Casino Jack and the United States of MoneyDirected by Alex Gibney
When Jack Abramoff is mentioned, it’s hard to think of anything other than that image of the convicted lobbyist leaving the courthouse in a black trench coat and oversized fedora. The image signifies the worst perception of the nation’s capital: A town of corrupt politicians who are in the pocket of well funded lobbyists.
By the end of “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” that negative perception of Washington, D.C., is somewhat justified by the extensive influence Abramoff had at the height of his career. (Abramoff pleaded guilty to tax evasion, fraud and conspiracy to bribe public officials in 2006 and is currently in prison.)
Writer and director Alex Gibney dives into Abramoff’s dealings in his latest documentary. As it relates to campaigns and elections, Gibney’s film will undoubtedly become evidence in the argument for tighter campaign finance regulation. The film draws a direct connection between lawmakers’ need to raise money for campaigns and the ability of lobbyists to deliver that money in exchange for access.
“Like most lobbyists,” Gibney says early in the film, “Jack Abramoff understood the key weakness of American politicians. To stay in power, they are willing to peddle influence for money. Jack thought that was a good thing. The buying and selling of politicians was the free market in action.”
The film—not to be confused with the upcoming “Casino Jack” starring Kevin Spacey as Abramoff—traces the beginning of Abramoff ’s rise to the Republicans winning back Congress in 1994, which propelled Congressman Tom DeLay (R-Texas) into House leadership. Gibney portrays Abramoff and DeLay as a pair of kindred free market spirits.
DeLay’s free market dogma and how it applied to campaign finance law strikes at the core of Gibney’s movie: DeLay believed that access to members of Congress should be determined by who will pay the highest price in campaign finance contributions.“Some people think there is a finite amount of money out there that can go into political campaigns,” DeLay tells Gibney. “I don’t believe that for a second.” Gibney also includes vintage footage of DeLay where he says: “If you support the free market, why wouldn’t you support a free market in election campaigns.”
Abramoff and DeLay developed a special relationship in this system: DeLay allowed Abramoff to market himself as having the ear of the House leadership and Abramoff funneled millions into DeLay’s campaign coffers.
This is where the film most effectively shows the connection between lobbying and campaign finance. At one point, former Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) recalls meeting with a lobbyist who wanted an earmark for a client. Immediately after the meeting, the lobbyist called Fitzgerald’s campaign headquarters and offered to host a fundraiser. “It seems to me,” Fitzgerald says, “like campaign finance is a system of legalized bribery.”
Here is a good time for a disclaimer: Gibney’s film is not objective. He set out to prove a point with Abramoff ’s outlandish tale. “It’s just so outsized,” Gibney tells C&E. “It’s just a wild exaggeration of the way things work.”
A shortcoming of the film is the absence of Abramoff; Gibney doesn’t interview him. Nor does Gibney mention that Congress has taken some action to tighten lobbying regulations.
But Gibney does effectively drive home the connection between lobbying and fundraising, and former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), the only member convicted as part of the Abramoff scandal, doesn’t believe that relationship has changed much, if at all. “Has the system changed?” Ney asks during an interview. “No. It’s still there. The leaders want money, they are raising money. Everyone is raising money.”Jeremy P. Jacobs is the staff writer at Campaigns & Elections.