Abramoff disgraceful by embezzling from Native American tribes

By By James Sewell

By James Sewell

Jack Abramoff was sentenced Sept. 4 to four years in federal prison for his lobbying activities in Washington, which included free dinners and junkets for senators, and embezzling money from American Indian tribes who had business before Congress. While the former is so commonplace that the idea of criminalizing it seems almost absurd, the latter is so utterly repulsive that four years in prison seems hardly adequate.

There’s not enough space in this column to delineate the numerous atrocities inflicted upon the once mighty tribes of North America, but to continue to deprive them of what little financial resources they have is beyond the pale.

The man who appeared at trial affecting ’30s gangster chic was clothed in modest attire, a yarmulke and affecting religious humility when it came to the sentencing hearing. How touching. Perhaps he had hoped the judge would show him mercy.

Eradicating corruption within the halls of government is a vital task, and the conviction of Abramoff was hailed as a victory for anti-corruption crusaders, though one would have to be seriously naive to believe that the troubles are over. The political culture in Washington is so infested with scum like Abramoff that his conviction represents nothing so much as a Pyrrhic victory: more than $66 million has been stolen from the tribes, frittered away on frittatas and fajitas for the fat cats.

This money will never be recovered or returned, the mistrust of our government officials has been vindicated, and six months down the road, the whole episode will have been forgotten, all while the infrastructure that allowed Abramoff to do his deeds remains firmly intact.

Even casual observers of the local political scene may recall a few similar episodes in the fairly recent past: Salt Lake City’s Olympic bid was ridden with scandal, until our good friend Mitt Romney came in and cleaned house, and a few years back a Salt Lake County employee was caught using a county vehicle and gas card to take his family on a boating vacation to Lake Powell.

While the Olympic bid scandal was a big story, the busted boater imbroglio barely made the news. Our outrage has been replaced by apathy. This also contributes to the imperviousness our elected officials feel when accepting tickets to the big game, vacation properties in the Bahamas and golf trips to Scotland.

This isn’t a forum for moralizing, to be sure, and as I stated previously, a free dinner is a far cry from embezzlement. But once the line has been crossed, it becomes easier to start engaging in progressively more flagrant behavior. Of course, not everyone who boosts office supplies from work or charges a meal on the government’s dime will find their way into large-scale criminal behavior. But for those who do, the punishment needs to fit the crime.

Abramoff was sentenced to four years in prison despite the objections of the lead prosecutor, who had asked the judge for a reduced sentence in light of Abramoff’s cooperation in bringing numerous other coconspirators and beneficiaries to trial. To send a message, the prosecutor said that the Justice Department is open to negotiation when it comes to corruption within our government. A better message might have been to put Abramoff away for the maximum allowed by law, and scare the living daylights out of those who would defraud the taxpayers of the United States for personal gain.

[email protected]

James Sewell