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Lessons on Budgeting and Ethics from the Windy City: Jack Abramoff Talks About Ethics
Kris Amundson, August 7, 2012: The annual gathering of state legislators at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) Legislative Summit is a Holy Day of Obligation for those of us who believe that most serious education policy is made at the state and local level. More tomorrow. Sadly, I have to leave for the airport before the most intriguing session of this Legislative Summit. On Thursday, Jack Abramoff will be discussing “Lessons in Ethics.” I am not making this up.
   Jack Abramoff   
Lessons on Budgeting and Ethics from the Windy City

The annual gathering of state legislators at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) Legislative Summit is a Holy Day of Obligation for those of us who believe that most serious education policy is made at the state and local level.

Last year, NCSL met in San Antonio, where the average temperature was 104, and featured Gov. Rick Perry, who was just about to announce his candidacy for President. His speech was so gawdawful that we all thought it must be some sort of trick designed to lull his primary opponents into underestimating him. Instead, it just turned out to be just one of many dreadful public appearances.

This year, legislators are gathering in Chicago. The weather is better and legislators seem to be in a happier frame of mind because their budget woes of the last three years seem to be easing.
Neil Newhouse
Today’s sessions kicked off with Republican pollster Neil Newhouse and his Democratic counterpart Peter Hart. As you can imagine, polling data is mother’s milk to a room full of elected officials. Key takeaways:

The entire billion-dollar campaign is being run for about 9 percent of the people in 12 states. They’re the only ones who have not yet made up their minds.
Peter D. Hart
It is unlikely that campaigns will be using sweet reason and positive messages to persuade these persuadable voters. If you think it’s negative now . . .

A referendum on whether we could just hold the election today and get it over with would pass with nearly unanimous support.

A session on state budgets and revenues painted a more optimistic picture than we have heard in the past. Revenues are stable or rising everywhere except Illinois and California, which ended the year with negative balances. (States, unlike the federal government, are usually required by their constitution to balance the budget. So just ignore it when candidates tell you, “As Governor, I balanced the budget every year.” Of course they did.)

Most states–44 and the District of Columbia–predict that their revenues will rise again next year. Only five predict that revenues will decline.

Still, there are concerns. Medicaid is the largest worry for state budget writers. Worries about how the federal government will manage the so-called Fiscal Cliff are second. And unemployment looms large.

More tomorrow. Sadly, I have to leave for the airport before the most intriguing session of this Legislative Summit. On Thursday, Jack Abramoff will be discussing “Lessons in Ethics.” I am not making this up.

Convicted felon to speak at NCSL event, as ALEC mole returns to hype his campaign
Thursday, Jul 26, 2012

* The National Conference of State Legislatures is holding its big annual meeting in Chicago next month. One of the featured speakers on the group’s home page is none other than convicted felon and former bigtime DC lobbyist Jack Abramoff. From the NCSL website…

Thursday, 2:15 to 3:30 p.m. at MPW W183b, Level 1

Term limits, no revolving door, no gifts. These reforms are touted by America’s best-known lobbyist/felon, Jack Abramoff. He will defend his ideas in front of a panel of experienced legislators who will talk about ethics reforms in their states and challenge Abramoff on what makes sense.

Apparently Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan weren’t available to speak to the NCSL gathering because they’re still in prison.

* Abramoff spent over three years in federal prison after being convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion. He’s been promoting his new book “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist.” He was on “60 Minutes” not long ago and said that one reform he’d like to see is a complete prohibition on congressional staff and congresscritters from ever becoming lobbyists.

* Abramoff addressed the Kentucky legislature earlier this year and outlined some reforms he’d like to see…

* There is a connection between money and politics. Any gift, no matter how small, is a form of bribery.

* Public officials should not be allowed to accept any gifts, including campaign contributions, from lobbyists or their clients or anyone seeking government awards.

* Politicians are human and humans are grateful to people who do nice things for them. This is how lobbyists gain access.

* Terms limits are necessary for lawmakers and their aides to curb a culture of arrogance.

* There should be a lifetime ban on public officials becoming lobbyists–no revolving door.

* Everything about gambling and gaming is political. Stay away from it, he warns. “Beware of the power of money in that industry.”
And remember that a public servant works for the public, not for lobbyists.

* But as former Washington Post reporter R. Jeffrey Smith wrote, Abramoff remains defiant about his own actions in his new book…

When it comes to his own role, Abramoff leaves out some embarrassing details, making a reader suspect that there is still more to tell. And his sensible yet improbable prescriptions — which Abramoff says occurred to him while he was doing time at a minimum-security federal prison in Cumberland — are undercut by the pride with which he recounts his lobbying victories. We are left with an odd mixture of candid revelation, defiant celebration and score-settling, all stuck to a postscript of avowed remorse. […]

He dismisses his numerous critics by claiming that they were engaged in “a bloodbath of slander” or bent on the destruction of his clients. He slams The Washington Post in particular for its “vitriolic attacks.” He said the paper was “thrilled to have another angle of attack” when it published a 2004 article by me about Abramoff’s diversion of funds from an avowed sports charity to pet political causes, a short-lived religious school for his kids and an overseas golf trip. […]

For all of its interesting play-by-play — marred in part by numbing accounts of his golf games with clients — the book skims the surface of Abramoff’s psyche. One explanation for his devotion to such hard-edged lobbying is that a habitual rule-breaker will always gravitate toward a profession where ethical norms are few and enforcement is largely missing. But there are hints of other compulsions, including a desire to outperform lobbyists with more cultivated lifestyles. (He writes with relish that his clients and tactics left the partners at Preston Gates squirming “at their wine and brie parties.”)

Even after a few years in prison, Abramoff appears unconvinced that he should be subject to the same rules as others. At one point behind bars, he writes, he violated a rule against circumventing the prison mail system by passing a note to visitors, in hopes of getting a Torah scroll from a local rabbi that he could use to organize a communal reading in prison. Abramoff writes in frustration that the “rabbi ratted me out” and says it was “a badge of honor” to endure another month in prison for having tried to obtain the scroll. He decries the prison’s punishment as “harassment.”

One of the book’s unintended themes is thus that redemption is particularly elusive for those who think they can lobby to get everything they want.

Maybe this wasn’t the best panel choice. We’ll see. Are you going to the conference? What are you planning to do?

Meanwhile, the ALEC “mole” is back…

Wednesday is the first day of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) annual meeting. State legislators from around the country will be attending, as will representatives from corporations looking to pitch model legislation.

There will also be spies.

Activists from several progressive groups will sneak into the Salt Lake City conference, (at least, they’ll try), in hopes of capturing some of ALEC’s model legislation. They will be especially motivated now that mass outrage over Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, an ALEC-modeled statute which many presumed would form the basis of George Zimmerman’s legal defense for shooting Trayvon Martin, has lofted ALEC’s profile.

But long before ALEC watching became its own cottage industry, there was Mark Pocan—a Wisconsin state assemblyman who spied on ALEC for more than a decade and frustrated its attempts to advance policy in the Badger State.

But the conferences are of dwindling use to a known quantity like Pocan. While his fellow ALEC-affiliated never tried to obstruct him, ALEC’s staff and its sponsors are a different matter. Corporate representatives ensure that he is never invited to the private dinners and sessions where they do some of their choicest lobbying. “That’s where they really wine and dine you,” he said. At last summer’s summit, “I was probably the loneliest guy in New Orleans.”

The only private event Pocan ever made it to was a cigar party. Sponsored by several corporations, it literally consisted of prim servers proffering cigars to legislators on silver platters. Within five minutes of Pocan’s getting there, an ALEC staffer hurried up to him, asked for his invitation, and, after he produced it, brusquely asked him to leave.

* Background…

More than a decade ago, Wisconsin state Rep. Mark Pocan began agitating to expose the American Legislative Exchange Council’s behind-the-scenes manipulation of the legislative process in Wisconsin and other states on behalf of multinational corporations. It was a lonely fight at first. Republicans were enthusiastic about ALEC and most Democrats did not have the courage to take on powerful corporations and the lobbying and campaign contribution networks they had developed.

But Pocan, a Madison Democrat who has represented the 78th Assembly District since 1998, persisted, attending ALEC meetings and writing groundbreaking exposes for The Progressive on how the right-wing group crafts “model legislation” that benefits the most powerful corporations in the world — while undermining protections for workers, consumers and the environment. When the Center for Media and Democracy and The Nation magazine developed the “ALEC Exposed” project to reveal the full extent of the secretive group’s manipulation of the legislative process, Pocan lent his experience and insight to the work of naming and shaming corporations that fund ALEC.

As a result, responsible corporations are fleeing ALEC’s membership rolls. Some 25 companies have announced they are no longer associated with ALEC — including, most recently, MillerCoors, Best Buy, CVS, Hewlett-Packard and John Deere & Co. They join Johnson & Johnson, Dell, Kraft, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Wendy’s, Walmart and Mars. Four nonprofits, including the Gates Foundation, have also ended their involvement in ALEC activities or initiatives.

But Pocan is not satisfied just with the reduction in ALEC’s ranks. The legislator, who is one of several contenders for the open 2nd District congressional seat, is promoting an “ALEC Accountability Act,” which would require the shadowy group to register as a lobbyist in Wisconsin and report the funding sources for the “scholarships” it provides conservative legislators.

Pocan is running for Congress, and he’s hyping his visit to the media. From a press release…

Press Advisory
Pocan At 2nd Day of ALEC Conference
National Coalition Shedding Light on Illegal, Non-Registered Lobby Group

SALT LAKE CITY – State Representative Mark Pocan will attend his second day at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 26th. ALEC wines and dines state legislators nationwide in an attempt to lobby for model corporate-sponsored, special interest-inspired legislation. Over the past few years, public awareness of troubling legislation promoted by ALEC has caused 28 corporations and over 50 legislators to leave the organization. In 2012, Pocan introduced the ALEC Accountability Act, which would require ALEC to register as a lobbying organization and own up to its illegal practices.

© 2003 The E-Accountability Foundation