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.”
Terms related to this video case study and defined in our ethics glossary include: behavioral ethics, bounded ethicality, conflict of interest, corruption, diffusion of responsibility, ethical fading, fundamental attribution error, framing, groupthink, in-group/out-group, integrity, moral agent, moral equilibrium, moral myopia, moral reasoning, overconfidence bias, role morality, self-serving bias, and tangible & abstract.