Handling The High-Profile Abramoff Case: A Lobbying Scandal  Becomes a PR Mess

The following is an excerpt from PR News’ Crisis Management Guidebook Vol. 3.

The first time I got a press call about Jack Abramoff, it barely registered as a crisis. By the time he pleaded guilty and went to prison in 2006, more than 6,000 news stories had appeared about the one-time Washington lobbyist and I was smack in the middle of what became months of daily crisis communications.

It wasn’t as if I hadn’t handled crisis PR before but this was way different. The Abramoff story began as a classic saga that the media could just not resist: White man screws Native Americans—yet again. But the lobbying work he did for Native American tribes and their casinos was only the tip of the iceberg.

Pretty soon, The Washington Post, which wound up winning a Pulitzer Prize for its Abramoff coverage and every other media outlet east and west of the Mississippi, was probing into everything he did—and asking for comment. The scandal was fueled by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearings held about Abramoff as well as  dissemination of Abramoff e-mails by the committee to the media.

It was a PR mess to end all PR messes. As a PR executive, it was exhilarating, and at the same time, frustrating and all consuming. I was dealing with just about every national media outlet on a daily basis and they were after Abramoff’s scalp. 

How did I wind up in this position? Well, I was the PR manager for Chadbourne & Parke LLP, a 100-year-old NY-based law firm that at the time housed high-profile white-collar lawyer Abbe Lowell as one of its partners. And Abramoff was Lowell’s client.

Lowell was great with the media, but Abramoff generated way too many press calls for him and his staff to handle. I stepped in, creating a strategy on how to respond. But it quickly got ridiculously overwhelming, so we created a spreadsheet listing the charges made in the press.

In the Eye of a Media Firestorm

As the scandal grew, it seemed that Abramoff, a Republican and one-time chairman of the College Republican National Committee, became the subject of more stories than anyone in recent history, except perhaps Osama Bin Laden. For the PR and legal team, the Abramoff case was like standing in the middle of a tsunami with an umbrella.

With press charges piling up, we compiled statements for every allegation and story that we could, so when reporters called, we were ready. But every time you put out one PR fire, another started to burn until everyone wanted an interview with Abramoff and Lowell.

Abramoff was initially castigated for charging about a half dozen Native American tribes an estimated $60-to-$85 million in fees. His defense was that he gave them billions of dollars in lobbying and business value and we kept trying to pound that theme home to the media with statements that varied depending on the exact press question.

The media floodgates opened further. It was anything goes. The Washington Post even tracked down Abramoff’s personal American Express and Visa card numbers—all in the name of trying to show what questionable junket he had paid for.

Then there were questions about his involvement in the SunCruz casino boat fraud case in Florida (tied in the press to Mafia connections), an Abramoff-Tom DeLay junket to St. Andrews golf course in Scotland, Abramoff’s use of Skybox sports tickets, his Signatures restaurant in Washington, Russia-related clients, work for the Marianas Islands and allegations of sweatshop conditions, attempts to drag his wife into the mess, his running of the Eshkol Academy and a variety of supposedly charitable groups that he set up. The list was endless …

Friend to Beltway Insiders

So there you had it—a client who knew then House Majority Leader DeLay and most other members of Congress. It was only a matter of time before the scandal wound up at the front door of the White House. Did Abramoff visit there? Did he lobby President Bush? Were there photos of him with the President? And if those existed, would Abramoff release them, or more salaciously, would he sell them?

The press wanted to know everything and anything—it was Abramoff  all the time. The questions ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous: Why did he wear a black hat at a court appearance? What’s up with his tailor and his suits? Was it true he ate too much sushi? What did he think of the upcoming Super Bowl?
There was hardly enough time to worry about one press angle because more came in rapid succession. One day CNN showed up on the lawn of Abramoff’s house. I had to call the reporter’s cell phone and ask him to leave. Another day, Oscar-winning actor George Clooney threw himself into the Abramoff brouhaha at the Golden Globes when he said, “Who would name their kid Jack … off. No wonder why the guy’s screwed up.”

On yet another day, a blog said we were holding a news conference. I winced when I saw it, knowing it wasn’t true and that I was about to get 100 press calls. I demanded that the blog pull the story. They did.

Dealing with an Unrelenting Press

The main goal was keeping the press at bay, with the once in a blue moon chance of getting a partially positive piece. We gave everyone daily comments but only granted interviews by Abramoff and/or the lawyers to Vanity Fair, CNN, NBC, The New York Times Magazine, BusinessWeek and Time. We also did an op-ed in USA Today headlined, “Don’t Scapegoat My Client.”

For the press as a whole, we characterized the attacks as having “an Alice in Wonderland” quality and noted that Abramoff had become “the Beltway version of a human punching bag.” We said that he was criticized on a regular basis for doing what lobbyists do—making proper and legal campaign contributions and hiring Hill staff.

Most of the time the press, blogs included, ran our comments but the stories were still 99.99% negative. It was beyond relentless. A day or two before he pleaded guilty, the Post called our lawyers on New Year’s Eve and I ended up working.

The End Game

In the end, Abramoff pleaded guilty to defrauding Native American tribes and corruption of public officials as well as trading gifts, meals and sports tickets for political favors; he also pleaded guilty in Florida in the SunCruz case. At least 11 others were implicated by his cooperation, such as Rep. Bob Ney, Deputy Secretary of the Interior J. Steven Griles and General Services Administration Chief of Staff David Safavian.  (DeLay resigned his seat in the middle of the scandal.)

Fittingly, for me, an e-mail that Abramoff sent to a long list of his friends the night before he went to prison led to one more press leak. In the e-mail, he was thankful for their support and noted that he would not have e-mail access in prison.

The Associated Press was forwarded a copy of his e-mail and called for comment and confirmation that the e-mail was his. I gave them neither. At that point, enough was enough. AP wrote the story and said his last comment before Abramoff entered prison.
This was excerpted from PR News Crisis Management Guidebook. This article was written by Andrew Blum, media relations manager of Chadbourne & Parke LLP.  To order the guidebook, click here.