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Ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff discusses Brandeis, career and government scandal

By Jacob Edelman

Section: Features

April 1, 2016

Jack Abramoff ’81 is no stranger to controversy, having worked as one of the biggest lobbyists in Washington, D.C. for years before being brought down in a wide-ranging corruption scandal that shook the American political system in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As a result of this scandal, Abramoff pleaded guilty to mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion, and went to federal prison for 43 months. Numerous other lobbyists, government officials, members of the Bush Administration and more were found to be associating in these dealings and also were sentenced to prison sentences. Two 2010 films were made about Abramoff’s lobbying: a documentary called ‘Casino Jack and the United States of Money,’ and a thriller/comedy called ‘Casino Jack’ starring Kevin Spacey.

Before headlines were made and movies put into production, Abramoff was a Brandeis alum, having attended college in the 1970s and graduating in 1981 with a B.A. in English. In an interview with The Brandeis Hoot, Abramoff spoke about his time at Brandeis and his career since.

Originally raised in Beverly Hills, CA, Abramoff made the decision to attend Brandeis after learning that it was one of the few schools that worked in a way that could serve and support observant Jews. He pointed specifically to the presence of a kosher kitchen as one of his primary motivators for attending.

Abramoff remembered that his time here was charged with political energy, commenting, “During the late 1970s, it was a difficult national time. There were the Iranian hostages, and it was the presidency of Jimmy Carter.” In his days at Brandeis, Abramoff was the chair of the College Republicans, and later on he became the head of the College Republican National Committee.

Studying English literature, Abramoff wrote his thesis on Shakespeare and some of the operas that have emerged based on Shakespeare’s works. “Brandeis was a less practical school back then, and it was less geared towards earning a living,” Abramoff commented about the offerings that used to be available.

Remembering some of the most defining aspects of what made Brandeis impactful in his life, Abramoff noted the academic demands and the rigor that was involved with developing his writing skills. His professors demanded perfection in the writing that was handed to them, and with a strong drive for success, he was unwilling to settle for less.

Originally aiming to be an attorney, Abramoff went on to Georgetown University Law Center and earned a J.D. before entering into business. Politics continued to grow on him through his time in the College Republicans, and after several career moves he was hired as a lobbyist at Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds LLP.

Abramoff was quick to note that the greatest professional criticism he gives himself pertains to the lobbying and political scandals that have been indelibly associated with his life. Following prison, his path transformed. “It was a life changing, horrific experience that I went through. But I had to endure, and keep my family together and get through it,” he described.

Abramoff ceased his work as a lobbyist and said in his interview that he turned his attention to the greater goal of raising awareness of and fixing the lobbying and greater political world by undoing many of the loopholes and dilemmas that he himself had taken advantage of. Today, he talks about how he seeks to remove tainted money from the political system, and says that because he’s been through the dirty political cycle, he now has the knowledge and expertise to find ways to make improvements.

Speaking about how outsiders have gained such tremendous support in this year’s election cycle, Abramoff commented that it is a reflection on how today’s society is concerned about the activities and reach of the federal government into the lives of everyday Americans. “The problem is that so many of these activities are generated by special interests,” said Abramoff, as he sees those interests as being some of the biggest problems in today’s politics.

Reflecting on the movies that were made about his experiences, Abramoff offers mixed criticism. “The documentary was poorly done,” he said, noting that while the director had offered his intention as wanting to change the system, it ended up fixating too much on his youth.

“The [Kevin] Spacey film could have been better, but Spacey did make it better than it would have been,” critiqued Abramoff, continuing “It just didn’t flow well as a film.” Spacey had visited Abramoff in prison to talk about the role, and Abramoff noted his great admiration for Spacey’s work as an actor.

In terms of what he sees as his greatest professional accomplishments, he spoke about his writing (he has written a memoir about his lobbying,) the work he did to develop his career and the work he is now doing in the television industry.

Abramoff is currently working on four television shows, one of which is unscripted. One of the shows is titled “Our Nation,” and is a Daily Show-style show taking on corruption. “Our Nation” is currently filming, and will be distributed through Amazon. The other three aren’t in a stage of production in which they can yet be spoken about.

Offering advice to current undergraduates, Abramoff said that students need to enter the job market with requisite skills in-hand. He stresses that being able to write and speak “superbly” is one of the keys to have an advantage over others. He continued, “outwork anyone and everyone, because there aren’t sufficient jobs for everyone. Be tireless and utilize every tool. Be creative, and don’t be safe or scared, because no one will invest in timidity.”

Abramoff stated that it is important to learn every rule and follow them to the letter, and not to do anything that you wouldn’t want ending up on YouTube. He concluded by noting, “this generation feels entitled. Everyone needs to earn what you can righteously, and to be brave.”

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