Wednesday evening, an audience at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center was confronted with a rare dilemma. If the speaker is an ex-convict, do you clap when they take the stage?
Ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff was invited to UT to launch the McCombs School of Business’ “Ethics Unwrapped” speakers series, and spoke to audience members about the dilemmas of legality and morality in the lobbying industry in an event titled “You Don’t Know Jack”.
One of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, D.C. during the presidency of George W. Bush, Abramoff served three and a half years in prison after a scandal involving Indian casino interests found him and 21 other White House officials guilty of corruption.
He now claims he is on a campaign to bring hard change to the lobbying industry after realizing in prison that a government allowing corruption to go unchallenged is a failure.
After some deliberation, UT officials decided paying Abramoff an estimated $10,000 was worth it if students could learn about the dark side of ethics, said Howard Prince, director of the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
“The first question I had when I was told we could have [Abramoff] come to campus, was ‘Why should we pay a failure to talk about moral failure,’” Prince said. “After some deliberation, we realized there could be value from learning from the mistakes of others, especially when the failure was from a man of considerable talent, like Mr. Abramoff.”
Abramoff, who is still on parole and cannot travel or make phone calls without approval, will not immediately receive the payment. A third party will monitor the fund, which is being paid for by sponsors in McCombs school, Deloitte Foundation and Bates Family Foundation, said business professor Robert Prentice.
Being questioned by Prentice and advertising professor Minette Drumwright, Abramoff engaged in a conversation about the difference between moral and legal problems in Washington.
“I used everything that was ‘legal’ to build a lobbying empire, and it was an empire on behalf of clients to support their product,” Abramoff said. “The problem was that I wasn’t judging what I was doing morally. I was judging it legally, and there was big difference.”
The only reason he was caught for corruption was due to his political battle with Senator John McCain, Abramoff said, who “dumped the emails” that led the exposure of his crimes.
Being cast out of Washington, D.C. didn’t solve the institutional practices that continue to intertwine money and politics, Abramoff said.
“So I got assassinated and sent off to prison, and they threw their hats in the air and said they had fixed the system and that the devil was cast out,” Abramoff said. “But they didn’t change anything, the system kept on going.”
Now writing for the Republic Report and asking for “effective reforms” that stop lobbyists from giving any contributions to public officials, Abramoff said he reflects on his own experiences as a lobbyist to craft his demands.
“They passed a law in Washington saying a lobbyist can’t legally go to dinner with a congressman,” Abramoff said. “Legally, a dinner counts as a sit down meal with cutlery. When I had a restaurant we would put in bar stools for meetings, so the meals counted as standing up. We need laws that close those loopholes.”
After a question and answer session, Prentice closed the event to an audience’s applause, asking them to reflect on their own failures and the lessons they had learned.
“I read three books on psychopaths before meeting Mr. Abramoff, and I was kind of hoping that when I met him I was going to meet my first psychopath,” Prentice said. “The reality was that when I met Mr. Abramoff, it was much like meeting other white collar criminals. He’s a man closer to me, and that’s a sobering lesson.”
Printed on Thursday, May 3, 2012 as: Ex-convict gives talk on morality and ethics