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Be wary of crooked lobbyists, Jack Abramoff tells Utah lawmakers

Published February 24, 2012 3:15 pm

Politics • Infamous visitor says corruption can occur quickly.
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Jack Abramoff's swing through Utah ended Friday morning at the Capitol, where he met with several lawmakers and warned them to be on guard — that corruption can be an insidious creep that quickly ensnares a politician.

The infamous lobbyist, who spent time in federal prison for fraud and bribery, said he was able to prey upon human nature and exploit it.

"A good lawyer needs to know their jury," he said.

His message was for politicians to be wary — that corrupt lobbyists will look to gain advantage by identifying their needs, whether paying back campaign debt or knowing vulnerabilities.

He spoke for about five minutes to the rural caucus at the Capitol — introduced by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab — before doing a small book signing for several lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, and Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo.

"On the news, he seemed so much larger than life," Dee said. "I guess he's trying to show that he's an ordinary guy."

But he also provides a grim perspective about the influence of money in the system and when corruption begins.

"It starts the moment after they're elected to Congress," Abramoff said, "and their leadership helps them reduce their debt by introducing them to lobbyists who give them money — and that's before they're even sworn in."

Abramoff is attempting to pay off about $23 million in restitution due to those he defrauded before his conviction in 2006. He is doing so partly by selling copies of his book and partly by collecting speaking fees, where he uses his tale to educate lawmakers on the dangers of bribery.

At one point, he had addressed the Kentucky Legislature as part of an ethics class, and Kathy Smith, who helped organize Abramoff's trip to Utah, said she would like to see something similar in Utah and will help try to organize it next year.

"We should try," Smith said. "At first, part of me was skeptical, but I think he has an important message to convey."

Abramoff would like to repeal the 17th Amendment, institute term limits and curtail the influence of money in politics.

Cherilyn Eagar, who is running for Utah's 2nd Congressional District, spent some time talking to Abramoff and said his message resonated. She said the cautions and warnings are very real on the campaign trail.

"It's certainly difficult as a candidate to raise money from sources that aren't tempting," she said. "How do you get elected and stay away from that? It's very tough. But there are very good people out there, and we have grass-roots donors."

Abramoff's Utah visit was a short stop on a West Coast swing of lectures and book signings.

dmontero@sltrib.comTwitter: @davemontero






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