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Gary S. Chafetz Headshot

An Open Letter to George W. Bush

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Dear President Bush,

I am writing to urge you to commute the sentence of Jack Abramoff. Although I know this request may sound far fetched, I would appreciate your forbearance until I can explain.

The truth in the Abramoff case is not what it appeared to be, as all the facts are not known. Because his lawyers advised against his testifying before Congress, and because federal prosecutors intimidated him into pleading guilty, Abramoff never got the chance to defend himself.

After conducting an exhaustive investigation, I concluded that Abramoff did not defraud his tribal clients, did not bribe any elected or appointed federal officials, and did not corrupt the political process. He did what most lobbyists do, only better. As a hired representative of an interest group, he sought access to lawmakers so he could plead his client's case, a right protected by the 1st Amendment. Abramoff was destroyed by the convergence of a perfect storm, generated by The Washington Post (in pursuit of a Pulitzer Prize), Sen. John McCain (in pursuit of personal and political vengeance), and the Department of Justice (in pursuit of high conviction rates). I arrived at these conclusions independently, reluctantly, and without enthusiasm. However, armed with all the facts and evidence in this case, I had no choice. As a liberal, this left me in the awkward, unenviable, and unpopular position of defending arch conservative Abramoff and criticizing The Washington Post, one of my favorite newspapers.

When the first Washington Post stories ran in early 2004, they seemed fair and reasonable. Eventually, I realized they were not. For example, the gaming Indians that Abramoff was accused of defrauding were not "gullible" at all, something the Post wanted us to believe. These Indians operated highly lucrative casinos whose annual gross revenues in some cases approached $500 million. These Indians could afford the country's best attorneys, accountants, consultants...and lobbyists. Abramoff was perhaps the best tribal lobbyists ever. What was conveniently omitted was that he saved Indian Country at least $33 billion (and counting), far in excess of his high fees.

Sen. John McCain -- as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee -- wanted payback for what he believed was Abramoff's role in the notorious "black baby" smear campaign, during the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary. McCain selectively and underhandedly released a tiny fraction of e-mails he had subpoenaed -- usually taken out of context -- which put Abramoff in the worst possible light. Later, McCain issued a 373-page Senate Indian Affairs report, vilifying Abramoff. I concluded that the report was maliciously disingenuous.

Due to the public's hue and cry, federal prosecutors felt compelled to focus their omnipotent power on Abramoff and subsequently terrified him into pleading guilty, even though he didn't believe he was guilty. Innocent or not, defendants like Abramoff plead guilty because they do not want to become bankrupted by legal fees, they want to avoid the trauma for themselves and their families of multiple trials and appeals, they do not want to be found guilty of some technicality (because everyone is guilty of some crime, such as the vaguely worded "private honest-services fraud"), and because they are made aware that prosecutors can give those who do not "cooperate" the maximum sentence in a maximum-security prison with violent offenders. Prosecutors, however, almost always offer the terrified white-collar defendant (who has never even seen the inside of a jail cell), an attractive alternative. The defendant can plead guilty to whatever the prosecutors stipulate, cooperate fully, be rewarded with a much-reduced sentence, which will be served in a relatively cushy federal prison camp. This is exactly what happened to Jack Abramoff. (Of course, he dares not officially admit this, because prosecutors could then charge him with perjury.)

Mr. President, if, after reading my book, The Perfect Villain, you agree with my counter-intuitive conclusions about Abramoff, please commute his sentence to time served. His actual transgressions were minor. He did not deserve to be utterly ruined. He has been punished enough.

Your commutation will lead to a robust reexamination of the merits of the Abramoff case, and thus, for the first time, expose the true roles of The Washington Post and Sen. John McCain. The public will then realize that it had been hoodwinked by a simplistic "too-good-to-be-true" narrative. The allegedly black-and-white, open-and-shut story was actually a complex lynching. The public will realize that your commutation was an honorable and merciful act of courage.

Your commutation will also serve to remind us that we should always reserve judgment until all the facts are carefully and objectively sifted. As I'm sure you know, the press, politicians, and prosecutors cannot necessarily be trusted.

I wish you the very best of luck with your post-presidential pursuits.


Gary S. Chafetz is the author of the recently published The Perfect Villain: John McCain and the Demonization of Lobbyist Jack Abramoff.