When disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff showed up for court in a black fedora, critics attacked him for hiding behind his Orthodox Judaism. In the end, however, religion may have proved to be his best defense.
Abramoff, who pleaded guilty recently to felony charges in Washington and in Florida, received the lightest sentence possible in the Florida case after a host of Jewish notables — including prominent rabbis and the president of a local federation — wrote a federal judge asking for leniency for the Republican lobbyist.
“Jack’s contrition is not an artifice to effect a reduction of sentence,” wrote well-known Jewish ethicist and University of Maryland law professor Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz. “It is a fundamental expression of his deep-seated religious faith.”
Abramoff’s wife, Pamela, insisted that “religion plays a critical role in Jack’s life.”
“The obvious disparity between his religious teachings and the wrongs he committed,” she wrote, “has caused Jack to do serious soul-searching.”
A total of 262 individuals wrote letters to U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck, who presided in Abramoff’s Florida case, asking that Abramoff be sentenced to the minimum amount of prison time allowable for a fraudulent wire transfer in connection to his purchase of SunCruz Casinos, a gambling fleet. The exhortations for leniency — which are excerpted in the “memorandum in aid of sentencing” Abramoff’s lawyers filed at the Miami court — appear to have worked. On March 29, Huck sentenced Abramoff, 47, to five years and 10 months, the shortest sentence the judge could mete out under federal guidelines.
“I’m convinced that it helped,” said letter writer Jonah Gewirtz, a former employee of a school Abramoff founded.
Abramoff, who, along with a partner, must provide $21.7 million in restitution, remains free while he cooperates in the Washington corruption investigation of his lobbying on behalf of Indian gaming interests. The almost three-year corruption investigation, which has resulted in the guilty pleas of two Abramoff associates, threatens to ensnare several lawmakers in both the House and the Senate and helped lead to former House majority leader Tom DeLay’s decision this week to leave Congress. In that case, Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to charges of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion.
The letters’ portrait of a pious and generous man contrasted starkly with the image of the freewheeling, greedy operator portrayed in many press reports and in Abramoff’s own e-mails, which became public during the many investigations his behavior generated.
Some missives lauded Abramoff for creating and almost single-handedly funding the now-defunct Eshkol Academy, a day school for boys, and in particular for providing assistance to children who have learning disabilities, including boarding kids in his home.
As part of his Washington plea deal, Abramoff admitted misusing a foundation he set up to help support the school in order to evade taxes. He referred to the school as a “front group” for some of his lobbying activities in one of the incriminating e-mails. The closing of the school left a number of teachers out of work; they filed a lawsuit demanding what they said was promised pay.
The letters to the court also detail the steep toll that Abramoff’s crimes and notoriety have exacted on his five teenage children. Abramoff’s oldest son wrote to Huck: “I feel as if I am writing a letter to G-d, pleading to not take my father away.”
Breitowitz, the ethicist, who has known Abramoff since 1983, told the Forward that although he was not defending wrongful behavior, it was important for the judge to see Abramoff’s deeds in context. “Jack has been portrayed as a total devil. That is a caricature,” he said. “When God judges us, He looks at the whole picture. The evil does not cancel out the good.”
Other letters praised Abramoff for offering Sabbath hospitality and for opening his Silver Spring, Md., home to the community, for paying off $40,000 in debts of a needy family and for paying for the bar mitzvah party of another needy family’s child.
Abramoff’s ill-fated kosher deli, Stacks — for a time the only such kosher establishment in the District of Columbia — figured into some of the letters. (Another defunct Abramoff-owned restaurant, Signatures, has featured in the Washington corruption probe.) Nathan Lewin, a prominent Washington attorney, wrote that he was impressed that Abramoff supported the money-losing kosher eatery “at great financial sacrifice just so that Jews would have a place where they could dine in comfort.”
David Butler, a trial attorney who is president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, also mentioned Stacks among other Abramoff charitable endeavors.
Butler said he wrote the letter to Huck as a private individual, not as the federation’s president. Still, Butler did not fault Abramoff’s lawyers for highlighting the federation affiliation in their memorandum in aid of sentencing. “That’s their job,” he said.
Orthodox ethics expert Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, said that the letters reflected Jewish religious teachings counseling mercy for penitents. “It’s not that we give them the benefit of the doubt; they’re wrong,” said Herring, who does not know Abramoff and did not author any letter. “As rabbis, we say that justice must be done, but we always ask for compassion — particularly when people involved do good things, and especially if the money they use to do charitable acts is honorably earned.”
Others, however, pointed to the investigation of Abramoff’s work for the Indian tribes to question whether the money he gave to charity was earned honestly. Abramoff and an associate charged various Indian tribes $82 million for work over several years — some of which Abramoff admitted gaining fraudulently.
“I think he turned the Robin Hood story on its head. He stole from the Indians and gave to the Jews,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic strategist in Washington who, like Abramoff, is active in the Jewish community. “What’s righteous about that?”
Joining the religion-tinged missives were others from Abramoff’s professional life and longtime career as a conservative activist, including letters from a Republican congressman, a professional hockey referee and an Anglican bishop. In his letter, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, called Abramoff “a selfless patriot… whose first and foremost consideration was protecting America from its enemies.”
According to the memorandum in aid of sentencing, Anglican Archbishop Joel Nedd, who is black, wrote that Abramoff had stood up against some individuals who Nedd felt had discriminated against him. Nedd also wrote that Abramoff offered to pay the archbishop’s legal bills when Nedd contemplated a lawsuit.
The memorandum rosily recounts Abramoff’s life — from his days as a young boy embracing Orthodox Judaism, to his election as head of the College Republican National Committee, to his short-lived career as the producer of Hollywood thrillers, to his lobbying career — highlighting his good deeds at every turn. It even posthumously enlists President Reagan in Abramoff’s defense, noting that “Reagan asked Mr. Abramoff to become executive director for his grass-roots lobbying organization, Citizens for America” and that Abramoff “was a favorite of the Reagan White House communications team.”
In words that might seem ironical to Abramoff’s critics, the memo holds out hope that a reformed Abramoff will rejoin the world of work after his incarceration: “Although Mr. Abramoff’s career as a lobbyist is over and he probably will not practice law, his knowledge of Washington, moviemaking, the restaurant business and managing charitable organizations should leave him avenues for pursuing future employment.”