Alex Gibney is an accomplished filmmaker. He won an Academy Award in 2008 for his film, Taxi to the Dark Side, examining America’s policy on torture and interrogation in general.
He has a lot of projects in the hopper at any given moment. A few years ago he began to work on a film about Jack Abramoff and the culture of corruption infecting Washington DC. That film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival over the weekend (I’m told that scandal players Bob Ney and Neil Volz were there).
Over the years I’ve shared some information and research with Alex and his team and I can hardly wait to see the film. It should be in wide distribution come May.
From the early reviews of Casino Jack and the United States of Money it looks like this film should be a wake up call for Americans of all stripes about the corrupting influence of money on our politics. This graph from a review completely tracks with what I’ve found in my ten plus years of research into the subject:
His partner was Tom DeLay, the most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives — but, of course, DeLay’s fall from grace, and Abramoff’s conviction in the scandal that brought them both down, is old news. What’s astonishing, and important, about Casino Jack is that it lays out how the system of funneling cash for favors that Abramoff turned into a new kind of government machine, with the money often hidden behind fake nonpartisan organizations, didn’t go away; it took over. It was Jack Abramoff who elevated the lobbyist to the status of shadow legislator. Casino Jack is really a look at how, and why, the government no longer works — how the culture of Washington was effectively rebuilt to sell itself to the highest bidder.
In all the ways that matter, the Abramoff Scandal is an unexamined scandal. Most of it has been swept under the rug of history. This was the largest corruption scandal to hit Capital Hill since Teapot Dome and yet, almost nothing was really done about it. Yeah, Jack went to jail and it is harder to buy a staffer lunch or fly your Congressman to a tropical island in the Pacific or a golf trip to Scotland, but that is about it. Abramoff’s partners in Congress are mostly still there and a few that were run out of office, like Richard Pombo and J.D. Hayworth are running to get back on the gravy train this November. Their names should be mud, but because the Abramoff scandal was never really exposed for what it was and what it did, these weasel get to try and return.
It is like all of Jack’s old friends are getting the band back together again. I can hardly wait for the announcement about DeLay’s comeback, but in reality most of Jack’s merry band of corruptionists never stopped playing the game.
I suspect most folks would be surprised to learn that neither the House nor the Senate ever conducted any investigation into the connections that many elected officials and Hill staffers had with the scandal. Yes, there were a handful of very narrow Congressional investigation, but each of these intentionally avoided following up any trail of corruption that led to a staffer or a member of the House or Senate. And they boxed up far more documents than they release. For example, McCain’s Indian Affairs Committee investigation into Abramoff collected over 750,000 pages of documents. Far less than 5,000 of those pages were ever released and McCain had these docs buried at the National Archives until 2030 or so (I think they’re a couple of isles over from the Ark of the Covenant, but I digress).
The DOJ has been investigating the scandal, but only those cases that come to trial will yield more evidence and information about how the system of corruption works in Washington. The clock is running and most of the Abramoff era crimes are now 6 to 16 years old. It is getting late in the game to expect that many more prosecutions will come out of the DOJ—especially with the Supreme Court getting ready to rule whether it is Constitutional to charge people with honest services fraud, a charge use in most political corruption cases. Between this case and the recent corporations-can-flood-the-zone-with-as much-money-as-they-want ruling, the SCOTUS seems more committed to kleptocracy than democracy.
It has been almost six years since the Abramoff scandal broke on the front page of the WaPost. The story was followed for a while, but now it is just old news. Except that it isn’t. The system of corruption that Jack Abramoff helped to build is as strong today as it ever was. The Abramoff scandal is a Rosetta stone of how the system of lobbying, money laundering and influence works in Washington. This scandal needs to be examined and expose if we hope to reclaim our democracy from those who seek to bleed it dry.
There are Millions and millions of pages of documents, emails, testimony and other evidence that have been gathered by the DOJ and like the 750,000 pages of the McCain Abramoff files they will also most likely be swept under the rug of history. We need to try and get these documents to see the light of day.
I think that all these documents should be made public. If we want to clean this mess up we need to know how it operates. The best legacy of the Abramoff scandal is that a massive collection of documents have been gathered that can expose how corruption works in Washington. This legacy can either see the light of day or be swept under the rug. I hope for disclosure.
A Member of Congress (especially on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee) or a Senator could launch an investigation into the Abramoff scandal to make these documents public and expose the role of Congress in this scandal. (But is there really anybody in Congress with the backbone to do that?) Or another option might be a Corruption Commission to examine corruption in Washington between 1990 and 2010, publish a report, release all relevant documents and make recommendations to Congress and the President for action.
It would be nice if the truth about this scandal would come out one day. Perhaps this new film will get folks asking questions again. Perhaps not, but a lad can dream.
ps to Jane: did you see that part in the review, “with the money often hidden behind fake nonpartisan organizations”, that’s about your pal Grover. Hear that slurping sound? That’s Grover drinking your milkshake. Good luck with that in November.
At some point in this country we adopted a culture of amnesia and unaccountability. No-one who really matters has to face real consequences for failures ranging from incompetence to sheer criminality.
who’s jane? jane who?
great post even if totally depressing. The SCOTUS ruling left me pretty despondent. I particularly loved Roberts’ little moment about the wisdom of self correcting markets. Fucking idiot. But I digress. Thanks for this.
Some problems just have to be run to ground. If you don’t they just keep coming back. So many of the players in the Abramoff scandal were involved in scandals in the 1980s. If we had dealt with them then, we would not be getting fucked by them now.
At the very least their names and activities should be exposed, even if it is too late to lock them behind bars. We should be able to at least keep them away for the cookie jar.
Remind me to NOT get on your badside. That was plunging the knife deep there. Beautimous, but ouch.
oh, hamsher? fdl jane, right? sorry, its late for me
I never understood what the “Jack Abramoff scandal” was. It just kind of went into the Big Box O’ Scandal.
I had always pegged Roberts as a magical thinker. It is far more reasonable to believe in unicorns than it is to believe in the magic of free markets.
And this wanker is our Chief Justice. The hole we must climb out of is pretty deep. So it goes.
Anybody foolish enough to get in bed with Grover deserves what they get. The little prick really should be in jail and yet he still has power in DC. The power of pirates I guess.
Progressives should know better than to give Grover cover and/or to buy into his conspiracy theories.
Sadly, some do not.
@FlipYrWhig: Abramoff owned one of the better restaurants in DC. He was so blatantly corrupt that the the villagers had to appear to turn on him, in public any way, and made a talented chef need to find a new job.
Wasn’t a lot of it working with Ralph Reed to bilk the natives? Is the teabagger who’s primarying Angry John McCain involved with them?
@Dennis G.: Norquist in jail would be too easy. I’d rather see him discredited and broke with no one even thinking of giving him a job, then see how much he enjoys his libertarian anti-tax bullshit.
@Dennis G.: Well, he just calls balls and strikes you see. It’s not his fault when he calls a ball in the dirt a strike – the founding pitcher intended it to be a strike, after all. It’s not his fault that gravity pulled the ball down so hard, or that the batter is more than 6″ tall.
the scourge of Law & Economics runs pretty fucking deep in law schools (not to talk about other formerly non-economic disciplines like Poli Sci and sociology, but I am not going to get on that hobby horse tonight). But even knowing this when I read the Roberts bit from the Citizens United case I almost fell off my chair and had to pick up my jaw from the floor. As you say–this guy is our Chief Justice? Talk about the gift that keeps on giving left to the Republic by W.
You Don't Say
I’m looking forward to this movie. Whatever happened to that sanctimonious prick Ralph Reed?
So was this the real reason we got Presidential Candidate McCain?
The Other Steve
Too long, didn’t read.
Although I loved the P.S. Now that’s funny!
J.D. Hayworth, who is running against McCain is an Abramoff tool.
When we finally passed legislation to end the abuse on the Marianas Islands we celebrated in what used to be the back room of Jack’s old restaurant. Good times.
All the sanctimonious pricks were in the JA posse. John Doolittle is as sancty pricky as they get, along with his wife. I’m sure they’re all just biding their time until the “all clear” signal from TPTB.
True. But jail as a step on his pathway to oblivion would be OK with me.
@valdivia: And then the opposite end of the spectrum was Justice Stevens’ closing remark in his dissent.
Wile E. Quixote
I’m kind of hoping that he’ll slip and fall and drown in the bathtub. But that’s just me, because the “E” in “Wile E. Quixote” stands for “Irony”, except when it stands for “Schadenfreude“.
That’s really great to hear fellow Bruin Gibney (UCLA Film School) do this on Abramoff. Still pissed that most people never seemed to care about what Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) wrought upon us all. Now, when you say “wide distribution”, do you mean regular theater chains and everything?
Speaking of the Citizens United ruling, what do you think of what Ed Brayton and Glenn Greenwald had to say about it not actually changing much of the landscape? They presented a side of things I hadn’t considered before, and what they say seems to make sense.
I would add that the whole document collection definitely needs to see the light of day. Given our Congress I doubt it and given the state of our media I wonder who would actually report on it aside from bloggers like you? Harpers maybe?
Maybe I’m looking into this to much, but I get the strange feeling this question is not rhetorical. Do you have a Congresscritter in mind here? I’ll be honest that Grayson popped into my skull, but if there is someone else who maybe someone here could lean on, I admit to some curiosity.
yeah FSM bless him.
Oh, and a belated welcome to Dennis G. Was out watching football yesterday and came home to a pleasant surprise.
@You Don’t Say:
Reed, like Norquist, is back in the game. He is traveling to Iowa with Rick Santorum (another Abramoff pal) in March to promote dog boy’s fantasy run for the White House in 2012.
The players in the Abramoff scandal are getting the band back together.
@Wile E. Quixote:
Obviously, true karma would require that a corrupt cabal somehow successfully conspire to magically shrink Norquist, then drown him in a bathtub.
This never got the coverage it deserved. I’m looking forward to the movie.
@Dennis G.: Everyone should be asking how many fetuses they plan to baptize and give full burials while they’re in Iowa. Of course I could just be a cold-hearted biznatch like that.
I’m assuming this never got full light for the usual reason: there are Democrats who are also implicated, so they don’t dare pursue the case. My number one guess would be Max Baucus, followed by Ben Nelson, but there are probably others. Gambling interests have long arms and they make strange bedfellows.
I can’t wait. I loved Taxi to the Dark Side. It was by far the best doc on that topic, and I saw three at least. Extremely well done.
So are there tags in addition to categories now? Or were the things that I was calling tags actually categories? WHICH IS IT, BALLOON JUICE?!
@Mnemosyne: As I recall Abramoff was an equal-opportunity corruptor. Whoever could meet his business and lobbying interests he sought out. He just leaned more on the Republicans because they were in charge. I’m sure if t was dug back far enough there are quite a few Dems who have equally dirty hands. Fuck, this is almost as bad as the fucking torture mishegas.
@Midnight Marauder: Dennis appears to be introducing tags to BJ. It won’t be right unless we can all edit them. If it’s a nightmare at GOS, you can only imagine the shit we’d do to them…
You Don't Say
It’s at Sundance: http://movie-critics.ew.com/2010/01/24/a-look-at-sundance-documentaries/
You Don't Say
@You Don’t Say: Ah, just saw that Dennis already linked in OP.
Anyway, sounds great.
We only have one set of tags at The Juice. Dude had better learn the rules, stat. REAL TALK, SON!
@Yutsano: How about Franken? Although I can see Grayson going for it, and I respect his willingness to speak out, his apparent lack of considered thought in how he speaks out on a topic would likely result in his being ignored. Franken, on the other hand, well…. I am just more and more impressed. If I didn’t hate extreme cold I’d think about moving to Minnesota just to be his constituent. FWIW
Oh, wait, never mind, I am confused. Grayson=congressman, Franken=senator Oops.
The problem with corruption investigations is that they do nothing to help you get elected. It’s just a shitty job for Congress to be bothered with. Honestly, I wish they’d just put together their own FBIesque office and turn them loose on all this shit, because they seriously suck at anything in this realm.
Can’t wait. Smartest Guys In The Room and Gonzo are really good, too.
Excellent post, welcome!
@Martin: Don’t get me wrong, Franken telling Lieberman to stuff his pie hole was fantastic. However there are too many out there who keep the Stuart Smalley jokes in mind that I’m afraid he wouldn’t be taken seriously. I do admit I love his wonkishness and attention to detail and policy. Minnesota is so lucky they got this one right.
Quoted for Truth!
Thank you for posting this, Dennis. I look forward to watching Casino Jack, hopefully in a theatre. But you also reminded me that I’ve been meaning to add Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room to my Netflix queue… and it’s even available on Instant Watch, now.
The longer I live, the more I think Gerald Ford will be regarded by future historians (assuming there are any) as the greatest accidental monster of the modern American Presidency. If Gerry hadn’t been allowed to flush any serious investigation of the Nixon administration’s crimes down the memory hole, so many of today’s “star” Republican criminals would never have been allowed back into positions where they could shred the Constitution, pillage our shared national treasure, and generally befoul the globe and America’s good name in the global community. It’s not too late to start untangling the toxic web of criminal cronyism from the Cheney Regency backwards, but — as you say — can “our” representatives summon the will to look at the unspeakable in a public forum?
You Don't Say
Hey, not gonna bring up Dkos every time you post, Dennis, but anyone visit there today? Looks like total anarchy.
@Anne Laurie: It will get sold by the Republicans as a witch hunt used exclusively for political gain and they will fight it tooth and nail as hard as they can. Frankly I’m tired of hearing that both sides would get swept up in an investigation like this, I’d rather 20 Dems go to jail if 50 Republicans go as well. There needs to be a clean house on both sides.
Great post, Dennis. Look forward to seeing the movie.
I love substantial posts like this. Keep up the good work.
@You Don’t Say: Much like every other day since single payer vanished from their hopes. Though 4 GBCW diaries on the wreck list is a little new. Unfortunately, it’s the the sane people that are leaving.
Are we ready to rechristen the side as DailyHamsher yet?
Hm, I think that is more of a human nature thing than an America thing.
But one thing is sure, a good deal of politics is about avoidance of responsibility.
One of the things that has always fascinated me about the so-called “conservative” government model is that it seems to be grounded in a complete lack of accountability, one minute, and then postures in favor of accountability the next. What better story for avoiding responsibility in government than advancing the idea that government doesn’t really work in the first place? That’s one of the most brilliant dodges in history.
I can imagine Ronald Reagan saying, “Don’t blame me. I told you that government was the problem.”
If you want to assert that government is part of the solution, a la progressive thinking, then … somebody has to own the thing and take responsibility for it. No real politician wants to do that.
@ Dennis G.:
Seems like there’s a lot of out-of-sight, out-of-mind in this NYT article by David Kirkpatrick from a couple of days ago.
From using Kennedy’s technically true observation, to mentioning studies (no citations) trying to link donation rules with polls or stock prices, he questions the influence of money on politics.
Kirkpatrick does quote Wertheimer saying that judging the effectiveness of the rules can be a case of trying to prove a negative – corruption that didn’t happen.
Pretty thin article either way. I wish it had any hyperlinks specific to the article, e.g. the studies, or at least citations for them.
“Oh, better far to live and die
Under the brave black flag I fly,
Than play a sanctimonious part
With a pirate head and a pirate heart.
Away to the cheating world go you,
Where pirates all are well-to-do —
But I’ll be true to the song I sing,
And live and die a Pirate King!”
W. S. Gilbert was a genius. The film should use this in the soundtrack.
I look forward to the movie, as well as to seeing more of you here. I keep wondering what happened to the prosecution of Tom Delay? I did read somewhere that after the recent scotus decision that his case may be thrown out. Gaaagh!
Thanks for the great post!
“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself,” – Thomas Merton, “Letter To A Young Activist”
That is for you, this morning. :)
Love the Thomas Merton quote.
It is far more than a constant annoyance that somebody shoplifting video games will likely wind up with more jail time than someone who has committed a worse crime in a way that implicates the powerful.
And Balloon-Juice just gets better and better and better. Damn I love this place.
Is there any way to attempt a FOIA or similar mechanism for the legislative branch re: corruption investigation files? It certainly seems to me that there is no states’ secrets caveat for Congress to invoke, possibly allowing some sort of access. In reality, though, I would expect those seals that McCain applied to stick quite well through the first half of the 21st century. He knows about how to rehabilitate images after being a member of the Keating 5, and he knows that it is better to not have to re-hab one’s image in the first place.
I watched the testimony on C-SPAN. It was completely fascinating. Just wild, wild stuff. I would compare notes with a friend in another state who was also watching, and we were flabbergasted that it wasn’t getting more media attention.
McCain’s demeanor was also really interesting. His whole attitude and body language was that he was repelled and outraged, yet he seemed bound and determined to limit the inquiry. He did a lot of ineffective fulminating, almost as if he were frustrated by rules agreed on ahead of time that were not apparent to the listener who wasn’t privy to what was going on.
After each witness testified, there was the Congressional equivalent of cross examination, but it was so weak and the questions were so circumscribed that it was hard to take it seriously. I was completely riveted, because it looked like a “show trial”, where the prosecution was captured by the defense.
Dana Rohrabacher is a real prick. He once helped Jack to get an attack on a rape victim entered into the Congressional Record as part of a push-back on stories about human trafficking and abuse from Saipan.
He is, along with Norquist, one of Jack’s oldest friends. They both go back to the days when they worked together with Ollie North out of the basement of the White House. That Rohrabacher is still in Congress is a testimony to how little the Abramoff Scandal was ever examined.
As to the SCOTUS ruling on corporate money. I think it is a bad idea, but not the end of the universe. It actually is an opening for more effective legislation to control the problem. And the problem is that the Court and many others treat corporations as super people instead of treating them as the legal entities that they are.
Because corporations are creations of law, Congress should be able to mitigate the worst possible impacts of this ruling with new legislation. Perhaps better disclosure laws for any corporation receiving Federal funds, or a requirement that political spending must be approved on a annual basis by a vote of shareholder or the like.
It might also be about time for a Constitutional Amendment to remove corporate person-hood. It is time separate corporations from the rights of individual Citizens (IMHO).
Early on, when the scope of the scandal was clear there was great fear in the Republican caucus that an open ended investigation might take out 60 or so members. As this reality became clear to McCain he decided to place protecting his caucus over seeking justice (some links and details are here).
I guess it was McCain’s desire to be President that led him to put protecting the corrupt over exposing corruption. Whatever. The Abramoff scandal was really good news for McCain.
Thanks. Is the Gale Norton DOJ investigation still open?
We had a lot of fun with the testimony of her staffers. They were really sweating.
Great to have you here Dengre. And although many have escaped who deserve to be in jail, at least the situation in the Marianas has improved (in part because of your efforts and the unmasking of Abramoff).
"Fair and Balanced" Dave
True. Just like Mafia wiseguys, going to to jail is a badge of honor among conservatives. Time spent in the slammer gave a career boost to sociopaths like G. Gordon Liddy, Charles Colson, and Oliver North.
I was skeptical when you got called up, but damn, was I ever wrong. Great first(ish) post.
If the gang is in fact getting the band back together, just as this movie is coming out, I have to say that I like the timing. I can see a scenario in which the political activities of the Abramoff crooks gather steam in tandem with the movie, and when the movie-world and political-world spotlights inevitably converge, it will be way too late for at least some of the criminals to hide.
Hey, a girl can dream, right?
@The Other Steve:
Well, make the effort. Dennis G’s work is worth it.
@You Don’t Say: Boy howdy. The spending-freeze manure-throwing has gotten entirely out of hand. Even (too) many of the the FPers have gone ’round the bend on it.
@panicbean: Thomas Merton FTW.
In 2006, Sanctimonious Prick Ralph Reed ran for Lt. Governor of Georgia, and lost in the primary. The GOP winner ran ads about the Abramoff scandal, and Reed’s playing both sides with the Alabama Christian Right who wanted to stop casinos.
I recall thinking it was too much to hope for that Georgia Republicans would care about the details of the scandal (so many details make it hard to feel the truthiness that tells them how to vote), so I was pleasantly surprised. But it’s also possible Reed lost because he hadn’t really been in Georgia for years.
Reed likely won’t run for office again, which I think is a pity–I’d much rather have him in a position to be subject to sunshine laws or FOIA requests than as the oily little weasel making deals in the background.
Now that would be some remote and well guarded archivin’!
But I think you meant “aisles” ;)
Oh, and great post.
She is being investigated for a different scandal. If there are Abramoff links, that has not been reported as of yet.
She also did have a great deal to do with the Abramoff scandal and may have slipped out the same back door of inaction that Norquist squeezed through.
It would be nice to see her in orange one day with a brand new numerical name and living in a protected gated community.
We shall see.
@mark: I’m guessing he’s referring to Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake … she’s formed a “partnership” with Grover Norquist to try and get Rahm investigated and removed as chief of staff for his dealings with Freddie and Fannie in the past and for maybe helping to squelch current investigations into their ongoing practices / solvency…
You’re correct about Jane, but not all of the rest. I’ve spent time looking into the charges of the Norquist/Hamsher Alliance and the allegations are based on “evidence”, spin and conclusions that could be charitably described as operating under Chariots of the Gods rules.
There may be many, many things to be angry at Rahm about, but this one is just a silly wing-nut conspiracy theory about poor people bringing down the global economy because they defaulted on loans and Rahm using a short stint on the Board of Freddie Mac to extort money from bankers and then using those funds to help Democrats steal elections from Republicans in 2006 and 2008.
I guess I can see why Jane might step into Grover’s world out of anger, but it really is a useless move. Norquist is running circles around her or drinking her milkshake as it were.
@Dennis G.: I haven’t been following that too closely, wrote it off as insane at the point that Jane was partnering with Grover, was just trying to give the gist of who and what…