Jack Abramoff’s Fall from Disgrace

In 2005, Jack Abramoff was the most influential lobbyist in our nation’s capital. He then suffered a fall from grace and today, with an amazing trifecta, may have cemented his reputation as the most infamous lobbyist of all time. First, Abramoff’s corrupt actions as the most powerful lobbyist in America in the late 1990s and early 2000s prompted Congress to amend the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 with the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007. The amendment required lobbyists to register with and report to the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate.

Second, after serving his 43-month jail term and failing spectacularly in his effort to reform lobbying and public corruption in Washington, D.C, Abramoff registered as a lobbyist in 2017. This prompted Congress to again amend the Lobbying Disclosure Act. In a back-handed compliment, Congress named the Justice Against Corruption on K Street (“JACK Act”) after Abramoff. It required disclosure of certain criminal offenses by lobbyists registering under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.

Third, on June 25, 2020, Abramoff became the very first person to be criminally charged under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. To quickly summarize the new information filed by the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, when Abramoff returned to lobbying in 2017, he worked on behalf of an entity in the marijuana industry to advocate for changes in federal law and policy. To avoid damaging his client’s credibility, apparently, Abramoff did not register as the law required. He was later approached by an undercover FBI agent and again agreed to lobby and again failed to register.

More disturbingly, Abramoff conspired with a Texan named Marcus Andrade to commit extensive frauds to raise money for a business built around a cryptocurrency called “AML Bitcoin.”  Among other lies, Andrade and Abramoff widely represented that the new cryptocurrency was near completion (it wasn’t), was about to become the method by which ships paid to go through the Panama Canal (nope), and that the currency could not be hacked by the North Koreans and only political pressure prevented the firm from running a Super Bowl advertisement to that effect in February 2018 (the real reason—they lacked the money to pay for the ad). Abramoff also lobbied on behalf of this venture, and again did not register.

Charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. Sec. 371 and with failing to register as a lobbyist in violation of 2 U.S.C. Sec. 1603(a) and 1606(b), Abramoff has already agreed to plead guilty and faces at least five years in prison.

In 2012, not long after Abramoff left prison, he visited the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas where we at Ethics Unwrapped interviewed him and filmed some presentations he made. Those were turned into a series of videos available on this website:

At the time, we debated amongst ourselves whether Mr. Abramoff was a psychopath, as many media accounts made him out to be, or a relatively normal human being subject to the same moral decisionmaking flaws that we are all plagued by. We thought that Mr. Abramoff seemed quite bright, articulate, and thoughtful. His professed contrition seemed genuine to us. We worried that we might have been taken in by a very persuasive liar, as psychopaths tend to be, but that was not our ultimate conclusion. Hence, our videos explain his original fall from grace using the lens of behavioral ethics that explains how social and organizational pressures, cognitive heuristics and biases, and various situational factors can cause the best of us to make ethical mistakes.

Does this new development in the Jack Abramoff saga—which might be characterized as a “fall from disgrace”–provide evidence that he truly is a psychopath? Yes, it does. Definitely. Does it lead inevitably to that conclusion? No, probably not. In the super-competitive world of politics, it is easy to focus exclusively on winning and losing, ignoring the ethical issues (framing). One who has had the success that Abramoff had, once upon a time, can certainly get a bit full of himself (overconfidence). We all are wired to tend to do what is in our own best interests and to see the world through a filter that slants our judgments (self-serving bias). Someone as bright and creative as Abramoff is, unfortunately, is well-positioned to create excuses for his behavior (rationalizations). There is evidence that attorneys can be particularly effective at creating rationalizations.

Whatever was going through Abramoff’s mind, there can be explanations but there cannot be excuses. Casino Jack has thrown the dice and earned another trip to jail.

 

Sources:

Jack Abramoff, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist (2011).

Department of Justice, Lobbyist Jack Abramoff and CEO Rowland Marcus Andrade Charged with Fraud in Connection with $5 Million Initial Coin Offering of Cryptocurrency AML Bitcoin (June 25, 2020), at https://www.justice.gov/usao-ndca/pr/lobbyist-jack-abramoff-and-ceo-rowland-marcus-andrade-charged-fraud-connection-5.

Ginger Gibson, Convicted Felon Jack Abramoff Registers to Return to Lobbying, Reuters, June 23, 2017, at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-politics-abramoff/convicted-felon-jack-abramoff-registers-to-return-to-lobbying-idUSKBN19E2JN

Theodoric Meyer, DOJ Files Charges Against Disgraced Lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Politico, June 25, 2020, at https://www.politico.com/news/2020/06/25/doj-charges-jack-abramoff-340434.

Perkins Coie, Lobbying Disclosure Act Registration and Reporting for Organizations Contacting Congress (March 27, 2020), at https://www.perkinscoie.com/en/news-insights/lobbying-disclosure-act-registration-and-reporting-for-organizations-employing-in-house-lobbyists.html.

Nathaniel Popper, Disgraced Lobbyist Jack Abramoff Headed Back to Jail, New York Times, June 25, 2020, at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/25/us/politics/jack-abramoff-marijuana-cryptocurrency.html.

Milton Regan, Eat What You Kill: The Fall of a Wall Street Lawyer (2004)

Joel Rosenblatt, Lobbyist Jack Abramoff Charged in Crypto-Currency Case, U.S. Says, Bloomberg.com, June 25, 2020, at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-25/lobbyist-abramoff-charged-in-crypto-currency-case-u-s-says.

Jessica Schneider & Caroline Kelly, Washington Insider Jack Abramoff to Head Back to Prison, Prosecutors Say, CNN, June 25, 2020.

Peter H. Stone, Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2006).

 

Videos:

In It To Win: The Jack Abramoff Story:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/in-it-to-win-the-jack-abramoff-story.

In It To Win: Jack and Framing: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/jack-framing.

In It To Win: Jack & Moral Equilibrium: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/jack-moral-equilibrium.

In It To Win: Jack & Overconfidence Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/jack-overconfidence-bias.

In It To Win: Jack & Rationalizations: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/jack-rationalizations.

In It To Win: Jack & Role Morality: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/jack-role-morality.

In It To Win: Jack & Self-Serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/jack-self-serving-bias.

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