Buying Congress


By Karl Grossman

A brilliant and shocking documentary was presented at a special screening this weekend. The message of “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” is that the conviction of lobbyist Jack Abramoff for fraud and conspiracy was not a unique case—his crimes are emblematic of how the U.S. government functions. It has become dominated by corporate interests, for sale to those who ply politicians with money.

In a question-and-answer session after the showing at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, this area’s representative in Washington, Congressman Tim Bishop, acknowledged that the documentary was an “accurate portrayal of the corruption of the senior leadership” of Congress in the early and middle 2000s. Still, “we should not generalize,” he said. Congress would “never have passed cap-and-trade or financial regulatory reform” last year “if we were captive to special interests.” However, “there is no question that money has a corrosive influence in how Congress does business” and “my fear,” said Mr. Bishop, “is that “recent actions will make it worse.” He’s especially concerned about the recent 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case holding that corporate funding of “electioneering communication” cannot be limited.

The writer and director of the new documentary, Alex Gibney, earlier created a similarly hard-hitting documentary with “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.”

As Mr. Gibney says, in an interview shown before the documentary aired, Mr. Abramoff “was not a bad apple” but constitutes “spectacular evidence” of a “rotten barrel.” Our government has turned to a “system of legalized bribery,” says Mr. Gibney, “and we have to stop it or we’re done.”

The showing Saturday was free, made possible by the Sunlight Foundation and the organization Fix Congress First. It included, after the screening, the hour-long questioning of Mr. Bishop and a “community discussion.” Attendance was high and comments strong.

Scandal in Washington is not new, but what Mr. Gibney has put together is a crystal clear picture of the corrupt, wide-reaching “pay-to-play” system that has taken hold. He documents this through startling disclosures by those who’ve manipulated government with dollars and also politicians who’ve been on the receiving end, information from authors and journalists who’ve investigated the outrageous arrangement, and documents including emails and taped conversations.

Mr. Abramoff, it reveals, was involved in right-wing Republican politics for decades—with Karl Rowe and Ralph Reed among others. They reached their peak under the George W. Bush administration. Mr. Abramoff was jailed in 2006 for defrauding Indian tribes and paying off politicians. He partnered with former House GOP Leader Tom DeLay, now facing jail himself for campaign finance fraud. The Abramoff-Rowe-Reed cabal’s goal: massive government deregulation which it achieved—leading, shows the documentary, to the national financial collapse.

“How does it make you feel?…What can we do?” the event’s moderator, Michael Clarjen-Arconada, asked Mr. Bishop after the two-hour documentary ended. Mr. Bishop pointed to “public financing of campaigns…going a long, long way in getting the influence of big money out of Congressional elections.” And there needs to be “a serious public education campaign” about the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case and other developments increasing corporate influence on government.

Among comments from audience members, retired New York City Police Lieutenant Larry Darcey of Sag Harbor said “corporate powers own our government” and “if the grassroots don’t change this, it will never change.”

Lisa Votino-Tarrant of Southampton noted that she is 31 years old and “we need to break the cycle” but “how can this be done” when it takes so much money to run for public office. “How are young people like me to get into public service without selling our souls?”

The two non-partisan foundations that sponsored the event outline on their websites— and—numerous steps to make “government transparent and accountable.” These include campaign reform through a Constitutional amendment and many citizen projects both national and local. “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” will be in movie theatres and on TV. See it to understand why it is urgent that action be taken.