Alex Gibney is an accomplished filmmaker. He won an Academy Award in 2008 for his film, Taxi to the Dark Side, examining America’s policy on torture and interrogation in general.
He has a lot of projects in the hopper at any given moment. A few years ago he began to work on a film about Jack Abramoff and the culture of corruption infecting Washington DC. That film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival over the weekend (I’m told that scandal players Bob Ney and Neil Volz were there).
Over the years I’ve shared some information and research with Alex and his team and I can hardly wait to see the film. It should be in wide distribution come May.
From the early reviews of Casino Jack and the United States of Money it looks like this film should be a wake up call for Americans of all stripes about the corrupting influence of money on our politics. This graph from a review completely tracks with what I’ve found in my ten plus years of research into the subject:
His partner was Tom DeLay, the most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives — but, of course, DeLay’s fall from grace, and Abramoff’s conviction in the scandal that brought them both down, is old news. What’s astonishing, and important, about Casino Jack is that it lays out how the system of funneling cash for favors that Abramoff turned into a new kind of government machine, with the money often hidden behind fake nonpartisan organizations, didn’t go away; it took over. It was Jack Abramoff who elevated the lobbyist to the status of shadow legislator. Casino Jack is really a look at how, and why, the government no longer works — how the culture of Washington was effectively rebuilt to sell itself to the highest bidder.
In all the ways that matter, the Abramoff Scandal is an unexamined scandal. Most of it has been swept under the rug of history. This was the largest corruption scandal to hit Capital Hill since Teapot Dome and yet, almost nothing was really done about it. Yeah, Jack went to jail and it is harder to buy a staffer lunch or fly your Congressman to a tropical island in the Pacific or a golf trip to Scotland, but that is about it. Abramoff’s partners in Congress are mostly still there and a few that were run out of office, like Richard Pombo and J.D. Hayworth are running to get back on the gravy train this November. Their names should be mud, but because the Abramoff scandal was never really exposed for what it was and what it did, these weasel get to try and return.
It is like all of Jack’s old friends are getting the band back together again. I can hardly wait for the announcement about DeLay’s comeback, but in reality most of Jack’s merry band of corruptionists never stopped playing the game.
I suspect most folks would be surprised to learn that neither the House nor the Senate ever conducted any investigation into the connections that many elected officials and Hill staffers had with the scandal. Yes, there were a handful of very narrow Congressional investigation, but each of these intentionally avoided following up any trail of corruption that led to a staffer or a member of the House or Senate. And they boxed up far more documents than they release. For example, McCain’s Indian Affairs Committee investigation into Abramoff collected over 750,000 pages of documents. Far less than 5,000 of those pages were ever released and McCain had these docs buried at the National Archives until 2030 or so (I think they’re a couple of isles over from the Ark of the Covenant, but I digress).
The DOJ has been investigating the scandal, but only those cases that come to trial will yield more evidence and information about how the system of corruption works in Washington. The clock is running and most of the Abramoff era crimes are now 6 to 16 years old. It is getting late in the game to expect that many more prosecutions will come out of the DOJ—especially with the Supreme Court getting ready to rule whether it is Constitutional to charge people with honest services fraud, a charge use in most political corruption cases. Between this case and the recent corporations-can-flood-the-zone-with-as much-money-as-they-want ruling, the SCOTUS seems more committed to kleptocracy than democracy.
It has been almost six years since the Abramoff scandal broke on the front page of the WaPost. The story was followed for a while, but now it is just old news. Except that it isn’t. The system of corruption that Jack Abramoff helped to build is as strong today as it ever was. The Abramoff scandal is a Rosetta stone of how the system of lobbying, money laundering and influence works in Washington. This scandal needs to be examined and expose if we hope to reclaim our democracy from those who seek to bleed it dry.
There are Millions and millions of pages of documents, emails, testimony and other evidence that have been gathered by the DOJ and like the 750,000 pages of the McCain Abramoff files they will also most likely be swept under the rug of history. We need to try and get these documents to see the light of day.
I think that all these documents should be made public. If we want to clean this mess up we need to know how it operates. The best legacy of the Abramoff scandal is that a massive collection of documents have been gathered that can expose how corruption works in Washington. This legacy can either see the light of day or be swept under the rug. I hope for disclosure.
A Member of Congress (especially on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee) or a Senator could launch an investigation into the Abramoff scandal to make these documents public and expose the role of Congress in this scandal. (But is there really anybody in Congress with the backbone to do that?) Or another option might be a Corruption Commission to examine corruption in Washington between 1990 and 2010, publish a report, release all relevant documents and make recommendations to Congress and the President for action.
It would be nice if the truth about this scandal would come out one day. Perhaps this new film will get folks asking questions again. Perhaps not, but a lad can dream.
ps to Jane: did you see that part in the review, “with the money often hidden behind fake nonpartisan organizations”, that’s about your pal Grover. Hear that slurping sound? That’s Grover drinking your milkshake. Good luck with that in November.