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'Casino Jack': Abramoff Film Should Be Required Viewing for New Lawmakers

4 years ago
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Newly elected Senate and House members will hit town next week for what is quaintly called "orientation." Activities include posing on the Capitol steps for the freshman class picture, caucusing with party leaders and learning the quickest routes to the members-only elevators and subterranean trams.

Missing from their schedule, alas, is a screening of "Casino Jack," starring Kevin Spacey as uber-lobbyist and mega-fraudster Jack Abramoff. Along with an equally sleazy K Streeter (and former Capitol Hill staffer) named Mike Scanlon and a few underlings, Abramoff ripped off millions of dollars from Indian tribes that ran lucrative gambling operations by promising to squash competing Native American casinos, and by plotting with a former mattress huckster and extreme creep to acquire a fleet of floating gambling halls. All this they managed by corrupting assorted politicians and bureaucrats with lavish trips and gifts, and by giving other lawmakers big campaign donations in return for votes benefiting their clients.

Kevin Spacey, Jack AbramoffThe film's commercial release in early December neatly coincides with Abramoff's actual release from a Baltimore halfway house, where he moved after serving 3½ years in a federal slammer for fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. Among them, Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) spent 17 months behind bars for his role in the scandal. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who was implicated in the scandal but never indicted, gave up his leadership post and did not seek re-election. He did, however, try his luck on "Dancing With The Stars."

For anyone inclined to believe Washington is a political cesspool -- which these days seems to be most Americans and a large number of winning candidates -- this movie will provide depressing (albeit entertaining) confirmation. So will "Casino Jack and the United States of Money," an overly-long documentary released last May that tells essentially the same story about how a band of amoral lobbyists and ideologues bought and sold favors from a slew of influential Republicans.

Both films are morality plays, particularly now that there are no limits on how much cash can be raised and spent by anonymous donors seeking to influence elections and legislation.

On Wednesday night, the new flick was screened for an A-List audience that included nine-term Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), lobbyists Jack Quinn and Heather Podesta, Sen. Ted Kennedy's widow, Vicky, and a clutch of journalists. It was sponsored by the Creative Coalition, the entertainment industry's First Amendment and arts advocacy group.

When the lights came up, Spacey submitted to a Q&A with MSNBC's Chris Matthews, who first defended the right of lobbyists to petition Congress before quoting 19th-century British moralist Lord Acton: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

One way to get rid of big money in campaigns, Spacey ventured, was for TV stations to run all political ads for free (fat chance), and to air only those campaign commercials they had vetted "to make sure that what one candidate is saying about another candidate is true."

Can't do it, said Matthews, citing the First Amendment guarantee of free speech that spawned the Supreme Court case that triggered this year's flood of campaign cash. (An estimated -- and eye-popping -- $4 billion was spent during the 2010 midterm election cycle.)

Spacey prepared for the role of arrogant lobbyist/kosher restaurateur/family man/devout Jew/onetime filmmaker by lunching with a group of Washington influencers and by visiting Abramoff in prison in Cumberland, Md., "to try to travel into where he was emotionally." In another attempt to humanize but not judge the character, Spacey also talked to people who liked Casino Jack and those who couldn't stand him.

Humanize? In this flick, Abramoff comes off as arrogant, greedy, reptilian, manic, narcissistic and, at times, downright delusional. Also funny, generous, kind and apparently deeply religious. In short, he's a walking, talking cautionary tale. What remains to be seen is what the ex-con does for his next act.

Matthews surmised that if Washington Post reporter Susan Schmidt hadn't written the first damning story that led to other media probes into Abramoff's outrageous schemes, Casino Jack and Scanlon would have continued cashing in and selling out indefinitely.

"He probably would have been chief of staff to someone in the [Bush] White House," Spacey mused.

Though most of the bad guys in this flick are Republicans, corruption and bribery transcend party lines. Indeed, of the five House members and one senator nabbed in the 1980 FBI Abscam influence-peddling sting, five were Democrats. And in the 30 years since that bust, countless elected miscreants from both parties have been busted while campaign spending has shot through the roof.

Perhaps the folks planning next week's helpful freshman orientation sessions ought to show "Casino Jack" as part of a congressional ethics seminar.

But I have to think that at least one among the more than 60 newly minted lawmakers will have set aside a few hours in Washington to host a discreet fundraiser to press the flesh with lobbyists kind enough to bring along a check or two. After all, for most members, the 2012 re-election campaign began the morning after the 2010 victory party.

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