When Jack Abramoff was released from prison in 2010, he was pitching himself as a self-styled political reformer looking to tell the truth about a system he illegally exploited for personal gain.
Now the disgraced D.C. lobbyist is back and immersed in a stranger-than-fiction project with an African strongman, controversial Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and “friends in Europe” to — in his telling — defeat Islamic terrorists.
The project, as described by Abramoff and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) in separate interviews with POLITICO, looks like a reprise of the lobbyist’s previous life of wheeling and dealing in Washington and capitals around the world.
Abramoff agreed to act as a liaison between his European friends whom he declined to name, the president of the Republic of Congo, and Rohrabacher to try to establish a coalition of African states to defeat the terrorist group Boko Haram. Abramoff’s friends — who Abramoff said he believes have financial investments in Congo — were in talks with the country’s controversial president, Denis Sassou Nguesso, to try to enlist the United States to support the coalition.
Abramoff approached Rohrabacher, whom he has known since the 1980s, with a proposal: Could the California Republican, who at one point was mentioned in news reports about a position in the Trump administration, help secure U.S. backing for the African alliance to defeat Boko Haram? At the behest of his European friends, Abramoff also wanted to see if Rohrabacher could arrange for a meeting between Sassou Nguesso and Trump, then the president-elect.
“[Abramoff] said the guy would like to get a meeting with President Trump and I said, ‘Well, I will pass it on that he’s available and that this is something he has expressed a willingness to try to destroy Boko Haram, which would be a real plus for the administration when and if that happens,'” Rohrabacher said.
Rohrabacher added, “He had someone who had been talking to the president of the Congo who indicated to Jack that [Sassou Nguesso] was willing to act against Boko Haram and help the United States destroy this horrible terrorist organization. And this friend of Jack’s said, ‘This is a really great opportunity and see what you can do with it.'”
Abramoff hasn’t returned to lobbying since his release from prison. Instead, he’s focused on speaking out against Washington corruption and the lobbying community of which he once was an integral part. More recently, Abramoff said he has worked to “combat radical Islam politically and to support other good causes,” including anti-corruption and criminal justice reform.
Rohrabacher said that he had “no idea” which friends Abramoff was coordinating with, nor did the congressman seem to care. Abramoff’s involvement was enough. Rohrabacher repeatedly called the convicted felon a “patriot.”
“All I know is that Jack comes to me and says … ‘We have a chance at putting together something to get rid of this group that’s murdering all these Christians in Africa. Would you be interested in following through on this?’ I said, of course I was,” Rohrabacher said.
In late December, Rohrabacher took the identical text of a letter Abramoff drafted to Sassou Nguesso, printed it on congressional stationery and sent it to the Congolese president. The letter stated that Rohrabacher was “working intensely” to set up a meeting between the Congolese president and Trump to discuss how to defeat Boko Haram.
“Yeah, I asked him if he could send me a sample copy of what he thinks should be said, and hey, it looked good enough for me, so I just said, I’ll put this out over my own signature because it looked good,” Rohrabacher told POLITICO. “It looked like what I wanted to say.”
In the interview, Rohrabacher said he was not confident that the meeting with Trump would happen until Congo commits troops to defeat Islamic extremism.
In February, when Rohrabacher took a trip to the Congo on a U.S. government airplane, Abramoff met him there. Abramoff said he flew there on his own dime, and was not paid for his time or reimbursed for his expenses. Rohrabacher said Abramoff was not in the room when the congressman met with Sassou Nguesso, noting that the U.S. embassy in Kinshasa set up the meetings between the congressman and the government.
Abramoff is not registered to lobby on behalf of the Congo, according to a search of Justice Department records.
“In the past few years, I have done what I could to combat radical Islam politically and to support other good causes (anti-corruption, criminal justice reform, etc.),” Abramoff wrote in an email, in response to questions. “A few months ago, friends in Europe who are involved in the Congo communicated to me that the president of Congo wanted to put together an anti-Boko Haram coalition among African states, and do so in coordination with the United States — as well as do other pro-U.S. things that I supported.
Abramoff added, “Given his record for fighting radical Islam, I contacted Dana Rohrabacher, and have encouraged him to develop a relationship with the Congo president to see if this could be brought to fruition. Dana remains a friend, as he has been for years. And we remain allies on a host of political issues.”
Abramoff’s African venture is a new development in the winding tale of the former high-flying lobbyist’s colorful life. Once one of K Street’s most powerful players, Abramoff’s career collapsed in 2004 as his corrupt dealings with Native American tribes were exposed in a scandal that rocked Washington and led to changes in federal lobbying laws.
Abramoff eventually pled guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials, and he served three-and-a-half years in prison. He also agreed to pay $25 million in restitution.
This isn’t the first time Abramoff has worked on behalf of an African country. In 2003, Abramoff wanted $9 million from President Omar Bongo of Gabon to set up a meeting with then-President George W. Bush, according to a New York Times report. Abramoff was also involved in a campaign in the mid-1990s trying to convince the State Department to rescind a ban on Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko traveling to the U.S., according to a Washington Post report at the time.
Asked if he had any problem working with Abramoff, who has been politically toxic in Washington for more than a decade, Rohrabacher said, “No, I have a very open relationship with Jack Abramoff.”
“This is not Al Capone,” Rohrabacher added. “He’s a guy who was politically … he got, how do you say, overwhelmed in the political system. And he had some bad judgements but at the same time, Jack is a very idealistic person and I will say he’s a patriot and … he would never become as prominent as he was if he didn’t have creative ideas and a lot of energy and this is just one of his creative ideas.”
Furthermore, Rohrabacher said private citizens have helped him connect with foreign leaders “dozens of times.” And he said Abramoff shouldn’t have to live “in a hole somewhere” because he’s a convicted felon.
“These people know he paid his price,” Rohrabacher said. “People know who he is. Anybody who deals with him knows they’re dealing with a celebrity who’s been convicted of a felony and so in a way it’s a lot better with Jack than maybe some other people that are doing business around town.”
Rohrabacher is no stranger to controversial foreign dealings. He’s a close ally of Russian President Vladmir Putin, and in the 1980s, went to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets.
Rohrabacher said he would pass along Congo’s request for a meeting with Trump to the White House, but didn’t seem confident the nation was ready to commit to the fight to defeat radical Islam.
“Well, [the meeting] won’t [happen] until I am satisfied that [Sassou Nguesso] is willing to make the full commitments that would justify that kind of a meeting,” Rohrabacher said. “In the trip to Africa, it was a great discussion, we had a really good briefing from all of their people including the president. … [But] he was not as committal as needed on the issue of committing his own troops to be part of a independent strike force to destroy Boko Haram.”