attorney, from anyone. It's like we don't exist. He apologizes to everyone else, except for the Saginaw Chippewa tribe and the other tribes across the country that he defrauded. It's like we don't exist. We don't matter to him.
The only thing that matters to him is his surroundings, people close to him, people he respects. He will apologize to those folks. But to the Indian tribes who he used many, many names to describe, he has no -- he has never, ever apologized to any of us.
So I just want to say that it is important for this Court to know the long-term impact of Mr. Abramoff's crimes have had on our tribe and on Indian tribes across the country. It is not just about the money that he stole, or the complete disregard and disrespect he has shown for Indian people. His actions have caused a dark stain, not only on all the tribes who hired him, but on Indian country as on whole.
Since Mr. Abramoff finally admitted his crimes, we have witnessed Indian tribes from across the country being shunned from involvement in the legislative and political process. We have had political donations returned because of this. Our tribe has been asked not to attend meetings or participate in I certain legislative strategy sessions because we were or are an Abramoff tribe. Thank you, Jack.
Just a few weeks ago, there was a vote on the floor of the house of representatives, involving a bill that had significant consequences for our tribe. During the debate on this bill, several senior members of Congress referred to our tribe as the Abramoff tribe, and urged members to vote against the interest of our tribe, based solely upon the fact that Mr. Abramoff worked for our tribe. Time and time again, we have seen our name -- our tribe's name dragged through the mud because of Mr. Abramoff. This has been -- it is very unfair to the tribe to be treated this way.
And David Sickey of the Coushatta Tribe added:
While Jack Abramoff has cooperated with the Justice Department, which now seeks a lesser sentence according to news reports, he has not participated in the tribe's civil proceeding against him. Abramoff claims to be representing himself in that case, and he has not answered discovery requests or otherwise participated in that case. For these reasons, we do not expect him to pay any of the promised restitution. Please do not give him any benefit of this restitution promised in his sentencing, until that restitution is paid.
The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana is fully aware that his sentence is in your discretion, Your Honor. We respectfully ask the Court to take into account the damage he has caused the Coushatta people, and the fact that he has not returned any of our money since his crimes came to light in 2004.
After Abramoff's schemes became public, elected Congressional officials began to return donations to the Coushatta Tribe. It became a sin to accept donations from the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana. The influence and recognition that Jack Abramoff promised has just -- has become just the opposite. And through no fault of our own, we have become political pariahs.
We remind you of the real harm caused by Jack Abramoff's greed and crimes. This nation's people were defrauded out of large amounts of money, and that otherwise would have been used to educate and care for our tribal members. The money paid to Jack Abramoff and his team did not result in any real value to the tribe; rather, it was used for such things as funding a private school, as well as for other pet projects of Jack Abramoff's. The money that should have been used to house and educate our tribe people, were spent by Abramoff to fund an expensive and exclusive restaurant, buying him more personal power at our expense.
Your Honor, in sum, this country's native citizens and the undisputed possessors of the soil from time immemorial is enough. The tragic history of this country's native citizens is documented over the centuries since first contact with Europeans. Let us not forget that. Long after your gavel has hit, I will walk out the front of these doors and continue to protect as my solemn obligation, my people from enemies, domestic and foreign. It is my solemn obligation to do that. And I will continue to do that. I want to make that very, very clear to other opportunists who are waiting, who are out there, who may be out there.
Please give Jack Abramoff a sentence that reflects the enormity of his crimes, and which takes into account his failure to return the money he stole from the Coushatta people. Thank you so much.
The harm from the Abramoff scandal is not just about the money. There are some Tribes that have done very well with Casinos and some of them can recover from the financial hit. There were many more Tribes, with far fewer resources who will have a much more difficult time recovering from stolen funds. But more than that, these Tribes and many others who never had anything to do with Abramoff have all been tainted by his corruption.
Lowell was fond about discussing the "myths" of the scandal when it came to his client—even as he spun the scandal to attack the integrity of Native Peoples in the United States. Mr. Lowell lathered his statements about Jack’s Tribal clients with "myths" of his own that he carefully crafted to be dog whistle that appealed to negative and racist stereotypes of Native Americans: they are greedy, they are corrupt, they are naïve and these are traits shared by all Native Americans. It is easy for Mr. Lowell to go there because that is how the media and politicians have also chosen to portray the Native American aspects of the Abramoff scandal. Much of the coverage about the Tribes who were (and were not) ripped off by Abramoff was and is racist (perhaps that is to be expected in a Country where the football team in our Nation's Capital is a slander, a slander that fills me with disgust, but I digress).
As I said, I found Lowell to be a bit of a jerk.
Once everybody else had their say, Jack Abramoff made a statement to the Court. For me, this was the most interesting part of the transcript. There was some real awareness in it and, perhaps, a slight spark of redemption. Here is what he had to say (emphasis added):
THE DEFENDANT: Thank you, Your Honor.
Your Honor, I come before you today as a broken man. I'm not the same person who happily and arrogantly engaged in a lifestyle of political corruption and business corruption and the rest. I've been thinking for years at this point about what to say to you today. And I've written about 15 versions of what to say, and I even have notes here. And I don't think I can get through them too well.
So if it's okay, if I could just speak for a few minutes from my heart and just tell you how horrible I feel that I've had to bring together in the storm today, my friends and family because of such a situation. And I'm a -- [ass] for what I did that was wrong, not only to my clients who I loved and my partners, my friends, and especially my family, but to all those who I have caused suffering to.
I have had many hundreds of sleepless nights since I've come to acknowledge and recognize what I did over the course of my misconduct. And this recognition has been weighing heavily on me, one that led me to approach the Justice Department and the officials to admit what I did was wrong, and to agree to help in any way I could to make it right.
And I want more than life itself to try to do what I can to make things right. I know that I may not have enough years to make things right and I certainly may not have enough time to ever get my name or reputation back. But at least I want to try.
And the pain for me and my family has been intense and incomprehensible. I regret in every fiber of my being what I put my beloved children and my wife and my parents and my mother's blessed memory through, let alone those that I have caused harm to. And I wish with all my power that I could undo what I did do, those things that I did do that were wrong.
I've had time to think about how did it come to this. How did it come to this? I certainly was given every advantage growing up. I had what I thought were the right values and aims and goals.
And perhaps it was out of an arrogant self righteousness, wanting the things I thought were right to happen, and slowly losing bearing, losing track of the means to make those things happen and allowing corruption and bad behavior and things that ran right to the core -- against the core of what I did believe to take over all in an effort to believe that the ends would justify the means, and they don't. And I know they don't. And I regret, I will regret for the final days of my life.
I have fallen into an abyss, Your Honor, I don't quite know how to get out. My name is the butt of a joke, the source of laughs, the title of scandals, the synonym of perfidy. And I'm not sure that that will ever change.
I can only hope that I can try to make any kind of restitution possible for the rest of the days of my life to those that I have victimized; to heal my beloved family; to try to spend whatever time I'm given by you to do whatever good I can in prison with my fellow inmates, and hope that this horrible nightmare ends at some point.
And I beg Your Honor to consider all of the things that you've heard today in rendering your judgment as to how much longer I need to be away from my family and my community and this society. I appreciate the time you've had to spent on this case and all the cases that relate to it. And I'm sorry, so sorry that I put everyone through all this.
Thank you, Your Honor.
THE COURT: All right. Mr. Abramoff, if you would remain standing, the Court is ready to proceed.
From there, the Judge handed down her sentence.
It is worth noting that Abramoff did not directly apologize to any of his specific victims. If Mr. Sprague or Mr. Sickey or any of the Tribal Nations that Jack ripped off were waiting for a specific public apology from Jack, they are still waiting. And it is also true that most of Abramoff’s remorse is directed towards his family and friends—not his victims.
Still, I am encouraged that he seems to finally understand that the means you use to get somewhere matter as much or more than the end results you claim to desire. And Abramoff could have been explaining not only his failure but the failure of the conservative movement, the Republican Party and George W. Bush when he said:
And perhaps it was out of an arrogant self righteousness, wanting the things I thought were right to happen, and slowly losing bearing, losing track of the means to make those things happen and allowing corruption and bad behavior and things that ran right to the core -- against the core of what I did believe to take over all in an effort to believe that the ends would justify the means, and they don't.
I was also encouraged by his stated desire to "make any kind of restitution possible for the rest of the days of my life to those that I have victimized". A good start would be a public apology to the Native Americans he has ripped off and tainted with his corruption. And then he might want to get in touch with the individuals he has harmed and caused to be harmed through his actions and his obstruction of justice.
I’m thinking of a young woman name Katrina who was forced into the sex trade on the Marianas Islands back in the mid 1990s. She got out with the help of human rights workers like Wendy Doromal. Katrina’s story came out in a 1997 issue of Readers Digest. Later she told her story to Congress and by 1999 she was telling her story to ABC News. Before the story in Reader’s Digest was published Abramoff and his team were working overtime to push back on the story. They billed for hundreds of hours in this effort. They attacked and slandered Wendy Doromal and Katrina. Two of Abramoff’s Congressmen, Dana Rohrabacher and Ralph Hall even entered an attack on Katrina into the Congressional Record. If Jack wants to make restitution to his victims, he might want to get in touch with Katrina and apologize.
Or he could get in touch with Kayleen Entena. She is another young woman from the Philippians who was forced into the sex trade on the Marianas Islands back in September 2005. She testified about her ordeal to Congress in February 2007. When Kayleen was forcibly trafficked into the sex trade Jack Abramoff was already disgraced and negotiating a plea deal with the DOJ. Still, Kayleen is one of his victims. If Abramoff had not worked so hard to protect the system of sweatshops and human trafficking on the Marinas Islands, if he had not work so hard to block every attempt to stop the abuse between 1995 and 2005, Kayleen and hundreds of other young girls and young boys would not have been force into the global sex trade through the backrooms of the CNMI. Jack could apologize to these victims. He could use his second act to make restitution for the first by fighting the labor abuse he once protected.
He could also apologize to the guest workers on the CNMI. He might want to pay special attention to Pabitra Dhimal. Back in April of 2007 her father, Buddhi Lal Dhimal, a Nepalese guest worker on the CNMI for over 10 years today set himself on fire:
Dhimal was trapped in the hell that Abramoff protected and defended. He was owed thousands of dollars in back wages. He had a judgment from a CNMI Court that said he should be paid. He kept it with him until it was ragged. He had another paper as well: an order to appear at the CNMI labor office for a one way ticket back to Nepal. He was trapped. He was invisible—just another Guest worker—a disposable human commodity to fuel profits. From Dubai to Saipan these second class workers are everywhere, but the ones on Saipan were and are victims of Jack Abramoff’s crimes. If Jack wants to make restitution he might want to do something for these workers. An apology would be a start. Actively fighting for their rights would be better.
Look, I have been following the trail of Jack Abramoff since 1998. I know that he is a complex man. He is not all bad—I’m not sure anybody really is and I believe that he does have a path to redemption, a path to a second chance.
Time will tell. Actions will be the proof.
In the Trial transcripts two voices spoke for Abramoff. His lawyer spoke as a jerk who mouthed words of regret as a way to game the system. This could still be what is truly in Abramoff’s heart.
Or he could be changing from the prick he once was. He could mean what he said. He could be serious about redemption. We will know more as we see what happens next.
Abramoff will know where he stands when he can think of his victims with the same grief and remorse he now reserves for his family. He will be on the path to redemption when he see Buddhi Lal Dhimal’s daughter the same way he see his own daughter and when he feels in his soul that they both share the same humanity and deserve the same level of his care, respect and protection. Who knows if Jack will ever get there, but I’m pulling for him.