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Abramoff: It's a Dirty Job, But Clean Money

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“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.” Stephen Colbert December 8 was like any Thursday night. I would complete my day and sit down for my one hour satirical comedy feast. The entrée this evening would prove interesting to me because Jack Abramoff, the man who sought to define our people as less than human by calling us “monkeys”, “troglodytes”, and “morons” was going to be interviewed on The Colbert Report. The lessons learned from the interview resemble a modern day remake of The Great Gatsby, where the leader of “Team Abramoff” thought he and his team were the smartest guys in town. They were in reality full of greed, recklessness, devoid of empathy and ultimately a number of them proved to be gluttonous criminals.

P.T. Barnum said that the public doesn’t mind being swindled as long as it is entertained. Are you entertained? In watching characters like Jack, who justified his conduct by living a life code of “its a dirty job but its clean money,” are we are all acting out the “Bystander Effect” of doing nothing while witnessing a crime? I suggest that the life lesson here is one of “Vital Lies, Simple Truths,” as the recent book by Daniel Goldman is titled.

In 2005 Lauryn Hill sang “Men who lack conscience will even lie to themselves.” But, it is not enough to contest the lie, one must defeat the lie. Jack and his Elmer Gantry reincarnation is full of fiction. The fiction that he was successful for his clients on Capitol Hill. Yes, if you define success by day trading Congressional members and Congressional staff souls and legislation for courtside Wizard tickets. The fiction that he “greatly admired his clients.” Please note reference above to “monkeys.” The fiction that he brought the best “grassroots people” to work with his clients. These are the same “best” people who were afraid to take our money in the sunlight of the day, laundering it through a lifeguard instead. Sadly these “colleagues of Jack” are back in the public square like roving souls in search of a new body.

The fiction of all the charitable work Jack accomplished. Yes, he was charitable if you count fraudulently “marketing” to Native Americans that money they thought they were donating to charity was ultimately used to pay for a St. Andrews golf trip. The fiction that his most despicable act was inserting legislation into an election reform bill so an Indian casino could be established in Texas. No, Jack’s most despicable act was asking that same tribe, the Tiguas of El Paso Texas, after wanting all of their “moolah” if he and Michael Scanlon could insure the tribal elders and once the elders died use that death money to pay off their invoices. The fiction repeated to Stephen Colbert that Jack never stole from the Indians. Please note his own plea agreement, his former law firm Greenberg Traurig’s million dollar payments to former Native American clients, and the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs congressional record on the investigation. He stole our elder care, our pre-natal care, our educational scholarships, and some of our dreams but he never stole our dignity.

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I have attended most of the sentencings in Judge Huvelle’s court nroom and I am struck by the complete lack of apology, atonement, contrition, and empathy by Jack and his co-conspirators to this ncountry’s first people.

I attended the hearings out of a need for moral repair; sadly, there was none. This is borne out by the fact that as I left the federal courtroom after the Kevin “Everybody Does It” Ring sentencing, two lobbyists, Jack’s “Team Abramoff” colleagues, sarcastically questioned my even attending the sentencing. My response: after all of this deceit and the destroyed lives, they never got it and they never will. I would suggest that forgiveness requires a critical act— the wrongdoer needs to provide a narrative account that is neither fiction nor excuse.

I am a Blackfeet Irish American. I am guided by that experience and by the lesson taught me as a young boy by the dark beautiful empathy of my mother that it is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we will be held accountable. If not then one will always remain a haunted man. The John Profumo story of hubris, punishment and redemption sadly will not be acted out here. In that instance there were no interviews, no memoirs only the washing of dishes of children of poverty. In Jack’s moral world that will not occur and so his haunting disgrace will continue.

Tom Rodgers is a Blackfeet Tribal member and advocate/lobbyist for Indian country. He was the main whistle-blower in the Jack Abramoff scandal, has received academic ethics awards for his efforts, the Tom C. Rodgers O-tee-paym-soo-wuk Ethics in Government Scholarship by the University of Denver Sturm College of Law was named in his honor, and he appeared in the Sundance Film Festival documentary release Casino Jack and the United States of Money.