Fall of a True Believer

by Barry Yeoman on September 1, 2005

How Jack Abramoff gained the whole world and lost just about everything.

Originally published in Mother Jones. 

Since his 2010 release from prison, Jack Abramoff has been publicly advocating ethics reform. Here he speaks with Public Citizen president Robert Weissman in Washington, D.C. in 2012. Photo by Brendan Hoffman for Public Citizen; reprinted under a Creative Commons license.

ON THE FIRST MORNING of the Republican National Convention, the stocky former weightlifter waited nervously for his turn to speak. Just 25 years old, he was impeccably dressed in a dark gray suit and red tie. But he had slipped some contraband past security: a handful of note cards, hastily compiled the night before and now stashed in his sleeve. He mounted the podium, looked over the crowd, and noticed how few delegates were paying attention. “Fellow Republicans,” he began predictably, “I come before you representing American students.” Then, suddenly, he veered wildly from the approved text. He looked up and noted the teleprompter operator’s panicked expression, with glee.

The year was 1984. The speaker, Jack Abramoff, was the national chair of the College Republicans, commander of a platoon of baby-faced Reagan enthusiasts. A self-described “rabid right-winger,” Abramoff had planned to use his slot at the Dallas convention for a red-meat speech that mocked the preaching style of Jesse Jackson. But party officials had taken a pen to his text and turned it into “namby-pamby we’re-all-young-people-and-we-love-Reagan blah-blah-blah.” Now, with his note cards for backup, he was reconstituting his original speech from memory. “Today, our party readies itself to mount the wave of the future,” he sermonized. “Will we ride that wave to glory, or will it send us crashing ashore? If we’re the party of tax cuts, and not the party of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts,’ then we’re riding our wave. If we’re liberating students from Grenada, and not bowing down to a Cuban dictator, we’re riding our wave.”

Some of the delegates stirred. The Texans and Californians, sitting in front, started applauding. “But if we equivocate, capitulate, accommodate, and negotiate, we’ll crash ashore,” Abramoff continued, his nasal voice laced with vestiges of his family’s Old World accent. “If we try to outspend big fat Tip O’Neill, or rush to Geneva to cut a deal, we’ll crash ashore.” Afterward, as delegates cheered, he swaggered off the stage, pleased to have infiltrated a carefully scripted media event with the uncompromising message of his movement.

It took Abramoff’s wave another 20 years to crash ashore. A millionaire lobbyist who befriended Washington’s most powerful men, he has been at the center of a full-blown national scandal, with revelations that he bled Indian clients to the tune of $82 million, even as he sometimes worked for their political competitors; that he funneled cash to his pet causes and fuzzed up the paper trail; that he wrote emails mocking his own clients as “troglodytes.” The probes have spiraled to include a broad cross-section of Washington’s Republican power structure, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed. Yet it’s Abramoff’s name, more than anyone else’s, that has become a synonym for corruption, particularly since his August 11 indictment for wire fraud in a case involving a failed gambling-boat business venture. “I don’t think Abramoff ever stood for anything,” says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “I think Abramoff just stands for greed. I think Abramoff is a terrible human being and should get anything coming his way.”

Harsh judgment for a man who came to D.C. on an ideological, even spiritual, quest. Abramoff was a revolutionary, part of a movement that took root among maverick young Republicans in the ’80s, swept to electoral victory a decade later, and has dominated Capitol Hill ever since. His story is an iconic tale of the intersection of faith and power — of what happens when an ideological purist finds himself with both political muscle and seemingly inexhaustible financial opportunity.

To Marshall Wittmann, a former Christian conservative who now works for the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, the story of Jack Abramoff is the story of a generation. “It’s a classic tale of intending to do good — and doing very well,” he says. “The pledge of all these Reagan revolutionaries was to overturn the iron triangle of Congress, the special interests, and the lobbyists. Instead, they’ve found themselves comfortable with big government, as long as it cashes in for their clients. I remember all these people as insurgents, revolutionaries to overthrow the establishment. They became the establishment in such a short time in an orgy of moneymaking. They ran the Republican revolution off the rails.”

IN THE HEAT OF A LOS ANGELES summer afternoon, the 13-year-old set off from home and began walking the five miles to synagogue. He was hungry and thirsty. It was the Jewish holy day of Tisha B’Av, when observers are not allowed to consume food or water for 24 hours. Grasping for his own interpretation of the law, the boy had convinced himself that he wasn’t supposed to ride in a car or even wear shoes.

He walked along the fence of the Los Angeles Country Club, an institution that historically excluded Jews. The pavement was hot and full of small stones, and his stocking feet began to blister. But when a member of the synagogue offered him a ride, he refused. To young Jack Abramoff, the religion of his ancestors was perilously close to fading away in his generation. He wasn’t going to fail it.

Abramoff came of age in Beverly Hills, the son of an executive who worked for Arnold Palmer, the famously conservative golfer. The language of his childhood home was about patriotism and honoring elders, and he often heard stories about the plight of Soviet Jews. But his parents were not particularly observant. As he tells it, his religious epiphany came at 12 years old when, after watching Fiddler on the Roof, he yearned for the Orthodoxy of his great-grandparents’ generation. “It was to me very strange that they’re Jews and we’re Jews, and we have totally different lives and belief systems,” he says. “I felt a twinge of sadness that that culture had died out in our family.” And with that, he decided, “I’ll be the person to resurrect it.”

Abramoff bought books on Jewish law and taught himself Hebrew. Every Saturday, he’d wake before his siblings and walk to temple. His parents were surprised, but, he says, “I believed in God. I believed he did decide the Jewish people would do certain things. I wanted to keep up my end of the contract.”

It wasn’t until he entered Brandeis University that Abramoff found a like-minded community. He befriended rabbis and ate his meals at a kosher kitchen. He debated politics in the dorms, arguing that the Bible ordained a conservative ideology. And he met, for the first time, members of left-wing groups like the Spartacus Youth League, which held rallies attacking U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan and calling for nuclear disarmament. “I was outraged that seemingly normal American students could so hate the country I love,” he says. Abramoff organized counterdemonstrations, where students sang “God Bless America.”

It was during those years that he met Grover Norquist, a Harvard business student who would go on to head the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform. The two became lifelong allies, and in 1980 they set off to organize Massachusetts campuses for Reagan. (During one rush hour, Abramoff dangled Burma Shave-style signs over a highway near Boston, setting off several collisions below.) When Reagan carried the nation’s most reliably Democratic state by 6,000 votes, some attributed the margin to the student turnout. The following year Abramoff parlayed his success into the $12,000-a-year national chairmanship of the College Republicans.

At the time, the CRs, as everyone referred to them, were a political nonentity — “more of a social club,” recalls former member Dan Cohen, now a corporate executive in Washington. Abramoff sought to energize the organization and, with Norquist as his executive director, he engineered a purge of moderates from its leadership. Those remaining were the hard core, he recalls — “young enthusiasts who were imbibing on conservative political tracts, the sexy intellectual material that was forbidden in school.” Abramoff, all of 22, became a mentor to his peers. “His core beliefs were so strong,” says Rachel Winston, a math teacher whom Abramoff hired as the CRs’ national field director. “He was like steel.”

If their philosophy came from the right, the CRs’ tactics came directly from the left. Abramoff & Co. became masters of street theater — the more attention-grabbing, the better. “When we were bored late at night,” says former treasurer Paul Erickson, “and we didn’t feel like the senior Republican Party was doing quite enough to battle communism, we would buy or borrow some concrete blocks, stack them in a wall in Lafayette Park, drape a Soviet flag over the top of them, soak the flag in kerosene, light it — and then, with sledgehammers, break down the Berlin Wall.” The CRs would invade nuclear-freeze rallies, pounding one another’s shoulders like football players before charging up the steps of the Washington Metro. And they would test their limits with the grown-ups. Once, when Democrats were hosting an upscale fundraiser near Dupont Circle, Abramoff posted flyers around town promising a soup kitchen across the street. “He’d have a long line of homeless people being served dinner by the College Republicans while the fat-cat Democrats were going into the Hilton to eat their foie gras and filet,” recalls David Barron, who headed the rival Young Republicans. “The Republican leadership said, ‘You shut this damn thing down now or you’re out the door.’” Twenty years later, Abramoff would serve as an elite fundraiser himself, bringing in more than $100,000 for President Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign.

If Abramoff’s street tactics were too brash, his elders nonetheless appreciated his behind-the-scenes efforts. “He took a group that had, at most, 10,000 members — and when Jack was done, there were over 150,000 card-carrying College Republicans,” says Ben Waldman, who served as liaison between the national party and the CRs. “This group of amorphous, apathetic college kids who were drinking at night — to get 250 of them to form truth squads, come to events and invite speakers, that was incredible.” From the newly energized CRs came figures like Ralph Reed and Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. “The vast right-wing conspiracy began with Jack Abramoff,” says Erickson.

Abramoff’s strategic savvy and ideological clarity, though, were not matched by his administrative skills. The CRs were constantly broke, begging for contributions from New Right figures and telling vendors to expect late payments. “Our financial maturity still needed development,” he admits. “We were like kids in a candy store.” Abramoff’s lack of restraint would later come back to haunt him.

In 1985, partway through his second term with the CRs, Abramoff took a job running Citizens for America, a pro-Reagan “civic league” chaired by Rite Aid cofounder Lewis Lehrman. Reagan had just announced the United States would henceforth arm anti-Soviet insurgents around the world, explaining, “Support for freedom fighters is self-defense.” Some of those rebels had been accused of human rights abuses, most notably Jonas Savimbi of Angola’s UNITA movement, who reportedly burned his enemies at the stake. Though the abuses have since been well documented, Abramoff says he is skeptical of the most outrageous charges. “They had a full-time director at the KGB for disinformation,” he says.

Abramoff, by now 26, found a way to take the Reagan Doctrine into his own hands. Working with Jack Wheeler, a professional adventurer who has been called a right-wing Indiana Jones, he organized an international gathering of anticommunist rebels in UNITA’s provisional capital of Jamba, Angola. Leaders from the Afghan mujahideen, Nicaraguan contras, and Laotian guerrillas attended — some flying in on a DC-3 nicknamed the “vomit comet” because it swerved so wildly to avoid detection — along with Savimbi and his followers. For two days on the savanna, the guerrillas listened to one another’s speeches, received framed copies of the Declaration of Independence, and brainstormed (in vain, it turned out) about how to coordinate efforts. When Abramoff returned from Jamba, Citizens for America asked him to resign, according to the Washington Post, which reported that he and his staff had “gone hog wild” with the organization’s $3 million budget. Abramoff insists he was the victim of a power struggle.

For a decade, Abramoff stayed out of full-time politics. He followed his brother into the movie industry, producing Red Scorpion, an action flick starring Dolph Lundgren as a Soviet soldier-turned-defector in a thinly disguised Angola. It’s a film full of needle-in-the-skin torture and political grandstanding. In one scene, Lundgren is on the run with a U.S. journalist who can’t seem to utter a G-rated sentence. “Do the Americans all swear as much as you do?” Lundgren asks, fingering his weapon. “As a matter of fact,” the journalist replies, “an American can swear whenever, wherever, however much he or she fuckin’ well pleases. It’s a little something we call freedom of speech. Which I’m sure you Russians aren’t real familiar with.”

When Abramoff watched the final cut, he was so embarrassed he didn’t view the movie again for 10 years.

THE 1994 GOP LANDSLIDE left Washington’s corporate lobby shops scrambling for lobbyists wired into the new class of insurgent politicians, and suddenly Abramoff was a hot ticket again. “Very few people had the bona fides he had,” says Larry Latourette, a former partner with the firm Preston Gates Ellis. When the feelers began arriving, Abramoff wrestled with his conscience; he considered lobbyists “evil.” Ultimately, he took a job with Preston Gates — under the condition that he advocate only for causes he believed in.

At his new job, Abramoff was a “fish out of water,” Latourette says. “Preston Gates didn’t know what to make of him. They were as button-down-proper, don’t-rock-the-boat a place as you can imagine. He talked in black-and-white terms — ‘We’ve got to declare war on these guys; we’ve got to march to victory’ — powerful words that you don’t usually hear in D.C.” But Abramoff’s enthusiasm won him so many clients that when he left six years later, he took almost half of Preston Gates’ business with him. His official billing rate eventually climbed to $750 an hour, his paycheck to an estimated $1 million a year.

Abramoff was as relentless a lobbyist as he had been a youth activist. “I became my clients,” he says. “I became obsessed with making sure they weren’t hurt. You know the old Clinton canard, ‘I feel your pain’? Well, I felt their pain. I stayed up at night thinking about them.” His colleagues attest to this. “I don’t know if you’d call it adult attention deficit or type A, but I’d get emails at two or three in the morning,” says Jon van Horne, an attorney formerly at Abramoff’s second firm, Greenberg Traurig. “Everyone did.”

Abramoff set out to mobilize the conservative movement around the causes he was hired to represent. One of the first was the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth seized from Japan after World War II. Under a special covenant, the Pacific island chain is exempt from certain federal laws, setting its own immigration policies and minimum wage. This has allowed companies like The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch to manufacture clothing with the “Made in U.S.A.” label while employing thousands of Asian “guest” workers at $3 an hour. Observers have reported 100-degree factory floors, mandatory unpaid overtime, and crammed barracks with no running water surrounded by barbed wire. “We have evidence that at least some of the Chinese workers, when they become pregnant, are given a three-way choice: Go back to China, have a back-alley abortion…or be fired,” then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt testified in Senate hearings in 1998. Three years ago, a group of manufacturers settled a union-sponsored class-action lawsuit for $11 million.

In 1995, with pressure mounting to strip the Northern Marianas of their special privileges, island officials contacted Abramoff. He flew to the commonwealth and came away convinced the reports were exaggerated. He also believed — truly believed, say his colleagues — that the islands represented federal deregulation at its best. “He called [them] a unique political experiment,” says Roger Stillwell, a former Democratic lobbyist who also worked for the commonwealth. “Jack said, ‘We have to protect this, because what they have would be real advantageous to the United States.’”

Abramoff decided the best way to keep the islands deregulated was to make them a Republican cause célèbre. He recruited activists, painting the Northern Marianas as a laboratory of nonregulation. He also arranged for lawmakers and staffers to fly to the islands, in what would become the first of a series of all-expenses-paid trips he set up for political allies. “It was the right’s Venceremos Brigade,” says Marshall Wittmann, the former Christian conservative. “They weren’t cutting sugarcane, but instead staying in plush hotels and having golf junkets.” Abramoff insists that the trips (which did include golf) were legitimate fact-finding missions. “It’s not like everyone had the Disneyland tour,” he says. Many returned to Washington as converts — particularly Tom DeLay, who declared the Northern Marianas a “free-market success.”

In 2000, a bill to gradually impose federal immigration policy on the islands passed the Senate. As the bipartisan measure headed to the House, Abramoff scheduled a series of meetings with GOP lawmakers. “Never in the history of the Northern Mariana Islands was a delegation of leaders able to meet with the leaders of the U.S. Congress,” says Benigno Fitial, a former garment executive and now a top commonwealth official. Fitial particularly remembers his conversation with Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who then led the House Resources Committee. “I said, ‘Mr. Chairman, I respectfully request if you can hold onto that bill and not report it out of committee.’ You know what he said? ‘I think I can arrange that.’” (A spokesman for Young declined to comment for this story.)

Sure enough, the bill vanished and has never been resurrected. Abramoff “stopped it dead,” says Stillwell. “It could not have been an easy job. To this day, I’m absolutely in awe of what he did.”

PHILOSOPHICALLY, IT’S A SHORT LEAP from North Pacific textile mills to tribal casinos. Indian reservations, too, are exempt from certain federal laws. “Tribal sovereignty resonates very strongly with conservatives,” Abramoff says. “In essence, what we identified there is an enterprise zone: the ability to go into a blighted area and say, ‘This is a no-tax, no-regulation area.’” On this issue, he breaks with Christian conservatives, explaining that Judaism does not condemn gambling.

The casino tribes also had money, some of which they were ready to spend on K Street. Abramoff aggressively recruited tribes as clients, his former colleague van Horne recalls, charging them top rates and promising never to work for their rivals. “Jack was going in like he’d go into General Motors: ‘Yes, you’re paying beaucoup bucks — but you’re getting our whole team, and you’re getting our undivided attention,’” van Horne says.

Sometimes, advocating a tribe’s interests meant defending it against other tribes’ economic ambitions. That’s what happened when Abramoff worked for the Louisiana Coushatta, who run a huge gambling complex in the state’s southwestern piney woods. Hired to defend the Coushatta Casino Resort, Abramoff found himself battling a threat from nearby Texas, where in 2001 the Legislature was considering a bill that would have allowed another tribe, the Alabama-Coushatta, to open a casino near Houston, drying up much of the Louisiana facility’s business.

In exchange for a staggering $32 million contract, Abramoff and his partner, former DeLay aide Michael Scanlon, mounted a full-throttle effort to kill the Texas bill. They joined forces with Ralph Reed in organizing antigambling conservatives, creating a “Baptist-bootlegger” alliance that successfully halted the measure in the state Senate. Later that year, when the Alabama-Coushatta defied Texas lawmakers and opened a casino anyway, Abramoff worked with Reed to get it shut down — an effort that ended up killing all Indian gambling in Texas. This, in turn, meant that the Tigua tribe of El Paso, more than 800 miles away, was forced to shutter a casino that had generated 90 percent of the once-impoverished tribe’s income.

Abramoff showed little compassion for the Democratic-leaning Tiguas. “Ultimately, the main target is AC,” Abramoff wrote to Reed, referring to the Alabama-Coushatta. “I wish those moronic Tiguas were smarter in their political contributions. I’d love us to get our mitts on that moolah!! Oh well, stupid folks get wiped out.”

Here’s where matters grow contentious. Just before their casino closed in February 2002, Abramoff solicited the Tiguas as a client, in the hopes, he says, of gaining an ally against the Alabama-Coushatta. “Fire up the jet, baby, we’re going to El Paso!!” he wrote to Scanlon. His partner’s response: “I want all their MONEY!!!” Meeting with the tribe, Abramoff reportedly boasted of his political connections and said he could discreetly slip language into a federal bill to reopen the casino. He offered to do the initial work for free, but said the tribe needed to hire Scanlon to run a $4.2 million “political operation” involving two customized databases that would generate 375,000 letters and phone calls to Congress. According to Senate investigators, Scanlon secretly split his earnings with Abramoff, writing a $2.1 million check in April 2002; tribal officials testified that the databases “did nothing more than…rearrange the list provided to them by the tribe.” Abramoff also asked for $300,000 in wheel-greasing political donations and $50,000 to take a key House ally, Ohio Republican Robert Ney, golfing in Scotland.

In his presentation to the tribe, Abramoff described the casino’s closure as a “gross indignity perpetuated by the Texas State authorities.” Did he also disclose that he had lobbied for that indignity? Absolutely, Abramoff says; this was common knowledge. Absolutely not, say the Tiguas. “Jack Abramoff was never, ever on anybody’s radar screen,” says former tribal consultant Marc Schwartz. In fact, Schwartz says, when they first discussed the Texas bill, “Jack chuckled and said, ‘Boy, that sounds like Ralph Reed.’” The covert union is a particularly sore spot for the Tiguas. “A rattlesnake will warn you before it strikes,” Carlos Hisa, the tribe’s soft-spoken lieutenant governor, told senators at a hearing last November. “We got no warning. They did everything behind our back.”

This time, Abramoff’s usual skills failed him, and 2002 came and went without legislation helping the Tiguas. As he and the tribe discussed their future relationship, Abramoff proposed a novel funding scheme concocted by his firm: The Tiguas could buy life insurance for their older residents, with benefits paying Abramoff’s future fees. (The benefits would begin while the elders were still living.) The payments would be funneled through Eshkol Academy, a Jewish school Abramoff had founded, which would keep some of the money. “If it can work, it’s truly a win-win,” Abramoff wrote in an email. After initially embracing the proposal — even identifying 35 eligible elders — the Tiguas changed their minds and rejected it as morbid. “I’m glad he didn’t send an undertaker to start taking measurements,” said Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), a member of the Northern Cheyenne, at a hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee last November.

By the time the Senate hearings began last fall, several additional tribes had stepped forward with claims that Abramoff had duped them. Bernie Sprague, subchief of Michigan’s Saginaw Chippewa (and a longtime Abramoff opponent), told senators that his tribe — which had paid Abramoff $2.2 million from 2001 to 2003 — also gave $25,000 to a group called the Capital Athletic Foundation with the understanding that it “benefits the poor and needy kids throughout the D.C. area.” In reality the foundation, which is controlled by Abramoff, funneled most of its income to Eshkol Academy, the school he founded and which educated two of his five children. (It has since closed.)

At the same time, journalists and federal investigators have been scrutinizing congressional travel involving Abramoff. In April, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) asked the House Resources Committee to investigate the Northern Marianas trips, which Abramoff paid out of his own pocket before being reimbursed by his clients; House ethics rules prohibit members from accepting free travel from lobbyists. (An ethics lawyer at Preston Gates advised Abramoff that this practice was permissible, according to internal emails cited by the Washington Post; officials at the firm did not return Mother Jones’ phone calls.) Abramoff has also come under scrutiny for funneling payment for two trips with Tom DeLay, a 2000 golf outing to Great Britain and a 1997 visit to Moscow, through a think tank where Abramoff was on the board of directors.

As much as they’ve exposed specific wrongdoing, though, the investigations of Abramoff’s work have also shone a light on the routines of unseemly lobbying in general: the unholy alliances, the influence of campaign contributions, the cushy, and golf-packed, friendships between hired guns and politicians. (The research service PoliticalMoneyLine reports that, since 2000, members of Congress have received more than 6,200 free trips from various interests — about 10 per member.) In the end, Abramoff’s story is distressing for how entirely ordinary much of it is.

EVEN WITH ALL THE DISCLOSURES about his business M.O., there was a chance Abramoff’s personal reputation might have been salvageable — had it not been for the hundreds of memos and emails that the Senate investigators released. Some of the notes are merely embarrassing: “I love this bitch talk you punk ass bitch,” Abramoff emailed Scanlon in an exchange about racquetball. “As soon as I get yo ass on court, you be crying like a baby!” Others are laced with slurs about clients. Of the Saginaw Chippewa he wrote, “These mofos are the stupidest idiots in the land for sure.” When Scanlon grew frustrated with one tribe, Abramoff urged patience: “The key thing to remember about these clients is that they are annoying, but that the annoying losers are the only ones who have this kind of money and part with it so quickly.”

Last September, at the first of a series of Senate hearings, Abramoff was forced to listen to his own words. He sat at a long red table, forehead creased, large brown eyes cast downward. “According to your emails,” Senator Campbell read from a script, “you and Mr. Scanlon referred to tribes as morons, stupid idiots, monkeys, f-ing troglodytes…and losers.” The senator looked up. “Why,” he asked, “would you want to work for people that you have that much contempt for?”

On his lawyer’s advice, Abramoff declined to respond. In fact, says ex-colleague van Horne, comments like these were utterly commonplace. “Privately, to each other, we bitch about the clients,” he says. “They’re annoying. How is that different from any other client on the planet?” Still, Abramoff’s words cut deeply into his own long-cultivated image. For all his bravado over the years, he had prided himself on being squeaky clean. When the College Republicans went out drinking on Capitol Hill, the teetotaling Abramoff would stay in the office and lift weights. During his Hollywood years he pleaded with directors to eliminate from films the word he refers to only as “GD.”

Abramoff calls the release of the emails “one of the most painful parts of the past year’s assault on my life.” The notes captured “emotional outbursts of the moment,” he says. “I am sure that none of my accusers would wish to be judged solely by a few utterances over the course of 10 years, instead of the accomplishments and acts of loving kindness which permeate their life.”

Some of Abramoff’s defenders insist that he was singled out for doing what everyone else did. “Jack replaced a lot of lobbyists who had made money in the past treating the Indians as incompetents,” says Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). Even though “it’s clear that greed played a role in this,” Rohrabacher says, “I’ve seen nothing that wasn’t done 100 times more when the Democrats were in charge. This is standard operating procedure.” For a party that promised to reform Washington, though, “SOP” is an odd defense.

In fact, even many of Abramoff’s closest friends say he grew intoxicated with power. “Jack is probably guilty of achieving success on a level that society compliments — being aggressive and assertive, and sometimes forgetting the Good Lord,” says his friend and rabbi, Jonah Gewirtz. “I think that he, like many young people living in the swirl of the Beltway, got caught up.” Paul Erickson, Abramoff’s friend and fellow CR alum, agrees: “I think this went south for him only because he was a bit seduced by the potential financial rewards of these relationships. Had he not reached for the last dollar on the table, we might not be hearing some of these questions today.”

ABRAMOFF’S LAWYERS HAVE BARRED HIM from talking about his future, saying curtly that the former lobbyist is “focusing on other business opportunities.” Friends say he’s struggling to keep up his gung-ho facade. “He’s paid a terrible price,” says Gewirtz. “There can probably be no pain worse than reading the newspaper each morning.”

As the headlines tightened around him this summer, Abramoff often took refuge at Signatures, the upscale restaurant near the White House that he founded (and where he used to direct his staff to give influential friends free meals). Amid the framed autographs that adorn the wall — Martin Luther King Jr., J. Edgar Hoover, Joan Crawford, P.T. Barnum — he would tap on his laptop, consult with lawyers, and meet with prospective movie investors and the occasional visiting tribal chief. He chatted on his cell phone, poking bitter fun at his predicament to his remaining friends. (“I’ve worked my way up to national clown,” he told one. “I’ve bought the nose and the hair.”) And he contemplated leaving the nation’s capital. By midsummer, he was making arrangements to sell the restaurant. Among the prospective buyers was a group of Washington lobbyists.

Below: Abramoff talks with CBS’s 60 Minutes after his release from prison.