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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 January 2006, 15:23 GMT
The hum you hear is from lobbyists
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff
Abramoff could spill more beans

US lobbyist Jack Abramoff has pleaded guilty to fraud, paving the way for him to co-operate in an inquiry into corruption in Congress. But what are the ramifications of the affair?

Washington is like a giant beehive in which the buzz comes from lobbyists seeking access to the queen bee - the US Congress and government.

The business of Washington is government. You either work in it or around it.

And Washington's business is the world's business.

Everyone does it

Everybody - businesses, industries, professions, trade associations, environmentalists, human rights activists, political parties, citizens groups, the media, the lot - has an interest in Washington, which is where the lobbyists come in.

There are now some 35,000 of them, all supposedly doing their diligent work arguing for their clients or organisations to members of Congress and to officials in the administration.

There is nothing corrupt in lobbying in itself, of course.

It is a necessary part of the formation of laws. Interested parties have to have a say. It is practised all over the world.

(One reader suggests that lobbyists should however have no better access than ordinary citizens and certainly those with more money might get more access).

The European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg has for example experienced a huge increase in lobbying in recent years as the powers of the parliament have grown to the point where its agreement is now required before an EU law can be made.

And some forms of lobbying are more elegant than others.

Embassies as lobbies

For example, some lobbyists go by other names - they call themselves embassies.

Some of the finest lobbying in Washington is done at plush dinners at places like the British Embassy where senators and representatives, secretaries of government departments and key opinion makers from the media are gently buttered up, so that when an issue arises that needs their attention, they will take the call.

One of the most interesting, if less titillating, parts of the recent book on Washington by the former British Ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer is where he stressed how important an embassy is.

He was himself extremely good in the art of lobbying dressed up as dining and it would indeed be short-termism of an extreme kind for any government to give up or downscale such a well-oiled machine in a city where influence is everything.

Not long ago, for example, when one of those transatlantic trade wars was looming (over bananas, I think) the US government selected cashmere sweaters from Scotland as one of its targets for punitive import duties.

The British embassy machine was discreetly mobilised and lo and behold, after a few visits, chats and contacts, the sweaters were removed from the list.

The case of Jack Abramoff

It is not all so discreet, as the current scandal in Washington over the activities of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, reveals. The house that Jack built took lobbying beyond argument into corruption.

Mr Abramoff reached a plea bargain with federal prosecutors - and added his own courtroom repentance, in which he asked for "forgiveness and redemption from the Almighty".

He pleaded guilty to a number of selected corruption charges, promised to repay purloined money and pay evaded taxes and, significantly, help further investigations into members of Congress and their staff - all in exchange for a much lighter sentence than the 30 years he could have faced.

The two scams

The court documents showed two of Mr Abramoff's operations.

The first was to take millions of dollars off Native American tribes seeking to further their casino interests (casinos on reservation land being absolute gold mines these days) by recommending a lobbying company run by his partner, Michael Scanlon.

Mr Scanlon charged the innocent tribes - which wanted help in navigating the choppy congressional waters - vastly inflated sums and paid Mr Abramoff 50% of the gains.

The tribes paid out $53m in fees, of which, the documents say, some $20m went to Jack Abramoff.

The second was bribery of a classical kind. The court papers say that Mr Abramoff and Mr Scanlon "offered and provided a stream of things of value to public officials in exchange for a series of official acts and influence and agreements to provide official acts and influence. These things of value included but are not limited to, foreign and domestic travel, golf fees, frequent meals, entertainment, election support for candidates for government office, employment for relatives of officials and campaign contributions".

What the congressman did

The plea bargain mentions that "Representative #1" - said by the US media to be Republican Congressman Bob Ney from Ohio - was taken to the Marianas Islands, to the Super Bowl in Florida and to Scotland for a golf trip.

In return Representative #1, it is said, supported bills, met clients of Mr Abramoff, backed one client who was after a telephone contract and made a public statement in support of another.

Congressman Ney's office said that what he did was "because of his understanding of the merits and facts of the situation and not because of any improper influence".

The role of golf in lobbying

It is interesting how susceptible middle-aged members of Congress can be to golf trips.

Other media reports say that one of Mr Abramoff's guests on the Scottish trip (to the home of golf, St Andrews, no less) was Tom DeLay, the Texas congressman who has had to step down as House majority leader to defend himself against his own corruption charges.

The Washington Post reported that Mr DeLay's airfare was charged to Mr Abramoff's credit card. It is illegal for a lobbyist to pay for travel by a member of Congress.

Mr Abramoff was closely linked to the Republican Party but his clients included Democrats as well. The whole political establishment is therefore under a cloud.

No wonder Washington is now keenly awaiting the results of the further investigations now under way with Jack Abramoff's help.

Lobbyists multiply

The growth of lobbyists has been huge over recent years and so have their fees.

A recent Washington Post survey showed that a well-connected lobbyist (perhaps someone who had been in the administration or Congress) could command a starting salary of $300,000 a year. Retainers run to about $20,000 a month per client and more.

The growth was attributed in the survey to a combination of an expansion of government, the control of the White House and Congress by Republicans keen to develop this part of the governmental process, and the increasing realisation by companies they needed help in securing benefits and preventing damage to their interests.

According to veteran journalist Elizabeth Drew, who wrote about lobbying in the New York Review of Books in 2005: "Corruption has always been present in Washington, but in recent years it has become more sophisticated, pervasive, and blatant than ever."


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