Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Alex Gibney: Casino Jack and The United States of Money

They say the house always wins, but in the case of "Casino" Jack Abramoff it was the guy holding the keys to the front and back doors that made out like a bandit. Like thousands of other lobbyists (close to 14,000 individuals were registered as such in 2009 according to the Center for Responsive Politics) Abramoff peddled access to influence, which he bought with generous campaign "donations" and perks such as luxury "fact-finding" trips.

Abramoff wasn't too picky about who his clients were, had no problem representing more than one side, and, as a disciple of Ronald Reagan school of economics, had a innate disrespect for any rules and regulations that interfered with his ability to capitalize at the often excessive expense of his clients.

Having represented several Indian tribes with regards to their lucrative gaming rights, Abramoff (along with business partner Adam Kidan) utilized his gambling expertise and made a play to buy the SunCruz floating casino line. The deal hit headlines in 2005 when three men connected to the Gambino crime family were charged with the 2001 murder of SunCruz founder Konstantinos "Gus" Bouli, who had sold a majority interest in the company to Abramoff and his associates. By this time Abramoff was being investigated for bribery and corruption relating to his Indian gaming clients, who had collectively been charged an estimated $85 million in fees by Abramoff and cronies Ralph E. Reed, Jr., Grover Norquist and Michael Scanlon -- for the privilege of being played off against each other.

In truth, Abramoff's business practices probably had much in common with those of a large proportion of his contemporaries. His main crime in Washington's prevailing climate of corruption seemingly being that he got too cocky not to get caught. Ultimately Abramoff and an elite group of conspirators including Ohio's Republican Rep. Bob Ney, his former Chief of Staff, Neil Volz, and Michael Scanlon, who had served as Communications Director for disgraced Texan Rep. Tom DeLay (and had assisted Abramoff in the SunCruz purchase), paid -- albeit relatively lightly -- for their crimes, and Washington was able to breathe a collective sigh of relief that it had been seen to do something with actions that had minimal long-term impact on the status quo.

However, it's this status quo, the lobbying system and how its symbiotic with the way we finance the election of our leaders, that we should really take issue with since it has done more to pervert the course of democracy than any one individual. In 2009 a record $3.48 billion was spent on lobbying. And since a politician's primary objective once they get in power, by necessity, is to find the money to get reelected, it's easy to understand why our representatives in government are forced to serve the needs of those with fat checkbooks above those of the people.

With an eye on this bigger picture, Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (whose previous credits include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side) takes an in-depth look at the stranger-then-fiction Abramoff affair in his new film Casino Jack and The United States of Money. I caught up with Gibney to talk about the wholesale selling of America he investigated, and how, with a dearth of untarnished white knights, our future champions might just take the form of the likes of Eliot Spitzer (who's the subject of Gibney's next, as yet untitled, project).

Read my interview with Alex Gibney on SuicideGirls.com.

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