GOODMAN: We turn now
to the issue of corporate money and politics.
Seven days ago, the
Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling to allow corporations to spend
unlimited amounts of money to elect and defeat candidates. In a
five-to-four decision, the conservative members of the court argued that
corporations and unions have First Amendment rights and that the
government cannot impose restrictions on their political speech.
Many advocates for fair elections say the
Court’s decision in the Citizens United case will open the
floodgates of corporate campaign donations. In the dissenting opinion,
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, quote,
“The Court’s ruling threatens to
undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation.”
Here at the Sundance Film Festival in Park
City, Utah, where we’re broadcasting, one of the most talked-about films
deals with the topic of money and politics. It’s called Casino Jack
and the United States of Money.
The documentary is by the Academy
Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney. It focuses on the rise and fall of
disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is now serving time in
jail for defrauding American Indian tribes, bribing public officials,
and evading taxes.
In a moment, Alex Gibney will join us here
in Park City, but first, a clip from Casino Jack.
government says Abramoff has admitted to bribing as many as twenty
members of Congress.
activities went far beyond lawful lobbying.
WALLER: He was
the number one lobbyist in Washington, who could get you in touch
with the best and most influential members of Congress.
amazing how many members of Congress wanted in with Jack.
REPORT: When the
story broke, President
Bush publicly tried to distance himself from
GEORGE W. BUSH:
I frankly don’t even remember having my
picture taken with the guy.
NEY: You know,
all of a sudden, nobody remembered Jack Abramoff.
GEORGE W. BUSH:
I don’t know him.
NEY: Of course
Bush knew him. Absolutely.
just amazing how close Abramoff and his people got to the levers of
power in Washington.
RODGERS: We had
no idea that it would lead to the resignation of Tom DeLay, to the
conviction of Bob Ney, to Tony Rudy, to Neil Volz. So many people
were pulled into this web: Ralph Reed, John Doolittle, Karl Rove,
Dick Armey, Conrad Burns, Don Young, Grover Norquist. It was all
about the money. It’s the selling of America.
GOODMAN: An excerpt
from Casino Jack and the United States of Money.
Alex Gibney joins us here in Park City. We’re broadcasting from the
headquarters of the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.
In 2007, Alex won an Academy Award for his
documentary Taxi to the Dark Side. He also made the film
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
We’re also joined by two other guests who
certainly played a role in the Jack Abramoff scandal, and they appear in
the film. David Sickey is a member of the Tribal Council of the
Coushatta Tribe. He’s the vice chair.
Tom Rodgers is a member of the
Blackfoot Tribe, and he’s a lobbyist with Carlyle Consulting. The
Hill newspaper just published an article about Rodgers titled "The
Man Who Blew the Whistle on Jack Abramoff Tells the Story of How He Did
Well, I want to welcome you all here in Park
City to Sundance headquarters, where we’re broadcasting from. Your film,
Alex, has been received, as Taxi to the Dark Side was, with great
acclaim here, the first time it’s showing.
Talk about the significance
of going back in time a bit to Jack Abramoff, what could look like a
really interesting historical piece, and the Supreme Court decision that
just came out.
GIBNEY: Well, I
think the Supreme Court decision suddenly pulls these events from the
past into the present with unbelievable force.
It’s like - the film is
about buying influence, and Jack Abramoff is a wild and outrageous
example of how that works.
But what the Supreme Court decision does is
to show just how - I mean, as much - the tools that Jack had to work
with, now anybody like Jack, a lobbyist who wants to really push a
political agenda, can do so with unbelievable power, just by eliciting
the aid of massive amounts of corporate money.
GOODMAN: Now, go
back, for people who, when asked, Jack Abramoff - is it a drink? Some
corrupt politician? Explain what happened. Tell us the story in a
nutshell. And you can’t speak in sound bites.
Abramoff is a lobbyist, or was a lobbyist. And a lobbyist is somebody
who represents people’s interests, trying to get laws passed in Congress
on their behalf.
But Jack Abramoff really is better understood as a
political zealot. He was a college Republican who came to some
prominence with his friends Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, as they
began to enter the political arena with a kind of a radical agenda for
sort of extreme free market views and also a very sort of radical
He then launched some rather - he was also a
movie producer at times, doing a rather unique genre, which was to
produce political action thrillers, which were actually very ideological
In one of them, called Red Scorpion, which stars the
action hero Dolph Lundgren, he...
GOODMAN: Which was
supported by the South African apartheid regime.
GIBNEY: Which was
supported by the South African apartheid regime. The film tries to
resuscitate the career of Jonas Savimbi, a rather brutal dictator.
But from there, Jack launched his career - with the ascent of the Republicans in 1994, Jack launched his career as
a lobbyist in Washington, DC. And he had tremendous credentials among
kind of the conservative community, the movement conservative community,
and that allowed him access to people in power.
With access to people in
power, he could sell that access to clients who wanted to buy that
access. And that’s how he really made his fortune. And that’s how he
really made a name for himself.
You know, he’s now called “disgraced
lobbyist Jack Abramoff,” and a lot of people like to say that they
didn’t really know him. In fact, he was in the mainstream. He was very
much a power broker in Washington, DC, very good relationships with Karl
Rove, President Bush, and particularly Tom DeLay, the former Majority
So, that’s the big story about Jack Abramoff. He was a guy who
really bought and sold politicians, is really what he did.
GOODMAN: Let’s go to
a clip of Alex Gibney’s film Casino Jack and the United States of
To reach his goal, he had to get to one
man: Tom DeLay.
Abramoff was a committed conservative. He was well known in the
conservative movement. And I dealt with him no differently than I
dealt with any other lobbyist.
Jack was not like any other lobbyist. He
had a very special relationship with Tom DeLay. He took him on trips
to Russia, Scotland and the South Pacific. He made sure that his
clients showered money on DeLay’s foundation and employed his wife.
And in return, DeLay let Jack market himself as the man who had
access to DeLay’s power.
VOLZ: The first
time I met Jack Abramoff was in the Majority Whip’s office at an
event. Jack is one of a kind. I mean, Jack Abramoff could sweet talk
a dog off a meat truck. He’s that persuasive. And he’s the king of K
Street. This is the guy. And he comes in for five minutes, sits down
next to somebody who’s willing to spend millions of dollars, you
know, to lobby Washington, and then he leaves in five minutes. And
the guy or the woman thinks that Jack’s talking to the President,
but he’s probably playing solitaire on his computer. And then he
comes back in, and it’s like,
“Hey, you know, sorry about that, but
you got two more minutes. And by the way, I need about $250,000 a
month,” and then walks out the door.
One of a kind. One of a kind.
GOODMAN: That, a
clip from Casino Jack and the United States of Money.
Alex, go on from there and talk about Tom
DeLay. Interestingly, at your premier here at the Sundance Film
Festival, one of those who were in the audience was Bob Ney, who went to
jail, the congressman.
Bob Ney spent seventeen years in a federal - seventeen months, I should
say, in a federal penitentiary. Bob was caught up in Abramoff’s web, and
it was really a very powerful moment.
I mean, when we screened the film
here, Bob had never seen it before. And I was unsure a little bit how he
was going to react. He’s in the film. He’s interviewed at length, as is
his former chief of staff, who then went on to work for Jack Abramoff,
And Bob came out of the audience to talk to people
afterwards, and a lot of people were very interested, because Bob is
very candid about how this influence-peddling process works.
Interestingly enough, now Bob is one of the most vigorous advocates of
campaign finance - more than reform, it’s like taking the money out of
GOODMAN: And Tom
GIBNEY: Tom DeLay
would not be like - that would not be his view. Tom DeLay’s view is, we
spend more money on potato chips than we do on political campaigns. His
view would be, let the money rush down like great waters.
GOODMAN: So his wish
was answered by the Supreme Court.
GIBNEY: Indeed. I
think the Supreme Court was channeling Tom DeLay when they issued their
GOODMAN: But Tom
DeLay is out of office now. How does it tie into this?
GIBNEY: Well, Tom
DeLay is out of office now, but I think the point is that...
GOODMAN: Forced to
GIBNEY: He was
forced to resign as a result of this scandal. And he’s still facing
charges for violating campaign finance laws in Texas, but under a cloud,
he resigned his position from the Congress.
GOODMAN: We’re going
to break in a minute, and then we’re going to come back to this
discussion. But before we do, I wanted to introduce our next guest, who
has - well, just beginning to speak out, really the first time in your
film, Alex. Tom Johnson [sic], talk about your role in the
unraveling, in the exposing of Jack Abramoff.
RODGERS: I’m a
member of the Blackfeet Tribe, and I represent a number of Native
American tribes across the country and have advocated for Native
alright, no problem.
And my family is Native American. And I came back
to work in DC, and in working with tribes, and some tribal leaders who
had trusted me throughout my career reached out to me a time in early
2002 because of threats that had been made to them regarding the
lobbying practices of a lobbyist who was representing them.
received a number of phone calls and was asked to meet with a number of
tribal leaders, because they felt that their lobbyist was defrauding
them and cheating them, and they had no idea what they were paying for
with these large, large amounts of money.
And so, through phone calls and meetings,
all the way back into 2002, through Monica Quigley at the Saginaw
Chippewas, Kevin Battise at the Alabama Coushattas, Ernest Sickey,
David’s father, we met in 2002, started to collect our data. Bernie...
GOODMAN: How did you
go about checking this data?
GOODMAN: The data.
RODGERS: What was
very evident, we looked at the political contributions that Jack was
asking the tribes to make. And I saw that they were making contributions
to politicians who were in opposition to Native American ideas and
That immediately was, you know, an indicia of “Oh, my God,
this is not right.”
GOODMAN: What do you
RODGERS: Well, I
mean, there are members in Congress, like, for one, John Doolittle. John
Doolittle - some of the tribes were making - were asked to make campaign
donations to John Doolittle, who is in opposition to long-term Native
Tom DeLay, even though I know Jack and Mr. DeLay
would like to represent that Tom DeLay was there for Indian country, if
you look at his legislative record, he was not. On one or two rare
isolated instances. But you look at his overall track record,
legislative record, he was not a supporter of Indian country.
And so, I looked at this, and I said, we are
making contributions to people who are in opposition to us, who avidly
work against Indian country.
And there was that, and there was also
these invoices, these amounts, which were - and I kept saying this, and
we had to convince the media, these were numbers that were like - the
only organization at that time that was spending the amount of money
that these tribes were spending, were being asked to spend, was the US
Chamber of Commerce.
Not - even Microsoft under divestiture or GE were
not spending these gross amounts of money. And I work in Indian country,
and I’m going - and I was benchmarking against what work was being done.
There was no way - no way - you could rationalize these amounts.
GOODMAN: We’re going
to go to break, and then we’re going to come back, and I want to ask
David Sickey, who is a vice chair of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana,
about how his nation was involved, his relationship with Jack Abramoff.
This is Democracy Now!. We’re talking
about a film that has premiered here that is, well, going to have a big
effect in this country, especially in light of the Supreme Court
decision that has just come down.
It’s about the jailed, the disgraced
lobbyist, Jack Abramoff. It’s called Casino Jack [and] the United
States of Money.
Stay with us.
broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival headquarters here in Park
City, Utah. We’re here because it’s the largest celebration of
independent film in this country. And it goes throughout the week. I’m
Our guests now are - well, one of the
features of this film festival, Alex Gibney has come back, the Oscar
Award-winning filmmaker who did Taxi to the Dark Side and also
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
And he has a new film called
Casino Jack [and] the United States of Money. We’re also joined
by Tom Rodgers, a member of the Blackfoot Tribe and a lobbyist with
Carlyle Consulting, and David Sickey, who’s vice chair of the Tribal
Council of Coushatta Tribe.
David, before we go to you, I wanted to play
yet another clip from Casino Jack.
GEORGE W. BUSH:
I, George Walker Bush, do solemnly swear
that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United
States, so help me God.
Jack had raised lots of money for Bush and
convinced his tribal clients not to contribute to Bush’s key
Republican rival, John McCain. In 2001, Abramoff was asked to bring
his lobbying practice to the same firm that Bush had hired to win
the battle of the Florida recount, Greenberg Traurig.
clearly had a big practice, five or six million dollars. The
Marianas, the Mississippi Choctaw, I guess the Louisiana Coushattas.
He was making a big push for the Saginaw Chippewa.
ABRAMOFF: How do
I help this tribe? Any fees you end up spending with us, you get
back, you know, with a multiple. Last year, Choctaw fees were, I
think, like three-and-a-half million dollars, in terms of the
lobbying fees, and they got $120 million in direct and indirect
federal help, grants, etc.
Suddenly, Jack was a popular man in Indian
GOODMAN: An excerpt
of Casino Jack and the United States of Money.
David Sickey, you’re vice chair of the
Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana. Talk about Jack Abramoff and Native
How was your tribe affected?
SICKEY: Well, my
tribe became involved with Jack Abramoff in and around 2000, 2001. Just
to kind of give you a little bit of background, I was elected for the
first term, for my first term, in May of 2003.
So the previous
administrations had brought in Jack Abramoff as a consultant. And also I
think there was a tribal state gaming compact renewal issue that needed
some level of sophistication, as far as negotiations were concerned. And
I believe he was referred to the tribe from another tribe, a neighboring
tribe from a neighboring state.
So it’s kind of interesting how it
By the time I came into office, it was
clearly evident that there were appalling, just huge amounts of money
already being sent to Jack Abramoff and/or Michael Scanlon. And there
were - you know, we would hear different things about lobbyists being
paid, but the average member of the tribe simply had no clue as to how
big these payments were. And that’s the type of platform that I came in
on in ’03.
So, Tom Rodgers, much credit to him, came in
at a very appropriate time, as we were sifting through some of these
documents. I finally made contact with Tom Rodgers soon after my
And Tom helped out as far as, you know, giving me a sense of
what to look for, providing me a grocery list of the internal documents
to begin looking for and sifting through.
GOODMAN: Now, Tom,
you were finding that people who raised questions, within the various
GOODMAN: - who had
hired Abramoff ...
GOODMAN: - were
starting to get fired.
RODGERS: Yes. Sadly,
Monica Quigley, in November of 2002, who is a former - one of the former
in-house counsels for the Saginaw Chippewas, when she proceeded, because
she’s - once again, started to see these large incredible invoices, she
saw that - she reached out to me, and she says,
“Tom, I cannot believe
these numbers that are coming into us and why we’re paying them.”
GOODMAN: What are
RODGERS: Oh, we’re
looking at $1.875 million for three months of work, which had not - not
even done yet. In fact, Jack asked that $1.875 million be wired to him.
And the line, the addendum on the
explanation for services, was simply “professional services.” So we want
$2 million. We want it three months before we’ve done the work. And we
want it wired to us immediately.
And she was fired when she started to raise
questions, so she reached out to me in November of 2002 and said, “Tom,
would you be willing to help us?” And that led to David Sickey, Bernie
Sprague and -
GOODMAN: And who is
Sprague was a sub-chief at the Saginaw Chippewas. And he ended up
calling me in January of 2003. He had made previous attempts, but it was
very - the atmosphere at the Saginaw Chippewas was very threatening at
Jack had told him that if he continued to raise questions
regarding his invoicing and spread ill-founded rumors about him, that he
might be suing him. And that’s when I talked to Bernie Sprague at 1:30
in the morning on January the 3rd.
And it was very interesting, because Bernie
- I picked up the phone, and at that late hour, I didn’t recognize the
phone number, but I said, “Can I help you, sir?”
And he goes, “Well, my
name is Bernie Sprague. I was told I could trust you.” And I says,
“Well, I don’t know if you can. Who told you that?” He said, Rick Hill.
And Rick Hill is a national leader in Indian country and is a very close
friend of mine.
So that was my kind of password that we could trust each
other, even though I had never met the man.
GOODMAN: They asked
you to check out where they were sending their checks to when they
weren’t wiring them?
RODGERS: Right. That
was a very interesting point. We had - then I sat down on the edge of
the bed, and I said, “Bernie, let’s talk.” This conversation went on for
quite a while early in the morning on January the 3rd.
And he goes, “Well, Tom, we’ve been sending
these large amounts of money.” And I said, “Well, Bernie,” I said, “be
more specific.” He says, “Well, there’s this one check we were going to
send, it’s going to 611 Pennsylvania Avenue SE in Washington, DC at
Well, I’ve lived in DC for a number of years, and I said,
“Bernie, with all due respect, there’s nothing up at 611 Pennsylvania
Avenue SE but nail salons, bars and gas stations. He says, “No, no, no,
no, no. This is a reputable business. We’re sending them to a large
So I said, “Bernie, I will drive up there, and I will
take a picture of where you’re sending it.”
So I drove up there, and I started to look
around, and it’s a Mailboxes Are Us. It’s now a UPS
store. But at that time, it was a Mail Boxes, Etc. And I said, “Bernie”
GOODMAN: Mail Boxes,
GOODMAN: - that has
the little mailboxes.
RODGERS: The little
mailboxes. And that point exactly, I went in, and I - of course, looking
for Suite 375, was a mailbox. And it was eight inches across and eleven
GOODMAN: Alex Gibney,
talk about the significance of this. And David Sickey mentioned Michael
Scanlon. Talk about the people around Jack Abramoff, because this isn’t
just, by any means, one individual story.
GIBNEY: No, it’s
not. And one of the interesting things about Jack is, a lot of people
have painted him as a bad apple, but he’s really kind of more
spectacular evidence of a rotten barrel.
And in terms of Mike Scanlon, who was his
kind of key co-conspirator, Mike Scanlon was a guy who had worked as the
press secretary of Tom DeLay, and then he came over to Jack’s shop and
then started setting up business on his own.
And what they would do is,
Jack would go in to an Indian client, and he would say, “Well, look,
I’ll charge you so much, but the guy you really need to hire is Mike
Scanlon, because he does this grassroots work that you’re really going
to want to have.”
And then they would pay Scanlon, and then Scanlon
would kick back about half his fee to Jack.
But in terms of the bigger picture, it’s
interesting that Jack would get a number of staffers. He got staffers of
John Doolittle to work for him, staffers of Bob Ney to work for him. And
that’s really the way it works in Washington, DC. It’s the revolving
door. Lobbyists use relationships that staffers have with members.
take them over to their shop, and then that’s how they get inside the
GOODMAN: And Neil
GIBNEY: Neil Volz
was a former chief of staff for Bob Ney, and he was also - he also came
to work for Jack Abramoff at Greenberg Traurig.
GOODMAN: I want to
play a last clip from your film, from Casino Jack, that looks at
how Jack Abramoff got involved with the Tigua Tribe in Texas.
“Fire up the jet, baby, we’re going to El
up the jet, baby, we’re going to El Paso!!” That refers to maybe the
most cynical campaign involving Indian tribes that they were
Jack gave the caper a code name:
"Operation Open Doors." A plan to sell his services to a Texas tribe
whose casino had just been shut down.
Scanlon sends Abramoff a piece from the El Paso Times.
was on the front page of today’s paper, while they’ll be voting on
SLOAN: Which is
the plan to pay Abramoff and Scanlon to reopen the casino.
Abramoff replied, “Is life great or what?”
GOODMAN: An excerpt
of the new film Casino Jack. It’s Alex Gibney’s. He’s here next
to me, Tom Rodgers next to him, and David Sickey next to him. David
Sickey, vice chair of the Coushatta Tribe.
But, Tom Rodgers, you’re a lobbyist.
GOODMAN: Talk about
this last deal, the Tigua. Talk about - also I want to hear about the
email that were going back and forth that really blew this out into the
RODGERS: This is
probably, as Alex has raised, it is one of the saddest chapters, a
complete betrayal of trust amongst all the tribes. The Tigua tribe was -
and you have to look at the political conditions in Texas, are very
adverse for Native Americans. We used to have almost thirty tribes in
Texas; we have three now. And for a reason.
And what happened with the Tiguas, their
economic situation was so dire that they were willing to hire somebody
Of course, not all the necessary due diligence was done, and
I understand that, but what happened was, is that they were trying to
have their casino operation open up, where they could once again use
their moneys to educate their youth, provide healthcare.
But what Jack and Mike did is they - kind of
a bait and switch on them. They were hired by them to help them open
their casino, and then also the collateral effect of efforts to close
casinos statewide had the impact of closing their casino. And so, they
got paid millions and millions of dollars.
At the same time as they read
as - on the front page of the El Paso newspaper, when they were closing
the casino and over 450 employees were being let go, they were sitting
in their offices in Washington, DC, reading these newspaper articles of
"Fire up the jet, baby, let’s go back out to El Paso and rebuild them."
And the cynicism was over the top.
GOODMAN: And the
names that they were calling Native Americans in their emails, Alex?
GIBNEY: Well, yeah,
there’s a rather shocking series of exchanges, in terms - I mean, Jack
routinely referred to a lot of his clients in really derogatory terms.
And this was certainly no exception.
GOODMAN: Ralph Reed
was head of the Christian Coalition. So they’re working to close the
tribes to get more money to fight to reopen them.
GIBNEY: Well, what
happened was, actually, Jack was hired by a tribe out of Louisiana - in
fact, under a previous administration, the Coushatta Tribe - to try to
shut down the casino of a tribe just outside of Houston.
And Ralph would
often employ Ralph Reed, who was, in theory, you know, radically opposed
to gambling. He called it a cancer on the body politic.
But in fact,
what would happen is Ralph would hire - I mean, Jack would hire Ralph
to, you know, beat the drum against gambling, in a religious way, but
would never disclose that, in fact, Ralph was being paid millions of
dollars - I think he ultimately got $7 million - from casinos to - so
that they were basically playing one casino off of another.
And it was
Ralph’s campaign and also - and his relationship with Senator - now
Senator John Cornyn, then Attorney General John Cornyn, that led to the
shutting down of tribal casinos in Texas.
And then, once they were shut
down, then Jack went to the Tigua tribe and said, “Hey, you guys have
been shut down. How about hiring me to open you up?”
GOODMAN: Then, we
only have a minute, but the death certificates, Tom?
RODGERS: That is a
disturbing thing, is, you know, in corporate America, yes, there is
insurance policies called corporate-owned life insurance, but once again
Jack and Mike took this to another level.
Our elders in our society are
incredibly respected. They are our - they teach us. What these people
did was beyond beyond.
They asked the Tiguas to take out life insurance
policies on our elders, and once they died, then they would pay those
benefits to them to pay their lobbying fees.
GOODMAN: They would
pay the benefits to...?
RODGERS: To Jack and
Mike, to pay the lobbying fees.
GIBNEY: I have to
say, I mean, I think that I find this unbelievably extreme, but I should
note that this is a rather common practice. AIG
used to do this all the time.
You know, it’s one of those - and, in fact,
many investment banks have huge programs for this, where they buy life
insurance policies for people. I mean, it’s staggering. It’s shocking.
GOODMAN: We only
have a minute. Very quickly, the reforms that were passed in the wake of
the Abramoff scandal, do they mean anything?
GIBNEY: No, I don’t
think the reforms passed in the wake of the Abramoff scandal really mean
much of anything, because they haven’t taken the money out of the
You know, we now have congressmen and senators who spend
sometimes two, three days out of every week raising money. Well, how
perverted is that in our system? Why should we be paying them to raise
That’s really the fundamental problem here. And, you know,
deciding how and when lobbyists can have lunch or dinner with members is
really not the point. The point is, how do you take the influence of
money out of the system?
That’s really the key issue.
GOODMAN: Well, I
want to thank you all for being with us. Alex Gibney, Oscar-winning
filmmaker, his new film just premiered here at the Sundance Film
Festival. It’s called Casino Jack and the United States of Money.
Tom Rodgers, thank you for speaking out, in his first national broadcast
outside of the film that Alex has done. And thank you very much, David Sickey, vice chair of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana.