News & Politics

Russian Spies, the Religious Right, Casinos, Mob-Style Killing: Jack Abramoff and the GOP's Unbridled, Shameless Greed

Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney tells the sordid story of super lobbyist Jack Abramoff from Beverly Hills High to federal prison.

If you need any more motivation to get active-like-it-matters in the fight to get big money funders and lobbyists out of politics, see Alex Gibney’s new film, CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY. With Indian casinos, Russian spies, Chinese sweatshops, and a mob-style killing in Miami, it follows super lobbyist Jack Abramoff from Beverly Hills High to federal prison.

Gibney’s work as a director includes JIMI HENDRIX AND THE BLUES, GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON, ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM (nominated for an Academy Award), and TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE (winner of the Oscar for Documentary Feature). He was Executive Producer of NO END IN SIGHT (also nominated for an Oscar), and producer under Martin Scorsese of the PBS series, THE BLUES. A rough cut of a documentary on former NY governor Eliot Spitzer was recently screened at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Terrence McNally: How did the film Casino Jack happen?

Alex Gibney: I had read about Jack Abramoff the super lobbyist, but I wasn’t convinced it could become a movie until I saw a compendium piece that put all of his activities in one spot. I realized how many tentacles the guy had, and thought it was a fantastic story -- and a great way to talk about the dangers of what happens when we put our government up for sale.

McNally: The film runs almost exactly two hours and it’s packed with one event after another. Can you briefly tell us about a couple of his biggest schemes with Native American tribes and the Marianas Islands.

Gibney: He would find oddball clients who desperately needed access to government power. A key guy in charge during that period was Tom Delay, and Delay essentially allowed Jack Abramoff to market him -- Okay, Jack, go to your clients, and say they can only have access to me if they pay you.

From those clients, Jack raised tremendous amounts of money for the Republican party and sometimes for Delay himself. It was a kind of mutual marketing game, a perfect circle of cash. It amounted to putting the government up for sale, selling Delay’s power to the highest bidder.

McNally: You mentioned that he found obscure clients who really needed help. We’re not talking about big agribusiness or big pharma.

Gibney: He found those clients for a couple of reasons. One, he could take advantage of them. If you’re a small tribe in Louisiana who’s traditionally been giving to Democratic politicians, and suddenly the Republicans are in power, you need somebody who can get you access. You have a lot of money because your casinos are spitting off a lot of dough. You need a way to get inside and you don’t normally have those contacts.

The Marianas Islands is actually a government, a commonwealth territory of the United States. They were running a kind of sweatshop program using low-cost Chinese and Filipino labor, which was allowed under a special provision that they had, but they were grossly abusing it. They hired Jack Abramoff to prevent the federal government from coming in and restoring federal labor and minimum wage laws.

McNally: Companies were able to put the Made In USA tag on goods manufactured in sweatshops. And the Marianas Islands also were a nice place for Abramoff to take political office holders and their staffs and cronies for golf vacations, and maybe some strip club vacations as well.

Gibney: He showed them a good time while they were out there, and no doubt they spent very little time touring the factories. When they did, it was with the foreman. They would ask the helpless worker, “So, any abuses here today?”… “No… okay, let’s move on.” That’s pretty much the way it went.

McNally: George Miller of California, who was actually talking to those suffering labor and rights abuses, fought against the whitewash and ultimately lost. Meanwhile Abramoff makes a ton of money. As you point out, what got him into trouble was not just that he took exorbitant fees –

Gibney: -- huge fees.

McNally: …from those handpicked obscure clients who don’t know the game. When he said, “This is what it’ll take to get what you need,” they did what he told them. But Abramoff didn’t keep all this money to himself or his lobbying firm. He split it with Ralph Reed and others…

Gibney: Abramoff was an ideologue, and he was using these clients to funnel tremendous amounts of money to the Republican party, but his deal with Ralph Reed was just a raw greed scam. He’d hire Reed to drum up the religious right to oppose gambling. They’d say “This is terrible, we’ve got to shut down this casino,” never telling anybody that the millions he was paying Reed came from an opposing tribal casino who wanted to eliminate competition. That kind of hypocritical confidence game has nothing to do with lobbying.

McNally: Representing Tribe A, Abramoff pays a lot of money to Ralph Reed to mount a religious objection to the casino of Tribe B and gets it shut down. Jack then takes an enormous sum of money from Tribe B to pull strings in Washington to reopen their casino. So he makes money on both sides of that.

One of the most fascinating things to me is the religious convictions of these guys. Reed is an Evangelical Christian, Abramoff converts at the age of 12 to strict Orthodox Judaism, so he’s also got this fundamentalist religious bent, and Tom Delay is born again from a life of debauchery…

Gibney: Delay used to be known as “hot-tub Tom,” a ten-martini-a-day man.

McNally: We also see Grover Norquist, who runs Americans for Tax Reform, the one who made the famous statement that he would like to shrink the federal government so you could take it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub. I loved the clips of Norquist, Reed, Abramoff and Karl Rove as cronies in the College Republicans.

Gibney: This would have been in the early 80s, when they were campaigning to put Ronald Reagan in the White House.

McNally: These young pups, very ambitious, very ideological. You show us their adventures, not just with Reagan’s “freedom-fighters” in El Salvador and Nicaragua, but with Jonas Zavimbi in Angola and others. Looking at this pretty crazy stuff, who would have predicted that these guys would end up with such enormous power a few years later?

Gibney: They saw themselves as adventurers. We show clips of them holding a kind of right-wing Woodstock in Nicaragua: shooting machine guns in the air, and singing their version of Kumbaya with the Contras, the Mujahadeen from Afghanistan, with another group from Southeast Asia, a whole bunch of people. It was a wild scene. It’s as though they were Lenin and his pals going to Finland station. They were planning how they would take over the government, and in a funny way they did.

McNally: We’ve already talked about corrupt deals with Ralph Reed, but we also see that Grover Norquist was involved in some shady stuff as well. I’d never heard about that before.

Gibney: It seems to me that he was abusing his not-for-profit status, acting as a conduit to hide the source of money that was going to Ralph Reed -- so Reed could claim that he wasn’t being paid by Indian casinos, when in fact he was. Abramoff would route the money through Grover’s organization, Grover would take a piece, and send the rest on to Ralph Reed.

McNally: You say there were no indictments. How obvious is this money laundering, and why hasn’t anything happened?

Gibney: I think what Ralph Reed did was not illegal, though it was hypocritical in the extreme.

I’m a little bit surprised that no indictment was ever served on Grover Norquist. Even more, I’m very surprised that Reed and Norquist were never called before the Indian Affairs Committee by John McCain. When I visited Abramoff in prison, he told me that because McCain wanted to run for president, he was very selective about who he pursued.

McNally: In the film, you point out how clever it was to go after Abramoff while the Republicans were in power. Although it meant fingering one of their own, they could put limits on the investigation. They could claim as usual that there are no systemic problems, just a few bad apples.

Gibney: John McCain was very political and in some ways very smart, but his investigations shouldn’t be confused with out and out idealism. I think he did us all a service by making available through subpoena power all of these emails of Jack Abramoff’s. This let us learn a great deal, but he also hid a tremendous number of those emails, and they’ve never come to light. He narrowly targeted the investigation so that he wouldn’t compromise the rest of the Republican party, who were knee deep in Abramoff problems. All so that John McCain could get elected.

McNally: CASINO JACK has a companion social action website: takepart.com/followthemoney, that highlights the role of money in politics, and features initiatives designed to educate citizens about their elected officials ties to special interest groups and provide tools to create a movement for meaningful campaign finance reform.

Gibney: Among other things, it gives you an immediate sense of who the biggest contributors are to your congress-people and senators, and also highlights some current initiatives that may help forestall or diminish the influence of money in government.

McNally: Finally, taking the problems you deal with as a given, it looks to me like what we need is some body in the US that actually takes the long term and the big picture view, rather than acting only on short term self interest. Yet we have a culture that doesn’t want any “elite” to come in and do that. You’re a communicator as well as passionately interested in making this country work. What’s your sense of how we can actually overcome the cultural distrust of what we need?

Gibney: One of the things that Ronald Reagan and his followers have done very effectively is to create a kind of fundamental and emotional disdain for government. And I think we can understand it. None of us like to pay taxes, and all of us get upset about government inefficiency. But until we reckon with the idea that the government is us, that it’s really our vehicle for changing the country, we’re never going to get anywhere. And if we think that Goldman Sachs, AT&T and Pfizer are going to take care of us, we’ve got another think coming. So long as we have government up for sale, politicians are going to pursue the short term self interest of the corporations that fund them, and we’re never going to be able to get our representatives to make good decisions.

Interviewer Terrence McNally hosts Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles and WBA I99.5FM, New York (streaming at kpfk.org and wbai.org). He also advises non-profits and foundations on communications. Visit terrencemcnally.net for podcasts of all interviews and more.