Not to be confused with the Casino Jack with Kevin Spacey opening today, Casino Jack and the United States of Money is a documentary, which examines the rise and fall of über-lobbyist Jack Abramoff from his beginnings with the College Republicans to his multi-million dollar deals with Indian Casinos and questionable foreign heads of state, his possible ties to organized crime, and his too close relationships with very powerful politicians which finally brought him down. He was just released last week from a federal prison after serving 3 1/2 years for the defrauding of American Indian tribes and corruption of public officials.
I am not sure Casino Jack and the United States of Money is a totally successful documentary because at the end, I still don’t know what motivated him to do what he did. He began very idealistically with the College Republicans organizing for Reagan where he teamed up with Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed. The three would later work together in the lobbying biz.
One of his first big successes was on behalf of the government of the Marianas Islands, getting them major concessions on minimum wage and labor laws, so they could import super cheap labor and manufacture goods with “Made in the USA” labels. After Abramoff paid for Tom DeLay and his staffers to go on trips there, they crafted policy that extended exemptions from federal immigration and labor laws to the islands’ industries and everyone made a lot of money.
His lobbying efforts did not seem to have any real ideological base though as you’d expect from his earlier political work. The bottom line and an enormous ego were all that fed him. He surrounded himself with the most powerful Republicans in Washington; Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Karl Rove, even George Bush were “close” friends. And the money flowed right through his lobbying firm into their campaign coffers.
But somewhere along the way, as usually happens with guys like that, he went too far. Abramoff and his partner Michael Scanlon (a former Tom DeLay aide) were found to have conspired to bilk Indian casino gambling interests out of an estimated $85 million in fees. Abramoff pleaded guilty to three felony counts, conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion. And now he’s served his time and has two movies out there all about him. And I’m sure he loves that!
The film is not edge-of-your-seat story telling, but as political theater it is definitely worth a watch. And as a cautionary tale about lobbying and the need for campaign finance reform, it should be mandatory viewing for every elected official out there. He went to jail, but the system has not change one iota. And I’m looking forward to the other one with Kevin Spacey.