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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.
 
 
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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.

 
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