Convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff on Thursday told the Capital Tiger Bay Club that he's now trying to reform the political process, via a book and a speaking tour that reveal previously unknown secrets of the inside-the-Beltway culture.
And in a room full of people who have made their living in the political process he admits to abusing, Abramoff also apologized for his role in making it more corrupt.
The convicted felon-turned-political-process-critic described congressional efforts to end corruption in Washington as bogus, citing reforms that prohibit a lobbyist from taking a lawmaker out for a meal, but allow him or her to hand over a stack of checks as campaign contributions.
Ninety-nine percent of it is legal, Abramoff added.
"Why? Because congressmen want to be lobbyists," he said. "Ninety percent of the people I dealt with wanted to come to work for me and some of them did."
Since spending 43 months in prison, Abramoff has been telling insider tales of the corruption in Washington that he came to personify. He provided tickets for skyboxes, expensive meals at his own restaurants and golf tours to some of the most influential members of Congress including former Majority Leader Tom DeLay and former Florida House Speaker Tom Feeney, who went golfing in Scotland on Abramoff's dime.
"The truth is, if your cause and your issues have merits, you should be able to make them based on the merits and not have to pay somebody like I was," Abramoff said. "Somebody who was a lobbyist who was up against my team and my group, he'd have had no chance, because we'd have bought those congressmen before they showed up. That's the problem."
Those reform bills, in fact, were welcomed by lobbyists, Abramoff said, because they were guaranteed to pass and easy to manipulate.
"We'd wait for a reform bill," he said. "Both houses are going to pass it. The president's going to sign it. So we'd try to stick things in that had nothing to do with the reform."
That included the Help America Vote Act, he said, to which he managed to tack on a provision "that basically legalized an Indian gambling casino in East Texas."
During the question-and-answer period, Tiger Bay member Brian Armstrong, an attorney, told Abramoff he'd cheapened the political process.
"One thing you didn't do today. You admitted you crossed the line, but I was wondering if we'd hear an apology from you," said Armstrong. "That's one thing I'd love to hear."
Almost before Armstrong finished asking, Abramoff said, "I'm sorry." The crowd applauded.
The club's lunch was packed for Abramoff, who signed copies of his book, "Capital Punishment," after the speech.
"People would be astonished if they saw the world that goes on in Washington," he said.