Satire or Real? You Make the Call
WASHINGTON (March 28) - Jack Abramoff is getting a makeover, compliments of friends who want him spared a harsh prison sentence.
The fallen superlobbyist may have fleeced clients of millions of dollars and endeared himself to politicians with free trips, meals and donations on his way to becoming the public face of Washington's latest corruption scandal.
But more than 260 friends, relatives and beneficiaries of Abramoff's largesse have written letters to a federal judge who is sentencing him Wednesday, asking that he be shown mercy and viewed in a different light.
He was, they said, a champion for the underprivileged who donated much of his riches - even the ill-gotten - to charity; a principled racquetball player who called fouls on himself; a dedicated father who once spent a night searching for a lost hamster.
"Tragically, Mr. Abramoff led two lives - a very flawed and reckless professional life but on the other hand his personal life was dedicated to helping others," friend Eli W. Schlossberg of Baltimore wrote.
Dozens of religious leaders weighed in with similar letters. Former pro basketball player Ledell Eackles chimed in. So too did a journalist, a couple of lawmakers, military officers and neighbors.
Even one of Abramoff's more infamous clients offered a different take of the controversial lobbyist.
Auditors in the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands once questioned Abramoff's lobbying expenses as excessive. But the islands' current governor wrote Abramoff was a "personal friend and political champion" of the "beleaguered" Pacific islands.
"He was a natural crusader and political activist, with great sympathy for our un-represented Commonwealth," Marianas Gov. Benigno R. Fitial wrote, using official government stationery.
The Marianas, known for their low-paying garment factories, hired Abramoff to keep the islands' workers exempt from U.S. laws like the minimum wage.
Others argued that Abramoff's glitzy capital restaurant, Signatures, wasn't just for wining and dining lawmakers or hosting political fundraisers. It also was a place where Abramoff gave free meals and advice to friends down on their luck.
"Jack was the kind of person who would offer his guest a glass of water if a server wasn't around to do so," friend Monty Warner wrote, noting Abramoff always picked up the check as he counseled friends on financial, marital or career problems.
The arena skybox where he treated lawmakers to a bird's-eye view of events was also opened to children, whom Abramoff frequently brought to games at his own expense to help teach sportsmanship.
"Jack is a good person, who in his quest to be successful, lost sight of the rules," National Hockey League referee Dave Jackson wrote, relating to the judge the time when Abramoff took 14 kids to his dressing room before a game.
Abramoff and a former colleague each face prison sentences of just more than seven years when they are sentenced Wednesday in Florida. Abramoff faces separate prison time in a corruption case in Washington. He is cooperating with prosecutors investigating possible corruption in Congress and the administration.
The letters, which ask the judge for lowest possible sentence, also were a reminder of how far Abramoff has fallen. Once a household name on Capitol Hill where he doled out political donations by the dozens and lent his restaurant to lawmakers for fundraisers, Abramoff got just a single letter of support from a member of Congress, his longtime friend Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.
"Over many years, I've known a far different Jack than the profit-seeking megalomaniac portrayed in the press," Rohrabacher wrote. "Jack was a selfless patriot for most of the time I knew him."
In an interview, Rohrabacher explained why he took a risk others in Congress wouldn't in writing the letter. "Jack was a good friend, and even your good friends at times do wrong things," the lawmaker said.
A former top Republican official in California's Assembly, Steve Baldwin, and two military officers were the others with government connections willing to attach their names to letters appearing in Abramoff's court case.
Air Force Capt. Andrew Cohen, a chaplain, wrote the court about Abramoff's generosity in taking in Cohen's family of seven for several weeks last year when the military family couldn't find housing.
Cohen wrote that Abramoff was a complete stranger and his act of generosity arose from "humanitarian considerations" and a "sense of national service and duty to assist a service member and his family."
The letters from average citizens - many from Abramoff's Orthodox Jewish community - were strewn with references to his generosity, like the time the lobbyist gave $10,000 to a rabbi "overwhelmed by medical bills."
Abramoff is "a man of exceptional generosity and kindness, often to those he doesn't even know," former ABC News reporter Tim O'Brien wrote.
No anecdote seemed too small to mention. Dr. Gene Colice told the judge about the time Abramoff tried to "find a lost hamster on a Friday night." And Attorney Laurence Latourette called his racquetball playing partner as someone who "always acts honorably, and will call himself on infractions."