In It To Win: The Jack Abramoff Story

Featuring former lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff, this 25-minute documentary explores the internal biases and external pressures he faced as well as the consequences of his unethical decision-making.

Discussion Questions

1. What are the key points that this documentary raises?

2. What did Abramoff do that was unethical, even if legal? Why were these actions unethical?

3. The documentary focuses on Abramoff’s role as a lobbyist within a system that is, he argues, more corrupt than ever. To what degree do individuals have a responsibility to act ethically within a morally corrupt system?

4. The documentary raises the point that white-collar crime is generally considered far less problematic than hard crime. Do you agree? Why or why not? What are the long-term consequences of white-collar crimes for individuals, families, society?

5. Do you agree with the UT officials who decided to bring Abramoff to campus in order to speak to students and create this film? What ethical issues were involved in their decision-making process?

6. Compare Abramoff’s situation with the Lance Armstrong scandal. What similarities can you identify? What differences? What character traits do you think led each man to act illegally and unethically? Are their actions representative of ‘everything wrong’ (i.e. hunger for power, money, fame) with American society?

7. Do you think Abramoff’s success as a lobbyist supports the idea that politicians are corrupt or easily corruptible? Should we place blame on Abramoff and the politicians or the system in which they operate? If the system is fundamentally flawed, is it fair for individual lobbyists or politicians to pay the price?

8. In the film, Abramoff notes that he thought he was the ‘moral lobbyist’? Why does he think so and do you agree with him?

9. Abramoff still owes the government $44 million in restitution. Some argue that he is only speaking out against corruption to get past this debt and regain his prior fame and fortune. Others believe his claim that he is in a unique position to expose the corruption of the system. Do you believe Abramoff genuinely regrets his prior actions and is now working hard at improving how our government operates? Or do you think he is just ‘out for himself’? Does it matter whether he’s sincere if his actions lead to important reforms?

10. Do you think you could survive in today’s world if you promised yourself that you would always act honorably? Do you think such a life is possible?

Case Studies

Abramoff: Lobbying Congress

On March 29, 2006, former lobbyist Jack Abramoff was sentenced to six years in federal prison after pleading guilty to mail fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials. Key to Abramoff’s conviction were his lobbying efforts that began in the 1990s on behalf of Native American tribes seeking to establish gambling on reservations.

In 1996, Abramoff began working for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. With the help of Republican tax reform advocate Grover Norquist, and his political advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform, Abramoff defeated a Congressional bill that would have taxed Native American casinos. Texas Representative and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay also played a major role in the bill’s defeat. DeLay pushed the agenda of Abramoff’s lobbying clients in exchange for favors from Abramoff.

In 1999, Abramoff similarly lobbied to defeat a bill in the Alabama State Legislature that would have allowed casino-style games on dog racing tracks. This bill would have created competition for his clients’ casino businesses. Republican political activist Ralph Reed, and his political consulting firm Century Strategies, aided the effort by leading a grassroots campaign that rallied Alabama-based Christian organizations to oppose the bill.

As Abramoff’s successes grew, his clients, political contacts, and influence expanded. He hired aides and former staff of members of Congress. In 2001, Abramoff began working with Congressman DeLay’s former communications director, Michael Scanlon, who had formed his own public affairs consulting firm, Capitol Campaign Strategies. The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana hired Abramoff and Capitol Campaign Strategies to help them renegotiate their gambling agreement with the State of Louisiana. Abramoff, however, did not disclose to the tribe that, in addition to his own consulting fees, he also received a portion of the fees paid to Scanlon’s firm.

In an effort to protect his Coushatta clients in Louisiana from competition by a new casino near Houston, Texas, Abramoff successfully lobbied for a state gambling ban in Texas between 2001 and 2002. Incidental to this ban was the closure of a casino in El Paso, Texas, owned by the Tigua Tribal Nation. The Tigua were another one of Abramoff’s casino clients.

Later in 2002, Abramoff made a pitch to the Tigua to work to oppose the ban for which he had previously lobbied successfully. With the Tigua’s money, Abramoff took Ohio Representative Bob Ney and his staff on a golfing trip to Scotland. Abramoff hoped to convince Ney and his colleagues to slip a provision into an election-reform bill that would grant the Tigua gaming rights. Abramoff’s efforts did not pay off, and the deal he sought fell through, but he did not inform the Tigua of this outcome. Rather, Abramoff continued to give the Tigua hope for the provision’s success, while also continuing to charge them for his and Scanlon’s services. And, in their email exchanges, Abramoff and Scanlon often mocked their tribal clients as “morons” and “monkeys.”

Throughout the course of their work with Native American tribes, Abramoff and Scanlon charged upwards of $66 million. The Coushatta paid over $30 million to protect their casino and to stop competing casinos in Texas. The Tigua paid $4.2 million to try to continue operating their casino in Texas. Abramoff has stated that he donated much of the money he made to charities, schools, and causes he believed in. But he also spent millions of dollars on activities or contributions in connection with politicians and campaigns he sought to influence. Furthermore, he evaded taxes by funneling money through nonprofit organizations with which he partnered.

After his conviction in 2006, Abramoff cooperated in the investigation of his relationships with Congress members, including aides, business associates, government officials, and lawmakers. Representatives DeLay and Ney both stepped down from their positions in Congress. DeLay, who had risen to the rank of House Majority Leader, was charged with money laundering and conspiracy of funneling corporate contributions to state candidates. Ney plead guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and making false statements. In exchange for gifts, lavish trips, and political donations from Abramoff, DeLay and Ney had used their positions in Congress to grant favors to Abramoff’s clients and lobbying team. Abramoff served three and a half years of a six-year prison term. He was released on December 3, 2010.

Since his release, Abramoff has spoken out against corruption in politics. He has stated that he believed himself to be a “moral lobbyist” and has apologized for his actions. In a 2011 interview, he said, “What’s legal in this system is the problem,” and in his memoir, he wrote, “Unfortunately, I was a miniature version of that system.” But not everyone perceived his redemption as a genuine effort. Tigua tribal leaders said his apologies were too little, too late. Rick Hill, former chairman of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, stated, “You look at Jack—though he took money from my elders and our kids, and now he comes here, and he gets to prop himself up, and it’s an acceptable part of [Washington] D.C. culture. He wouldn’t stand a minute on the reservation.”

Others point to the American political system, and see Abramoff as a symptom of broader corruption. Investigative journalist Susan Schmidt stated, “Abramoff couldn’t have flourished if this system, itself, was not corrupt, where the need for money—the members of Congress and their need for money—is so voracious and so huge that they don’t have their guard up.” California Representative Dana Rohrabacher said, “What Jack had been doing was what had been done before. People should pay more attention to the fact that we have got some enormous special interests in this country who are having incredible influences on policy.”

In his memoir, Abramoff reflected on personal and professional reform: “Regardless of my rationalizations, I was the one who didn’t disclose to my clients that there was a conflict of interest… I wasn’t the devil that the media were so quick to create, but neither was I the saint I always hoped to become. …I decided that, in order to move myself close to the angels, I would take what happened in my life, try to learn from it, and use it to educate others.”

Discussion Questions

1. Abramoff had an established set of morals in his personal life, and was deeply religious. He believed he was a ‘moral lobbyist’ who fought hard on behalf of his clients, and he donated much of his proceeds to worthy causes. Do you think the blame of his lobbying tactics primarily lies with Abramoff individually, or with the system within which he operated? Explain.

2. To what degree do you think individuals have a responsibility to act ethically within a corrupt system? How would an individual act ethically in this context?

3. Lobbying is a high-pressure, high-stakes business. Although lobbyists typically try to fly below the radar-screen, sometimes their business is high-profile as well. How might these situational factors affect lobbyists’ ability to act ethically?

4. Why do you think Abramoff and his associates would mock clients who were paying them millions of dollars? How does one rationalize or explain such behavior?

5. Since his release from prison, Abramoff has advocated for political reform, but many do not see his efforts as genuine. Do you agree with the view that Abramoff is a morally bankrupt felon who has no business advocating reform? Or do you agree with the view that Abramoff is a fallible human in a unique position to help us learn from his moral mistakes and reform a broken system? Explain.

6. Many politicians who received contributions from Abramoff or his clients donated portions of the funds they received to charity. Only a small fraction of politicians donated the money to Native American tribes. Do you think politicians who received these funds had a moral obligation to donate their money to Native American tribes? Why or why not? Do you have a different opinion of those who did donate to Native American tribes versus those who didn’t? Explain.

7. If you were hired to lobby on behalf of both the Coushatta’s casino in Louisiana and the Tigua’s casino in Texas, how would you negotiate the potential conflict of interest? Explain.

8. How many basic ethics and behavioral ethics concepts can you identify at work in this case study? Explain and discuss their significance.

9. What legal reforms would you recommend that would make lobbyists more likely to act ethically? Why would you recommend these reforms, and how might you implement them?

Bibliography

Investigating Abramoff – Special Report
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/linkset/2005/06/22/LI2005062200936.html

Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth about Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist
http://www.worldcat.org/title/capitol-punishment-the-hard-truth-about-washington-corruption-from-americas-most-notorious-lobbyist/oclc/746839199

How a Lobbyist Stacked the Deck
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/15/AR2005101501539.html

A Jackpot From Indian Gaming Tribes
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/06/AR2006030600702.html

Jack Abramoff Confronted by Native American Tribes
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/07/jack-abramoff-native-american-tribes-crimes_n_1326917.html

For Ex-Lobbyist Abramoff, a Multimedia Effort at Redemption
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/13/us/jack-abramoff-making-a-multimedia-effort-at-redemption.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FAbramoff%2C%20Jack

Abramoff and 4 Others Sued by Tribe Over Casino Closing
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/13/us/13tribe.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FAbramoff%2C%20Jack

Abramoff Effect: The Smell of Casino Money
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/16/opinion/abramoff-effect-the-smell-of-casino-money.html

The Fast Rise and Steep Fall of Jack Abramoff
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/28/AR2005122801588.html

Trial Money Linked to GOP Fundraising
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A26015-2004Dec25.html

‘Operation Open Doors’
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A30123-2004Dec2.html

A Lobbyist in Full
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/01/magazine/a-lobbyist-in-full.html

Lobbyists, Clients Undeterred by Scandal
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/25/AR2005062500983_pf.html

Lawrence Lessig interviews Jack Abramoff
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkvIS5pZ0eI

Casino Jack and the United States of Money
http://www.worldcat.org/title/casino-jack-and-the-united-states-of-money/oclc/646071490

Heist: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies, and the Buying of Washington
http://www.worldcat.org/title/heist-superlobbyist-jack-abramoff-his-republican-allies-and-the-buying-of-washington/oclc/69241491

Teaching Notes

Download Teaching Notes as PDF

This 25-minute documentary draws from footage shot at The University of Texas at Austin when former lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff visited to talk about his life, politics, prison, and corrupt lobbying in Washington, D.C.

During the Bush Administration, Abramoff was the most influential lobbyist in Washington, D.C. He was also at the center of one of the most significant political scandals since Watergate. His excesses led to his downfall and that of Congress members with whom he was closely connected, including aides, business associates, government officials, and lawmakers.

As a video case, In It to Win: The Jack Abramoff Story includes the documentary, six short videos that each focus on a behavioral ethics bias as illustrated by Abramoff’s story, and a written case study. The documentary can be used on its own to stimulate discussion about ethical issues and lapses, or used with its supporting materials to supplement topics taught in disciplines such as government, business, and economics. The video case is also appropriate for courses such as American studies, history, political science, law, journalism, communications, film, and psychology.

The main objective of the video case is to illustrate how well intentioned people can make serious ethical errors—and even commit crimes—if they are not careful. It exposes personal and systemic ethical concerns in government and business, and explores the responsibility of the individual to organizations and communities. It also looks at the relationship between law and ethics, issues of power and privilege, and above all, the potential pitfalls any ambitious person faces when operating within a hyper-competitive environment.

Indeed, Abramoff is not someone who just “doesn’t get” ethics. He believed he was a ‘moral lobbyist’ who fought hard on behalf of his clients. In retrospect, he can see where he went wrong and appears to regret his errors deeply. Yet, why could he not see this at the time?

The kind of decision-making errors that Abramoff made are the focus of a field of study known as behavioral ethics, which draws upon psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and related disciplines to determine how and why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do. Much behavioral ethics research addresses the question of why good people do bad things.

To understand six specific behavioral ethics concepts in more depth as they relate to Abramoff’s story, watch the short videos that accompany this documentary: Jack & Framing, Jack & Moral Equilibrium, Jack & Overconfidence Bias, Jack & Rationalizations, Jack & Role Morality, and Jack & Self-serving Bias.

Many additional behavioral and general ethics concepts that appear in the documentary may be explored in greater detail in the Concepts Unwrapped videos. Watch Conflict of Interest, Ethical Fading, Ethical Leadership, Part 1: Perilous at the Top, Framing, Legal Rights & Ethical Responsibilities, Moral Equilibrium, Moral Myopia, Overconfidence Bias, Role Morality, and Self-serving Bias to learn more. To understand rationalizations, watch Being Your Best Self, Part 3: Moral Intent, and GVV Pillar 7: Reasons & Rationalizations from the GVV video series.

The case study on this page, “Abramoff: Lobbying Congress,” details Abramoff’s lobbying activities and the scandal that ended his career. Another case study, “Cheney v. U.S. District Court,” explores conflict of interest in government. For a case study about ethical fading during the Watergate scandal, read “Krogh & the Watergate Scandal.”

Additional Resources

Books about the lobbying scandal include Jack Abramoff’s own account, “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist” (WND Books, 2011) and an exposé from journalist Peter H. Stone, “Heist: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies, and the Buying of Washington” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).

Movies about the scandal include a documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money (Dir. Alex Gibney, 2010), and a dramatization starring Kevin Spacey, Casino Jack (Dir. George Hickenlooper, 2010).

For more resources on teaching behavioral ethics, an article written by Ethics Unwrapped authors Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, and Cara Biasucci introduces key concepts in behavioral ethics and approaches to effective ethics instruction—including sample classroom assignments. The article, published in the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making.”

A detailed article by Robert Prentice with extensive resources for teaching behavioral ethics, published in Journal of Legal Studies Education, may be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics.”

Another article by Robert Prentice discussing how behavioral ethics can improve the ethicality of human decision-making, published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics: Can It Help Lawyers (And Others) Be their Best Selves?

A dated but still serviceable introductory article about teaching behavioral ethics can be accessed through Google Scholar by searching: Prentice, Robert A. 2004. “Teaching Ethics, Heuristics, and Biases.” Journal of Business Ethics Education 1 (1): 57-74.

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