Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff expressed regret for paying columnists on multiple occasions to write articles favorable to his clients.
During a recent interview with Media Matters while promoting his new book, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist (WND Books 2011), Abramoff said in the past he would find columnists who agreed with his positions and pay them to "place" articles in newspapers.
"Normally what that means in a lobbying context is that you have a friendly writer who is somebody that the major papers are willing to publish and you get them to focus on your issue and write a piece about it," Abramoff said in a phone interview, later adding, "It just happened when it had to happen. When it did, we would find somebody who agreed with us, a writer, and we'd usually pay them to do it, but they would be in charge of getting it placed. And that probably still goes on. I can't imagine it doesn't go on."
Abramoff said he paid for columns on maybe a half-dozen occasions in several major newspapers. He also said the newspapers themselves were likely unaware of the financial arrangement.
He said the media "was a tool in lobbying, and that's the way lobbyists view the media. That you try as best you can to keep them out of your hair, use them where you can to spin your issue, and otherwise keep them at a distance."
Abramoff also stressed that the writers paid to push his agenda were always columnists or op-ed writers, never reporters:
"I'd find a writer who was sympathetic to the issue, I wouldn't approach a writer who disagreed with me or was neutral. I'd find somebody who was passionate about this and we'd try to get them focused on it, get them some money if they needed money or they wanted to be paid for it," Abramoff explained. "A lot of these writers write for pay, they write columns and get paid by their papers. ... So we would pay them, and their job would be to get the article placed. Rather simple. It didn't always work, by the way. They weren't always able to get them placed. But generally they could."
Asked if he ever tried to pay a news reporter to write something sympathetic, he said, "Nah. Most of the time we stayed away from reporters. Lobbyists don't like to hang out with reporters, at least lobbyists who are prudent."
Abramoff confirmed two specific monetary relationships involving writers Doug Bandow and Peter Ferrara, who were quoted in a 2005 BusinessWeek story as having been paid by Abramoff.
BusinessWeek reported at the time that Bandow, then a Copley syndicated columnist, said he had been paid to write between 12 and 24 columns favorable to Abramoff clients. Ferrara, a freelancer, said that in the past, he had received "general support" from Abramoff.
"They were paid on articles and issues that they agreed with," Abramoff told Media Matters, confirming the incidents for the first time.
The BusinessWeek article at the time stated:
A review of Bandow's columns and other written work shows that he wrote favorably about Abramoff's Indian tribal clients -- as well as another Abramoff client, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands -- as far back as 1997. One column, syndicated by the Copley News Service, saluted one Abramoff client tribe, the Mississippi Choctaws, for their entrepreneurial spirit, hard work, and commitment to free enterprise. "The Choctaws offer a model for other tribes," Bandow wrote.
BusinessWeek added that a review of Ferrara's work "shows that he wrote articles for The Washington Times that were favorable to the Choctaw Indians and the Mariana Islands."
Media Matters sought a response from The Washington Times on Wednesday. The Times acknowledged the request in an e-mail, but did not provide a substantive response.
Shortly after the 2005 BusinessWeek article appeared, Ferrara issued the following statement:
For many years, I have had the honor of having my writing widely published on a variety of public policy issues. My writing has always reflected my free market and socially conservative views and philosophy, without exception. I have not nor would I ever take financial support to write anything that I did not think was good public policy or that was against my economic or social philosophy.
I follow an unqualified policy of not taking money from lobbyists for op-eds, which I established on my own years ago. I rely solely on financing from my foundation employers for financial support.
I am glad to ask people to contribute to my work if they agree with what I have been writing for years now and want to support it. That is what I was referring to in the quote in this regard in the BusinessWeek Online article.
If I were paid by a newspaper or a syndicator to write a regular column, I could not possibly take money from any outside party for that work, as that would betray the newspaper or syndicator employing me. As a freelance writer who submits individual articles to publications, I must honestly follow the disclosure policies of those publications. These are the rules I follow.
I have already acknowledged that, years ago, Jack Abramoff was among those who provided occasional financial support for my work. Any crimes or unethical practices of his do not make anyone he raised money for or contributed to in the past unethical. I have not dealt with or received any contributions in any form from Abramoff for years now.
With specific regard to the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI), a think tank with which I am affiliated, I have never written anything under an IPI byline that was financially supported or otherwise motivated by anyone other than IPI.
Ferrara and Bandow did not respond to requests for comment from Media Matters.
Abramoff named several other major newspapers that he believed may have unknowingly published op-eds for which he paid. But Abramoff said he couldn't remember for sure, and he provided no specific evidence.
Abramoff said of the payoffs: "I think it's terrible. ... Unless you are going to put a disclaimer at the bottom. It was wrong. It was one of the many things that I regret, for sure."
Abramoff also insisted that other lobbyists likely did the same thing and said he believes that similar payments to writers continue today, though he offered no specific proof.
"During my time, other people did it, sure. I didn't invent that, I didn't come up with the idea. Others definitely do it and did it. I don't know if they still do it. Why wouldn't they? It's not like it is easily catchable, and it's not illegal," he said.
While Abramoff's book discloses many of the illegal practices and admits guilt that led to his imprisonment in 2006, it does not discuss any of the payments made to columnists.
Abramoff, who was released in 2010, said he wrote the book on his own, but sought out a ghost writer in the beginning.
"I tried to get a ghost writer, but I couldn't find somebody who I liked the way they wrote. So I just sat down and wrote it," said Abramoff, who noted he first worked with two potential ghost writers, but did not name them.
"They both were willing to do it," Abramoff said. "They gave me each 10 pages one by one, and I just totally rewrote the 10 pages and didn't feel it was my voice. So finally I just said, 'You know what I can do this.' And I did."
Referencing the embarrassing, racially charged emails that became part of the criminal case against him, Abramoff later joked in the interview, "I wrote 850,000 emails so I thought I could easily write a book."
He also said other "mainline" book publishers were interested in the book, but only World Net Daily could publish it quickly enough for him.
"There were two other houses that are more standard mainline publishers who wanted to do it but they wanted to do it next year," Abramoff said. " ... I wanted to get moving and World Net Daily was the only one that could move quick enough to get the book out in stores and get it printed and that kind of thing."
He declined to name the other interested publishers, stating: "I'm talking to them about some other books."
Abramoff also said he did not get an advance and did not expect much in the way of profit because he still owes restitution to many of his victims:
"I have a big restitution order on me so a good chunk of it goes to that, and then to debts that are otherwise owed. I didn't do this to get rich. I mean I'd love to get rich, but I don't think it's going to happen for a long time if it ever happens again and this isn't going to be the way it happens. I've got a major $44 million restitution order ahead of me. You know, I'd have to make an awful lot of money to get through that and you know, well see, we'll see what happens.
"After everything, when you add it up it's probably very little, no matter how it does. It's going to be very, very little. It's not why I did the book. ... I never went into it thinking I was going to make money off it. I wanted to do it to get my story out, number one. And number two, I wanted to be able to say some things in terms of where I was in terms of the lobbying and what my positions are now."
Asked about Daily Caller editor Tucker Carlson hosting a book party at his home for Abramoff last month, and taking criticism for it, Abramoff said the online news outlet has no other connection to the book than Carlson's party:
"They are not really connected per se. I mean Tucker is a friend. I've known him for years. I knew his father when he was in the Reagan administration. He was just very gracious and kind to offer to host a reception, which I was beyond grateful for. It's not how things have gone in the past period for me. I was very happy that he did it."
On the criticism Carlson received for hosting the party, Abramoff said: "I think it's silly. C'mon, I've been to prison for a long time already. I'm wiped out. What more do they want? I've repented. I openly admit that I was wrong and that I committed these things, and I want to do something to make recompense.
"I'm not engaged in the old political wars, I'm not part of the Republican political establishment. What's the point of attacking him? Frankly, I think the people who are busy attacking at this point are people who just want to get some publicity for themselves. Cause it's stupid, what's the point of it?"
Still, Abramoff contends most media outlets have been fair to him as he promotes the book and seeks to start his life after prison:
"Now that I'm out, frankly, it's the rare exception of somebody who's not being opened-minded and fair to my approach. I mean there are a few snarky swipes here and there: 'Don't trust him'; 'What if he's not sincere?' My response to that is, 'So what?' I'm not running for president, I am not trying to be winning a popularity contest, I am just trying to get word out about what's going on with this system. If you don't want to listen, don't listen.
"I can't think of hardly anyone that has been anything but fair and open and reporting things as they are. In the past, I think the narrative of my life was so strong, in the media, as this satanic figure, that it's hard for me to point fingers."