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Jack Abramoff Does Not Know How He Will Pay Back $44 Million, Will Not Go On 'Dancing With The Stars'

Jack Abramoff

The Huffington Post   First Posted: 03/20/2012 1:00 pm Updated: 03/21/2012 4:06 pm

WASHINGTON -- Jack Abramoff is sitting in a Starbucks just south of Dupont Circle. He is not wearing his infamous black hat. Or any hat at all.

He is just another guy in a button-down at a computer with an iced tea and an iPhone that rings a lot. One who served some three and a half years in prison for crimes relating to his work as a lobbyist and who owes $44 million in restitution for defrauding his Indian tribe clients.

"It's a lot of money," he says. "We'll just have to see how things turn out. I'm trying. I'm much more limited, much more handicapped, than I was in the old days."

The man whose notorious black hat once symbolized Washington corruption has reinvented himself as a crusader for political reform with the new political reform group United Republic.

There is some skepticism about this transformation; there are some who are downright incredulous. All that doesn't concern Abramoff.

"Why do I care if you think I'm sincere?" Abramoff says. "I'm not trying to win your approval."

Abramoff is no longer rallying Republicans with Grover Norquist, or setting up skyboxes for legislators in return for political favors. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians are no longer paying him -- twice over; he was double-dipping -- to make sure their casinos don't have local competitors.

Abramoff's battle to keep the Northern Mariana Islands' minimum wage and immigration system outside of federal control has been lost. Abramoff's restaurant, Signatures -- purportedly opened in order to give him a kosher venue in which to eat and lobby -- is long since closed. And it's been 17 years since he made an anti-communist movie.

At one point, Abramoff brought in some $20 million per year. In 2009, while in jail, he said his family was living just above the poverty level. Their family's Silver Spring roof needed to be fixed; they couldn't fix it without dipping into a $500,000 tax refund that the Justice Department wanted put toward restitution.

More recently, Abramoff has written a very engaging if not-quite-complete memoir of his misdeeds that closes with his recommendations for how to fix the system (In a nutshell: Lobbyists should not be able to make political contributions. Neither should government contractors or anyone else who benefits financially from the government.)

Is his roof fixed now? Does Abramoff have anywhere kosher to eat in the District anymore? What does he think of the D.C. Council's ethical malfunctions? Does he still go to Caps games, now that he's not plying politicians for favors with his famous Skyboxes? Does he still think The Washington Post is out to get him?

The Huffington Post recently caught up with Abramoff to find out.

The Huffington Post: Where are you living now?

Jack Abramoff: Same house I've been in for years [in Silver Spring, Md.]. The roof got fixed. They gave us a tax refund. They didn't allow us to do much with it but they did let us fix the roof.

HuffPost: What is life in D.C. like for you now?

Abramoff: I don't really come to D.C. a lot. I'm mainly on the road or giving interviews on the phone. I come down every now and again. Not frequently.

HuffPost: You owe $44 million. How are you going to pay it back?

Abramoff: Who knows if I can. It's a lot of money. We'll just have to see how things turn out. I'm trying. I'm much more limited, much more handicapped, than I was in the old days. I'm doing everything I can.

HuffPost: Does that mean you're getting back into the movie business?

Abramoff: I'm trying. It's a lot harder now than it used to be when I was there. When I was making movies, the video world was significant. That's gone. DVD is gone.

HuffPost: What about real estate?

Abramoff: I never really did real estate. You need money to do real estate. I don't have any money. All I have really is my creativity.

I'm looking for the entire landscape of media. Another book, which I'm in discussions about right now. The column which I do. The radio. Some TV opportunities. Internet. Any kind of area where I can use my brain and my creativity versus having to use assets, which I don't have.

HuffPost: Do you still see Grover Norquist? Do you go to his Wednesday meetings?

Abramoff: No. I haven't been at those meetings for a long long time. At least a decade. I didn't really go a lot as a lobbyist. I went maybe twice as a lobbyist.

HuffPost: Are you and Grover done?

Abramoff: I don't know if we're done or not done. We don't have any hostility toward each other. I like Grover. I think I treated him well in my book. We're into different things right now. There might be an intersection in the future.

HuffPost: Are you still a conservative?

Abramoff: Yes.

HuffPost: What does that mean now?

Abramoff: What did it mean then?

HuffPost: Now you're working with Larry Lessig. (See clarification below: Abramoff works with United Republic, a group that in part funds a group founded by Lessig, Rootstrikers.)

Abramoff: United Republic. I don't think my position is a non-conservative position. I don't agree with everything they stand for. They don't agree with everything I stand for. I think what I'm trying to do, reform-wise, is completely consistent with conservative philosophy. It may not be consistent with some so-called conservatives who live in Washington and make their living like I used to.

HuffPost: People seem to be having a hard time telling if you're sincere.

Abramoff: This attitude of 'how do we know if you're sincere.' Why do I care if you think I'm sincere? I'm not trying to win your approval. I'm not trying to run for something. What's my agenda? To reform all these things. Is that a bad agenda? Make money off this? There's no money to be made off this.

People don't understand business. They don't understand the book business. My book, it did OK. It's not going to return me anything significant. I get to subsist live. That's it.

HuffPost: What does that mean? No eating out? No going to the theater?

Abramoff: I don't drive, unless somebody takes me. We just don't spend that kind of money. We don't go to the theater, we don't do anything. We just read. We have books, and the Internet. It means scrutiny of every expense. And if I were to try to take a vacation, there's no way I would get away with that. That's if the books sold $44 million worth of books. Which of course it won't.

Speaking, I get whatever I get. It goes toward my subsistence. And toward restitution. What other money is there in this? Unless I'm missing something. I'd love to know about it. Please if they think of something, call me, tell me. I'd love to make more money off this.

The reality is I'm going to have to live off of this certain amount of money, no matter how much money I make. I don't know if I'll make $44 million. But I'm capable of making $44 million. I know I'm intellectually capable of finding a series of things and making hundreds of millions. I have to get there and do it. Carefully. Legally.

But this is not it. Not only is this not it, it's not even setting me up for it. I'm doing this because, a.) I believe it. And, b.) I should do this. I have to do this. I don't want to leave this earth having just sort of been in that world and knowing all I know. I don't know if I'll succeed in getting it changed. I'm sure trying.

Everybody's a complex person. Everybody. Everybody's nuanced. I was more complex than most people. I have all sorts of conflicting, to the world conflicting philosophies. Not to me. Conflicting actions. I understand what I do. They don't. I was working for certain clients. I wanted results. That's all. I made mistakes. I did things that were wrong. Looking back I'm ashamed, embarrassed.

I never said anything when this happened to me. People got to say what they wanted about me. And then I came out of court one day in a hat. Which I wore because it was raining when I got there. And all of a sudden that just added to it. In my world, in the Orthodox Jewish world, that's not a symbol of villainy. Still.

I was taken through a wringer. There was a long time when I would go into places in Washington and people would sneer at me. So there are people out there who still have that image of me in their mind. That was never me.

What can you do. Life is what it is. You deal with what you've got.

[Abramoff later clarified by email that he has been paid for speaking. "The fees range quite widely, up to $20,000 per speech. All of these help pay down the restitution." He said that "not much" has been paid toward the $44 million. "I have only been out a short time and earning money is not as easy as it once was."]

HuffPost: Do you pay attention at all to D.C. government? Are you watching their ethics problems?

Abramoff: Not really. I never paid attention to D.C. government.

HuffPost: Are you still a local teams fan?

Abramoff: Yeah. I'm a Caps fan. I don't pay much attention to sports. It was business. And my kids. My kids are big Caps fans. I don't really care. It's not like it's important to me right now.

HuffPost: Are you still trying to get Dan Snyder to change the Redskins' name?

Abramoff: I tried. I tried as best I could. I made probably the most direct argument to him of anyone. And with as many reasons as I could. But he wasn't going to do it. And my clients didn't even care, by the way. My clients didn't really care about that. I cared about that. I thought it was unbecoming. But he chose not to do it. I understand. I don't agree.

HuffPost: The Washington Post recently ran a nice column about you, by Dana Milbank. Does this mean your relationship with The Post is changing?

Abramoff: I hope it's changing. Maybe because I resubscribed. No, I'm kidding. The Wall Street Journal doesn't give you any local news. And The Washington Times, which I also get, also doesn't. I can't say I agree with a lot of what I read in The Post.

HuffPost: Are there any good kosher restaurants in D.C. now?

Abramoff: There's one called Eli's on 20th and N [streets NW]. It's certainly adequate.

HuffPost: You said in your book that it was necessary to bring people to the Northern Mariana Islands so they could see for themselves what it was like there, and get beyond what they were reading in the newspaper. Under your proposed reforms, would that still be possible?

Abramoff: I think it might have to be that only federal travel is permitted. I'm still thinking about it. I haven't come to the answer to every problem. Nobody can. I also believe that it's vital with reforms the government's got to get out of the business of a lot of this stuff. The federal government, in my view, shouldn't even be in the minimum wage business for the Marianas. Let them do what they want.

HuffPost: Do you think every territory should be allowed to do what they want?

Abramoff: Yes I do. I think every state should be allowed to set their own economic laws. If a state wants to do certain things, people have a right to pick up and move.

I believe that none of these things ultimately will matter if the federal government isn't reduced significantly. There's a reason there are 30,000 lobbyists here. And that's because they're involved in millions of things they shouldn't be involved in. Will we ever get to that? It's unlikely.

HuffPost: What do you think of Citizens United?

Abramoff: I understand the legal processes of Citizens United. It makes a lot of sense legally. It's a tough issue. I think that most people who rail against Citizens United probably haven't read the case, haven't thought it through. But it does create other issues. The problem is the consequences of it. All of election law seems to be a bunch of bad laws followed by weird court decisions.

What I would do is say here's the deal: anybody can give anything they want. Unless you are getting something back from the government. If you're getting something back from the government you're out. I think that would take care of most of the problems.

***

HuffPost emailed Abramoff a couple of days after meeting at Starbucks to ask one last question, prompted by a glitzy TV commercial. Abramoff answered with a quick, terse email back. "Dancing with the Stars? I don’t dance and I’m not a star, so no, I would not appear on that program."

CLARIFICATION: This post has been updated to reflect that Jack Abramoff is not directly working with Harvard University's Lawrence Lessig. Abramoff is working with United Republic, an organization which in part funds Rootstrikers, a group founded Lessig.

RELATED VIDEO: Lawrence Lessig interviews Jack Abramoff.

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