11/11/2011 12:58 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2012

Junkie Pride

Did you know that you can get a four-year prison sentence if you ask your congressman, to whom you've given a campaign contribution, to insert birthday wishes for your Mom into the Congressional Record, something congressmen do all the time?

That is a fair inference from the recent Sixty Minutes interview with Jack Abramoff, the disgraced former Washington lobbyist.1

Abramoff talked about how the culture of Washington was rampant with "legalized bribery." It was ubiquitous, he said. He declared that bribery was -- "giving a gift to [a lawmaker] who makes a decision on behalf of the public."

Sixty Minutes then used a telling example of the kind of bribery to which Abramoff had pleaded guilty.

Abramoff and his tribal client had contributed to the reelection campaign of Congressman Robert Ney (R-OH). Later, Abramoff asked if Ney would mind inserting some obscure language into a bill so that Abramoff's struggling tribal client could keep its casino open. There was, however, no explicit connection between the contribution and the favor.2

Those in the Washington knowledge business, including Abramoff, know the 1990 Supreme Court's definition of bribery. Bribery must have a specific quid pro quo. "I'll give you $100,000, if you help keep my tribal client's casino open." That's bribery. Something short of that is not.

If you make a contribution to a lawmaker's re-election campaign and later ask a favor, that's not bribery.

As a reporter, I got to know Abramoff pretty well. (I secretly interviewed him from June 2006 to May 2008, for a book that was published in September 2008.) 3

During his Sixty Minutes interview, I was not surprised to see that he was his usual likeable and articulate self. I was surprised, however, that Abramoff responded to his interviewer, Leslie Stahl, with almost "junkie pride." Yes, he said he had behaved badly, was contrite, and he then railed against the evils of what he had done. He sounded like an ex-addict speaking to a grade-school audience, warning them against the evils of drugs and alcohol.

I found his protestations wanting. He knows he had no business saying he was guilty of numerous felonies. His crimes -- if they were crimes -- were trivial, like the example Sixty Minutes used above.

Sixty Minutes also played up the fact that Abramoff had plied lawmakers and staffers with free drinks and meals at his restaurant and free tickets to sporting events. But Sixty Minutes also conceded that it was not illegal at the time for him to do so.

And yes, he "ripped off his tribal clients" by receiving an undisclosed finder's or referral fee from Michael Scanlon, whom Abramoff had recommended to his tribal clients as a public relations specialist. But the practice of undisclosed finder's and referral fees is quite common and is not illegal. Which is why the Justice Department could not charge him with a real crime like larceny or fraud. Instead, he was charged with the controversial and vaguely worded felony, called "honest-services fraud," recently gutted by the Supreme Court. That crime is not definable.

Wasn't Abramoff just another lobbyist doing 75 mph in a 65 mph zone, who got pulled over because he got too big for his britches or flew too close to the sun?

Of course, Abramoff could not say this. He is afraid to. He is still facing three years of supervised probation. He did plead guilty (to get a much-reduced sentence), so he doesn't dare recant and get thrown back into prison for perjury.

I was particularly amused by Leslie Stahl and her righteous indignation. "I'm angry at you!" she told Abramoff. It was reminiscent of the Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca, exclaiming, when confronted with evidence of gambling at Rick's Café, that he was "shocked, just shocked." Of course, Ms. Stahl is an honorable journalist, but she didn't just fall off the turnip truck. She knows how the system works. No doubt, she also knows that famous journalists game the supposedly meritocratic system all the time. They pick up the phone and put in a good word for a relative, or a friend, or the child of a friend, applying for a job in the news industry -- even though they never met the child.

Stahl also knows that federal prosecutors game the system too. They terrify defendants (like Abramoff) into pleading guilty to crimes they didn't commit, in return for a much-reduced sentence.

A few years back, The New York Times reported that nearly 1/3 of all convicted murderers and rapists, later cleared by DNA evidence, had pleaded guilty. Why in the world would anyone plead guilty to a crime he did not commit? They were terrified! And that percentage of innocent people forced to plead guilty does not include those whose innocence cannot eventually be established by DNA.

The state, using its prosecutors and police, to coerce innocent people into pleading guilty are committing a crime far more unconscionable than anything Abramoff ever did. But, that's the way the system works.

Everybody games the system -- the "good" guys and the "bad" guys. It's human nature.

Dismissive of recent lobbying reforms, Abramoff said the only way to clean up the system would be to "prohibit members of Congress and their staff from ever becoming lobbyists in Washington."

Abramoff is smart. He knows his suggestion isn't going to cure anything at all. "There's an arrogance on the part of lobbyists," he said in the interview, "and certainly there was on the part of me and my team, that no matter what [congressional reforms] they come up we, we're smarter than they are and we'll... just find another way [to get around them.]"

Everybody, including Abramoff, knows there is a very easy way to fix the problem. Ban all campaign contributions and political action committees. Poof, "legalized bribery" goes away.

But Abramoff is a right-wing Republican, the party of the rich. Banning campaign contributions will never happen, because the rich, who run this country, would never let it happen.

1 - The segment aired on November 6, 2011. It was reduced from two-parts to one, due to the death of and tribute to Andy Rooney.

2 - What Sixty Minutes did not mention was that Bob Ney had been forced to plead guilty in the Abramoff scandal, because Ney had been caught doing something wrong that had nothing to do with the scandal. Ney had accepted a large cash bribe from a Syrian arms dealer who was trying to get spare parts for aging American F-16s in the Iranian air force. That is a serious criminal offense, worthy of a long prison sentence. However, Ney only spent 17 months in prison, whereas Abramoff spent nearly four years.

3 - In June 2006, Abramoff agreed to extensive interviews with me only if my book were published after his release from prison. I figured it would take me three years to research and write the book and another year to go through the publishing process. The feds had already agreed that the sentences for his convictions in Florida and those in Washington would run concurrently. Hence, in four years (with a reduction in sentence for full cooperation) the book could be released without any deleterious effect on his sentence, because he would already be out of prison.

Abramoff went to prison on November 15, 2006. After that, I drove from Cambridge, MA to Cumberland, MD on the first Saturday of every month to interview him. On September 8, 2007, I showed up at his prison camp at 8:30 am, and was told he had just been transferred to the medium-security prison nearby. I was stunned. Later that morning, I was able to wrestle a visit out of the prison officials. Abramoff was being held in solitary confinement.

When he appeared, I have never seen anyone more despondent. Manacled, he was wearing a bright orange jump suit and elastic orange sneakers. Because he had committed such a serious offense, he was told that he was about to be transferred to a medium-security prison out west, making it impossible for his wife and children to visit him. What was his transgression? He had stupidly handed a note to some visiting octogenarian Jewish women from the local synagogue, requesting a torah from their rabbi for the high holidays. Prisoners are strictly forbidden from passing notes to visitors.

He asked me to leave immediately and to make indirect contact with the FBI and federal prosecutors, because if he were transferred to a faraway prison, it would make it virtually impossible for him to continue cooperating with the Justice Department. I made the calls and he was back in his cushy prison camp two days later.

This experience traumatized Abramoff. (I didn't mention it in the book fearing that prison officials would retaliate against him.)

About eight months later, on March 28, 2008, Sen. John McCain clinched the Republican nomination for president. I showed up for my monthly visit a few days later at Abramoff's prison camp on April 5. The last thing Abramoff wanted was for John McCain, his arch foe, to become president. Abramoff was concerned that with McCain as president, he would tell his attorney general to somehow make Abramoff's life in prison hell. He feared being set up. (The Justice Department runs the Bureau of Prisons.) Guards would "find" drugs or a cell phone in Abramoff cell, resulting in a transfer to a hard-core prison or an extension of his sentence.

I argued that it would be better if I published my book, which was critical of McCain, before the election. Abramoff -- who didn't like Obama, but loathed McCain more -- agreed. Federal District Judge Ellen Huvelle was slated to sentence him in a couple of months in Washington, D C.,, and Abramoff was expecting a much-reduced sentence that would run concurrently with his sentence in Florida. We both knew that my book (which would infuriate federal prosecutors with whom he had been cooperating because they had no idea he had been talking to me) could not possibly impact his final sentence because he would have already been sentenced.

I drove home. It was a great plan, except I still had about 12 months of manuscript left to write. I wrote day and night. I was done in three months. The publisher began the process of rushing the book into print.

Then, a problem arose. Abramoff's sentencing hearing had been postponed to September 4. I delayed the publication date by three weeks, sent out no advance copies, and agreed to embargo the book until several hours after Judge Huvelle had handed down Abramoff's final sentence.