June 12, 2010
BRIAN LAMB, INTERVIEWER: Alex Gibney, what was your reaction when you heard that Jack Abramoff had just been released from prison to a halfway house in Baltimore this week?
ALEX GIBNEY, FILMMAKER, ”CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY”: Well I knew it was going to happen, and frankly, you know, I thought he had spent enough time in stir. There are some other people who might well have gone to prison that didn’t. So Jack has paid the price and he’s out in a halfway house and I think that’s all right.
LAMB: When was the first time that you thought about doing the your documentary, brand new called ”Casino Jack and the United States of Money?”
GIBNEY: Well I read some of the stories in the ”Washington Post” and I was astounded really by sort of the audacity of the story and how colorful it was. So that I thought it would make a good movie because I’m always interested in stories per se. And Jack is a fascinating character, very colorful, very outrageous.
At the same time the other thing about it that was really interesting to me was it was a story that seemed to me to point out the most fundamental problem in our democracy right now, which is the way that money rules our democracy. It’s become so unbalanced that I think it’s become the fundamental problem in our society.
LAMB: Let’s run a clip just so the audience can get some sense of where you’re going with this and this is about a minute, 25 seconds and it’s near the beginning of the documentary.
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MELANIE SLOAN: It was immediately apparent that it was going to be a much bigger deal because he was such a well known figure on Capitol Hill, really an uber lobbyist. And his connections were so widespread, both in the Republican Party itself and in the Republican Congress.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: The government says Abramoff has admitted to bribing as many as 20 members of Congress.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: His activities went far beyond lawful lobbying.
J. MICHAEL WALLER: He was the number one lobbyist in Washington. He could get you in touch with the best and most influential members of Congress.
NEIL VOLZ: It’s amazing how many members of Congress wanted in with Jack.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Mr. President, (INAUDIBLE) you say you don’t care that
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: When the story broke, President Bush publicly tried to distance himself from Jack Abramoff.
GEORGE BUSH, 43RD PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I frankly don’t even remember having my picture taken with the guy.
BOB NEY: You know, all of a sudden nobody remembered Jack Abramoff.
BUSH: I don’t know him.
BOB NEY: Of course Bush knew him. Absolutely.
SUSAN SCHMIDT: It’s just amazing how close Abramoff and his people got to the levers of power in Washington.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: 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 got pulled into this Web, Ralph Reed, John Doolittle, Carl Rove, Dick Armey, Conrad Burns, John Young, Grover Norquist. It was all about the money.
END VIDEO CLIP
LAMB: One of the interesting things is almost everyone on that screen is gone from where they were when they either got in trouble or they were in office. A couple of them are still there. Who did we just see and why did you start with those people?
GIBNEY: I started with those people because it was interesting to me to show that Jack Abramoff wasn’t on the periphery, that he was at a certain moment in time, his moment, the late ’90s, early 2000s that he was at the center of Washington.
And so you saw a lot of people there, Dick Armey, Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, Carl Rove and others, who and George W. Bush, who were right at the center of power in Washington because I think there had been a pretty concerted attempt to use Abramoff in a way to be the scapegoat.
Not that he didn’t do things wrong, he did a lot that was dead wrong but to lay all the blame at his doorstep as if to say, oh, Jack was a unique character who operated on the fringes of government, didn’t have much effect on anybody. The fact is he was at the center, and that’s why I showed a lot of those people.
LAMB: You’ve done several other documentaries, but go back to the beginning when you personally got interested in politics.
GIBNEY: Well, I was always interested in politics and it was always about finding a way in. I mean I think some years back something happened. I had done a number of TV documentaries and then at a certain point in time, it seemed like there was an opportunity to say things in a more interesting way by doing documentaries that might be seen first in theatres.
And the first one of those that I did was one I wrote and produced called the ”Trials of Henry Kissinger.” Then right after that I did one that really sort of broke through called ”Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” which was about that famous scandal at Enron.
Then I did a film called ”Taxi to the Dark Side,” which was about the Bush Administration’s policy of torture, which was a very important project to me because my father had been a Navy interrogator in World War II.
And I did a film called ”Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” about the famous Gonzo journalist. And then now recently ”Casino Jack and the United States of Money.”
LAMB: How would you define your politics?
GIBNEY: Hard to say, a skeptic. I wouldn’t I tend to look at things skeptically. And I try to seek out stories that have a kind of moral component rather than, you know, here’s to the Democrats or here’s to the Republicans.
I think it’s fair to say that I often give Republicans a hard time but at the same time in the film ”Taxi to the Dark Side,” some of the heroes of that film are Republicans. So, you know, I tend to look at things from the point of a view of a moralist.
LAMB: Your father, Frank Gibney, is he still alive? And what does he do or what did he do for a living?
GIBNEY: My father, Frank Gibney, is no longer with us. He died a few years ago. He was a writer and editor. He was vice chairman of the Board of Editors at Encyclopedia Britannica. He worked at ”Time” and at ”Newsweek,” ”Life” magazine. He was a journalist.
And during the war, World War II that is, he was he’d learned Japanese as part of his experience to become an interrogator. And that set him off as a journalist. He became the youngest bureau chief I think in Tokyo. But he had a big influence on me because he never lost his ability to be curious.
LAMB: From your documentary, here is Jack Abramoff in the College Republicans.
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Karl Rove: You can’t get a 35-year old to teach the Republican Party how to get to young people. You just can’t you can’t rely upon it. Young people have got to reach other young people, and that’s what we’re seeking to do.
Carl Rove: First of all, voter registration’s probably the most important function that we are undertaking now.
Nina Easton: And this is a generation who came onto campus in the 1970s rebelling against the ’60s, the whole ethos of the ’60s.
Dana Rohrabacher: We are hoping that Mr. Nixon, through his past we’ve seen that he’s at least more anti-Communist than the last administration.
Dana Rohrabacher: I was a young American for freedom. We were always working in coordination with the College Republicans but they weren’t ideologically conservative enough for us, until Jack Abramoff got involved. Then they became ideologically conservative.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: That’s A-B-R-A-M-O-F-F?
JACK ABRAMOFF, LOBBYIST: Yes..
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: OK. Chairman, College Republican
National Committee, OK.
Thomas Frank: Abramoff is a little older than I am but I was a College Republican in the early ’80s. And in a lot of ways when the College Republicans took that sharp turn to the right, that’s the same direction I was going in. A lot of the same heroes, I though Ronald Reagan was, like, the greatest man who ever lived.
RONALD REAGAN, 40TH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem
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LAMB: Where do find things like that clip of Carl Rove or Dana Rohrabacher?
GIBNEY: Oh, man, we just dig and dig and dig. I mean we our eyes bugged out when we saw those things when they first came into our cutting room. But that’s one of the fun things about my job. You just you start looking and you start believing that stuff is out there that hasn’t been seen before. And you usually find something.
LAMB: How do you find I mean, just if I were sitting in your shoes, who would you call to find something like that?
GIBNEY: Well, you know, the first place you start is you go to the networks and you say, you know, send me all your material that has stuff about either Jack Abramoff or Carl Rove or others and sometimes you get stuff.
But then sometimes there’s certain incidents you’re interested in and there was a there’s another incident in the film about this famous sort of right-wing Woodstock that Jack Abramoff held in Angola.
You know, we knew about it, the networks had a tiny clip, but we kept asking people who had been there if they knew of anybody who was shooting it. And lo and behold, we got a name. We tracked that name down. We found the person in London. We asked him if he still had footage and lo and behold he had 20 hours of it. So it’s a lot of shoe leather.
LAMB: Where are you based and how many people would work on something like this documentary?
GIBNEY: Well, I’m based in New York City. I live in New Jersey, the great state of New Jersey, and I have an office in Chelsea in New York City. And we have a very small core dedicated crew.
I’d say the core group on this film was about six people but it expands massively to be about 50, you know, by the time you bring in cinematographers, assistant editors, the people who mix the film, some of the outlying researchers. We employ people, you know, sometimes in different places all over the world to do this or that for us as we’re as we’re putting something together.
LAMB: Here’s some more familiar faces and it’s a Republican National Convention, don’t have the year, maybe you can remember it and some faces that we haven’t seen for a while, Frank Fahrenkopf and others. Let’s get your reaction to it.
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UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Ladies and gentlemen, the Chairman of the College Republican National Committee, Jack Abramoff for purposes of addressing the convention. Let’s welcome Jack.
ABRAMOFF: The party wanted me to give a rah-rah-rah, we’re all young people speech and they rejected my speech. And I got up to the podium and their speech went up on the teleprompter. Fellow Republicans, I come before you today representing American students, the future of our Republican Party.
And as I deviated from that text and went back to my text, which I had memorized, the teleprompter fellow was looking for this on the speech. So the teleprompters are going up and down and up and down.
The first political experience of my generation was an America, necks drooping with hostage shame and shoulders burdened with the Democrats’ no growth, no win future.
All of a sudden I felt a rumbling under my feet. I was told that they’re going to lower the floor to get rid of me. So I’m grabbing a hold of the podium, holding it as hard as I can, giving my speech.
Today students know that support of anti-Soviet freedom fighters and victory over Communism guarantees us security for our nation. Thank you.
END VIDEO CLIP
LAMB: Did you have to manipulate that video to show that?
GIBNEY: You mean the little shaking of the podium?
LAMB: Either the shaking of the podium or the fact that they lowered supposedly they were lowering the podium.
GIBNEY: The shaking of the podium, I think, was there. The lowering I think was a little bit of a poetic license.
LAMB: So what why did you pick that?
GIBNEY: Why did I pick that clip? Again it was interesting to me to see young Jack, that this was a guy who didn’t just pop on to the scene. This was a guy who was a very confident, political activist, really a zealot.
And you can kind of see his both the poise that he had, his willingness to go before a big crowd, but also the sense that he wasn’t going to play by the rules. He wasn’t going to do what other people said.
I thought those were the two interesting things about that. He was he was very interested in power, very interested in politics but not willing to play by other people’s rules. So it seemed a pretty instructive episode.
LAMB: As you know, when he went to prison in Cumberland, Maryland he was supposed to be there I guess according to what I’ve read till 2012. He got out this week. How well do you know him and why did he get out early?
GIBNEY: Well, my understanding is that the sentence was revised to a four year sentence with time already served. So he was supposed to be in for another six months and he went through a drug rehab program and got out early to go to a halfway house near Baltimore.
I think that I mean I knew him. I had met him I believe very briefly, you know, long ago, prior to going into prison. But I did in fact go visit him while he was in prison. And I and we had a number of very long talks. It was very interesting and instructive for me. I tried very hard to interview him on camera but the Department of Justice took a very dim view of that and intervened.
GIBNEY: I don’t know why. We tried very hard to get an answer from the Department of Justice to say why would you resist us? And of course their point of view would be they didn’t resist. Officially Jack at one time Jack said yes, we want to do it and we put everything in motion.
And then the word came back from Abramoff, no, I do not wish to be interviewed by Mr. Gibney. Well I discovered that in the interim, the Department of Justice had leaned very hard on Abramoff and said, you know, you do the interview and we’re going to make life difficult for you. So, you know, that’s an abuse of power in my view, and also, I think, something that did not accrue to the best public interests.
I think the Department of Justice point of view was, ”Look, we want our truth to emerge from Jack Abramoff. We don’t want other people to be able to get their hands on testimony that Jack Abramoff may have given to somebody else besides our lawyers.”
You know, that’s a traditional lawyer’s point of view. I don’t think in this instance it served the public interest very well because, you know, Jack had been sentenced and there were no there was no abridgment on his freedom of speech, his first amendment rights.
So he should have been able to talk to us by all accounts and I think the public interest would have been served.
LAMB: Describe how far it is from Washington to the prison and exactly what you saw when you got there, how big is he in a cell? How big is it if he is, and how much time could you spend talking to him when you would drive out there?
GIBNEY: For me from New Jersey it took about six hours, maybe a little bit more. It’s a long way. It’s in that funny sliver of Maryland that is way west. It almost seems like you’re in Appalachia or something.
And it’s a very kind of antiseptic prison. It’s not it looks almost like a kind of mini-mall. As you go in, you go by some officers and you enter a visiting room area, which is a bunch of chairs unadorned, many of them facing each other.
They call the prisoner, the prisoner comes in and you talk. And I went and visited him a number of times, maybe three times I believe, and each time talked with him for about two or three hours.
LAMB: How would you describe his attitude about all this at this point?
GIBNEY: About all what?
LAMB: What’s happened to him, you know, the sentence he got, was it was it fair, the restitution he has to give back $25 million, all that kind of thing.
GIBNEY: Look, I think he felt victimized but I also, you know, at least to me, he seemed very contrite. I think he felt he paid a heavy price. I’m not sure that the price was so heavy. You know, he but, you know, prison’s not a nice place. It’s and, you know, so but the way his point of view on it was that he had been unfairly singled out.
And I must say to some extent I agree with that. I think that there were many people involved in what Jack Abramoff did who didn’t pay a price and it surprises me. You know, I don’t know everything the Department of Justice knows, but I think even Jack Abramoff was surprised that certain people weren’t indicted, particularly some Congresspeople and senators.
But I think Jack felt contrite. He felt very deeply burdened. You know, I think there was a certain amount of rather unglamorous self-pity. You know, he got himself into this mess, nobody else did, and I think he accepted that to some extent though there were other times where he felt victimized.
LAMB: If you look at the list and I think there have been something like 18 people or 19 people that have been either pled guilty to a felony or charged. There was a former aide to Don Young, a former chief of staff of Bob Ney, congressman from Ohio, the former Tom DeLay aide. There was a former aide to Senator Thad Cochran, Senator Kit Bond. You can go down. There’s interior aide, Dick Armey aide, all that, former aide to Representative Ernest Istook.
Most of all those folks are gone from the Congress. Were those the names of the people you thought should have been indicted, any of those?
GIBNEY: Not really. I mean, to me, I’m surprised that only the minnows showed up in court and that the really big fish got away. Now, you know, I can’t be the judge of whether or not there were indictable offenses for people like former Congressman John Doolittle, for Tom DeLay, for former Senator Conrad Burns.
But some of these people, I think, were at the heart of Jack Abramoff’s dealings, and it’s a little surprising to me that more of the big fish didn’t get netted by the federal investigation.
LAMB: From your documentary, ”Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” here’s a one minute clip and it’s you’re introducing us to Neil Volz.
START VIDEO CLIP
BOB NEY: This is truly a wildly historic night. I mean, this is just
TALKING HEADS: Watch out, you might get what you’re after. Cool babies, strange but not a stranger.
NEIL VOLZ, AIDE TO BOB NEY: I was a college student and I was a true believer in the whole Republican revolution.
GIBNEY: Neil Volz came to Washington with one of the newly elected congressmen of the Republican revolution, Bob Ney, from Ohio.
BOB NEY: The mood was electric. We had the entire nation in a ground swell because this was probably one of the most exciting elections in 40-some years of Democrat control, which I and others at one point IN time who were involved in politics, said it won’t change in our lifetime. And it did.
NEIL VOLZ: The Democrats had run the Congress for 40 years. There was a certain level of corruption that had taken hold so we’re rallying against that and it’s so ironic that years later I would be a face of similar type of corruption to a whole different group of people.
TALKING HEADS: Burning down the house.
END VIDEO CLIP
LAMB: You know, Neil Volz said that there was a certain kind of corruption had taken a hold in town after 40 years of Democrats in control. Was there ever a documentary done on them?
GIBNEY: No, and I think it would be a good thing to do, frankly. You know, anytime there’s a big intersection of money and power you have corruption. And I think because the Democrats had been in control of Congress for so long, it was deeply corrupt. I mean, you know, there are stories. A former senator from New Jersey was netted in a corruption scandal. There were certainly other Democrats who were.
LAMB: You talking about Pete Williams?
LAMB: You talking about Bob Torricelli?
LAMB: Because Pete Williams went to jail.
GIBNEY: Right. And so but we’re talking about a documentary now and I think it would be a healthy and useful documentary to dig into that kind of institutionalized corruption on the part of the Democrats. So, you know, more power to somebody to do it.
LAMB: Do you have a hero in your life in politics? Somebody who is in elected office?
GIBNEY: Martin Luther King. Oh, sorry, that’s not elected office, that was more of a ground swell. I mean, you know, I like, in terms of a hero, I mean, there’s a that’s a good question and I should I should have a better answer. There are some people in Congress now I like but a hero, I don’t know. I guess I’d still go with the outsider.
LAMB: Could you give us an example of somebody you like now?
GIBNEY: Well, I, you know, I was very impressed with Carl Levin’s investigation when he was on the Armed Services Committee into the into the torture scandal. I thought that was a that was very impressive.
I think Dick Durbin and some of his recent attempts to try to staunch the flow of money in politics have been interesting. Those would be two example of a couple of people that I think are pretty good.
LAMB: Go back to the last clip where we say the young man, Neil Volz. Can you tell us about him? Why did he talk to you, where did he talk to you, and why did Bob Ney, who is a Congressman who went to prison, talk to you?
GIBNEY: That’s those are those are good questions. I mean, Neil Volz was Bob Ney’s chief of staff. And he came to Bob, you know, as he says, very idealistically, which was interesting to me and important for me to hear, you know. And they were rightfully trying to rudder against the kind of institutionalized corruption in Washington.
But the relationship of Neil and Bob was a very interesting one in the film because you can see how the corruption sort of gnaws away at them and their relationship. You know, a little bit something like ”Lord of the Rings” where, you know, Frodo and Sam begin to go at each other’s throats because of the corruption of the ring. I think so did Neil and Bob.
And what’s really instructive about their relationship too is that is in the case of Neil, he did the classic Washington journey where he comes to Congress as a staffer with a Congressperson but then over time realizes oh my God, I really need more money.
I really need to do better with my life, so he crosses to K Street where he can make the really big bucks. He starts to work for Jack Abramoff and then, even though he’s not supposed to, he starts immediately lobbying, you know, his former boss, Bob Ney.
And it’s the use it’s the corrupt use of those personal relationships that lobbyists excel at. And so it was very important to have, in the midst of this story in terms of how I got him to talk, I mean, I went to Neil right after he had been sentenced and just said look, let’s go out and have a beer and let’s talk off the record. Let’s just talk.
And I I said look I was trying to do. I said I was interested in him and would he be interested in talking to me in a sort of a broad way about his own experience but with a larger context involved. And I think after a number of conversations we got to kind of a trust level where he felt that would be a good idea.
And I think the same thing happened with Bob Ney. I mean, I when I initially wrote him, I wrote him in prison and he said he tried to tried to shred my letters. I mean, he was very scared. Prison is a scary place and if you do things that the prison officials don’t like you can be punished. So he didn’t want to have anything to do with me.
After he got out, one of my producers, Zena Barakat, met him and talked to him about it. He then actually went and watched some of my films and, you know, I was able to persuade him with Zena’s help that, you know, I would honor his testimony in a way that would not try to cheapen it and to give him, you know, sort of vent to what he wanted to say and to put him in a broader perspective.
I think also after having spent that much time in prison, Bob was interested in trying to find a way to tell his story in a way that would have some larger impact. It was not just here’s some juicy Jack Abramoff stories, but, you know, what’s really wrong with Washington.
So for all those reasons, I think Bob and Neil came forward and I’m glad they did because I think they’re at the beating heart they’re the beating heart of the film.
LAMB: Where did you interview them and where are the two of them today?
GIBNEY: I interviewed Neil in Washington, D.C. and Bob came to New York. Bob is still in Ohio. He has a radio show now. He’s a radio show host. Neil lives in Florida now and he has a he works for a community group and also works at a restaurant, I believe.
LAMB: A minute and 32 second clip for you from your documentary on the background of Abramoff and his access to Tom DeLay.
START VIDEO CLIP
GIBNEY: Abramoff gave up movie producing to become a lobbyist. In Republican Washington, Jack was the right man, at the right time.
SUSAN SHMIDT: His credentials with the conservative movement gave him access and entre with the new leadership, and instantly he saw how he could build a client base, and then that client base in turn could fund the leadership politically with campaign contributions. It became sort of a symbiotic relationship.
GIBNEY: The relationship became ever more important, as campaign costs began to soar.
ROBERT G. KAISER: The cost of campaigns went through the roof in the modern era, in the last 35 years. It’s just a staggering increase. The trouble is the new technology of politics, commercials on television, polls and focus groups to design the commercials for television are just very expensive.
And no serious candidate or incumbent can say no, I’m not going to do that, or that’s beneath me, I’m not going to put myself into 30 second spots. They all do it. One of the dirty little secrets in Washington today is how much time members of the House and Senate spend every week, not just in the election season, but all the time, year round, on the telephone begging for money.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: And I ain’t got time to shake your hand.
END VIDEO CLIP
LAMB: Question about your technique there. You often have an interviewee in the shadow on one side of their face, what’s that technique?
GIBNEY: I don’t know. To some extent it’s just a photographic technique. It’s a kind of sculpting of the face, which makes the face a little bit more interesting, you know. You can it’s a it’s not a technique uncommon to still portraiture. There’s something about that that brings out the face a little bit more when part of it is in shadow.
I think also to some extent in this film, you know, there is a way in which that shadow emphasizes a sense of moral ambiguity that people, you know, there’s I don’t want to get too symbolic about it, but that but there is a shadow, there is a light, I’m interested in that.
But I didn’t really do it peculiarly for those symbolic reasons. It’s, you know, I think it’s beautiful actually to look at. But there is in the elements of the shadow a sense that things happen in the shadows that we don’t always know about.
LAMB: The music, where does that come from?
GIBNEY: The music, you know, one of the most fun things I about my job, really, is picking the music for these films. I generally have a lot of music in my films. And it often it acts in two ways, one, as a kind of toe-tapping Greek chorus, that it stands in for my point of view sometimes. And sometime it acts as a way of revealing character, or being a kind of theme song for character.
And I find it also gives, you know, the film a little bit of energy. In terms of where I get it, you know, I spend a lot of time listening to all sorts of music from all sorts of different genres, from everything from hip-hop to blues to country to, you know, regular old rock and roll to classical or jazz, and try to find songs that seem to fit both the mood and the character and sometimes my own point of view.
LAMB: Who’s the narrator?
GIBNEY: I am. That’s maybe the biggest flaw in the film, but I it started for me with ”Taxi to the Dark Side,” and I, you know, we were going to get a celebrity narrator for that film. But then I included a short clip of my father at the very end of the film, a video of him just before he died. And that made that film very personal to me, so I decided to do the narration on that film myself.
In fact I often do the temp narration before the actor, you know, comes in. On this one, I’d worked on it a long time. I just decided to do it myself as well. It’s you know, it may not be the world’s greatest voice, but it has the virtue of being authentic, that is to say it is truly my voice.
LAMB: And how long is this documentary?
GIBNEY: It’s 118 minutes.
LAMB: Here’s some more.
START VIDEO CLIP
GIBNEY: He had to get to one man, Tom DeLay.
TOM DELAY: Jack Abramoff was a committed conservative and he was well known in the conservative movement, and I dealt with him no differently than I dealt with any other lobbyist.
GIBNEY: 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.
NEIL VOLZ: The first time I met Jack Abramoff was in the Majority Whip’s office at an event.
NEIL VOLZ: Jack is one of a kind. I mean, Jack Abramoff could sweet talk a dog off a meat truck. He’s that persuasive. 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 he’s like hey, you know, sorry about that but you’ve got two more minutes, and by the way I need about $250,000 a month and then walks out the door. It one of a kind, one of a kind.
END VIDEO CLIP
LAMB: Has Jack Abramoff seen this documentary, and if so what’s his reaction to it?
GIBNEY: I don’t know if he’s seen it. And now that he’s in a halfway house, I’m going to see if I can get him a copy. His lawyer, Abbe Lowell saw it, said he liked it, said there were a few issues he had with it, but he never told me exactly what they were, you know, so I don’t know yet. I know a number of people close to Jack have seen it. Some liked it, some don’t.
LAMB: If they don’t like this what’s the reason?
GIBNEY: Well, some people who like Jack may feel it’s too tough on him. I don’t think it’s, you know, it doesn’t go very easy on Jack, but I think that’s fair and just.
LAMB: Is it is it accurate to describe the prosecution of Jack Abramoff as coming from a Justice Department that was run by Republicans?
GIBNEY: Yes, I think that’s accurate. I mean, there’s no doubt that the Department of Justice that came after Jack Abramoff was during the at least, yes, was during the period of George W. Bush, so that’s a Republican administration.
LAMB: We heard a lot of criticism of the Justice Department during George Bush’s administration. Have we heard any positive things about the fact that inside that Justice Department, Jack Abramoff and the rest of these people we’ve been talking about were prosecuted, and if so if we haven’t heard it, why not?
GIBNEY: Well, I think it’s a to be honest, I’d have to say it’s a mixed bag, in terms of the prosecution. There was an attempt to go after this influence peddling, but I’m not sure they did the world’s best job.
I know that Alberto Gonzales Bob Ney told me a very funny story about how he was in prison when they were broadcasting the hearings about Alberto Gonzales bragging about how he put Bob Ney in jail.
It’s true. Bob Ney is a Republican congressman, and he’s in jail. But I’m not sure that the Department of Justice really got to the bottom of the Abramoff scandal, or I should say got to the top of the Abramoff scandal. At the same time, you know, the Department of Justice is a funny place.
There are a lot of career people who are there, there are a lot of people who do a very good job and yet there’s a lot of political interference. And I think that was one of the things we saw in the Bush administration, particularly with the Attorney scandal, and I would say the torture scandal.
LAMB: I watched your documentary in a theatre, and it wasn’t very crowded. And I’ve seen most of your documentaries from one time or another, and sometimes they’re crowded, but often documentaries don’t have big crowds. What’s your reaction? Did you make money off of this, I know it’s early in the process, and how much did your need for making money drive you in making the documentary in the first place?
GIBNEY: Well, I always hope that my documentaries will make money, because in a way that’s what keeps me going, if they don’t make any money at all, then I don’t make them. This, you know, I think it’s fair to say that ”Casino Jack,” you know is not one of my more financially successful documentaries, at least so far. You know, I think the subject for people is tough. It’s a little bit mystifying to me.
Most people I know who actually go see the film call me and tell me how much they like it. They could be flattering me, I don’t know. But it’s been hard to get people to go to this film. With a film like ”Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” that made quite a bit of money for investors, and that was a good thing for them and for me.
And I think, you know, in a way, I mean I don’t believe that the market is the only force that we should pay attention to, but the market is an important force, and I think to some extent the market has given me freedom because some of my films really have made money.
LAMB: Here’s a clip on the relationship between Jack Abramoff and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands.
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told that nobody could go through Tom DeLay without going through Jack Abramoff. And it cost us millions of dollars.
GIBNEY: For their services, Abramoff and his firm Preston Gates charged the CNMI over $200,000 a month. Part of the plan was to mount (ph) tourists to the CNMI, for conservative writers and sympathetic congressmen, like John Doolittle and Dana Rohrabacher.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: We went out there to take a look at some of these clothing factories that had come in from various parts of the world in order to set up operation there, and it looked like to me that it was working.
JUAN BABAUTA: What they would do is take a quick tour of the garment factories, and they emerge in the front doors of the factories saying hey, there’s nothing going on out here. We don’t see any abuses, so what are you guys talking about?
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: And what would they do the rest of the time?
JUAN BABAUTA: R&R. Generally, they would stay at the Hyatt Regency hotel, five stars. There are at least five championship golf courses.
THOMAS FRANK: At some point Jack must have realized that that’s how you sell the Marianas Islands, you know. With this abominable labor, basically, indentured servitude, it’s one step from slavery, but you bring people over there, it’s beautiful. They’ve got the golf courses, the nice hotels, they fell for it.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: We’ve been out here a week now, and I think that firsthand information will help us maybe enlighten some of the others that haven’t been pushing in the right direction.
GIBNEY: By day, there was sports and games, and by night, there were cocktails, cock fights and clubs.
JOHN DOOLITTLE: This thing about the Marianas is absolutely preposterous, and we didn’t find anything that was like was being described. And to suggest that I’m for sex slavery and human trafficking is ludicrous.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: One member of Congress after another was going out there, looking around, saying looks good to me. And Jack Abramoff said, and I can help you.
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LAMB: How did you by the way, all that video directly related to the Northern Mariana Islands? Or when you saw an Asian there, you know, the prostitutes, obviously, was that from there or from somewhere else?
GIBNEY: No, it was all from the Marianas, and there was some production footage, which we took out there. But no, it’s all from the Marianas.
LAMB: Did you ever ask anybody why they would go that far to play golf?
GIBNEY: Well, I did ask Congressman Rohrabacher and he said, ”Look, it was a miserable experience for me because, you know, I’m a surfer and the surf wasn’t that good.” Well, so, I don’t know. But it didn’t look like, you know, from the footage that we had, that they were suffering that much.
I think when they went out there because it was fun. It was a long way, but it was fun. They got to play golf. They got to go snorkeling. They got to go out to the clubs at night. And they got a little take home gift, usually in the form of some kind of campaign contributions or, you know, a reminder that this would help them down the line in terms of influence with Tom DeLay. So
LAMB: Did you find out whether or not they flew out there on an Air Force plane?
GIBNEY: I didn’t. I didn’t find that out.
LAMB: And did you find out how much Jack Abramoff made off of that whole event out there?
GIBNEY: You know, I’m not going to remember the figure, but it was millions of dollars. And it’s kind of an ironic thing, really, for a free market ideologue like Jack Abramoff, or an anti-big government ideologue like Jack Abramoff, because that was a lot of the federal dollars flow into the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas.
And they were using, in many ways, some of those federal dollars to pay Jack Abramoff to lobby against federal influence. It’s kind of ironic. But also there’s a certain amount of money from the factory owners in the Marianas that was going to Congresspeople and senators.
LAMB: Can you give us a ballpark figure on how much this documentary cost you?
GIBNEY: Sure. Documentary cost about $1.6 million.
LAMB: And where do you get finance for something like that?
GIBNEY: Well, in this case the film was co-financed by two people, Magnolia Pictures, which is a film distribution and production company ,that’s owned by Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban, the guy who owns the Dallas Mavericks, and they distributed ”Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and also ”Gonzo” so we have a relationship.
Also Participant, which is a group that has funded a number of fiction and non-fiction films, notably ”An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore I mean not by Al Gore it’s starring Al Gore. It’s by Davis Guggenheim, and ”Good Night and Good Luck” and some other films.
So those were the two key partners that came onboard, and also to Participant’s credit one of the things they’ve done is to put together a Web site that people can investigate to really explore the issue of money and politics in a way that I think is very helpful. And then that outreach aspect of this enterprise is very interesting to me.
LAMB: You mentioned Guggenheim. Is that the Charlie Guggenheim family?
GIBNEY: Yes, I believe it is.
LAMB: And you also mentioned Mark Cuban, and I saw your documentary at his theater here, the Landmark Theatres in Washington, and he’s got theatres, as you know, in over 15 towns and cities in the United States. If he wasn’t in this business, and if he wasn’t financing something like this, would you still be doing documentaries or would there still be places in this country to go see these things?
GIBNEY: Well, I think there would be, but I mean I’m glad he’s out there. I think he’s doing a great job. I think Magnolia’s doing a good job and I also like the Landmark Theatre chain. It’s a good healthy outlet for independent films. So I mean he’s not the only doing it, but he’s an important force.
LAMB: Back to your documentary. This is Ralph Reed, a name that people watching this network will remember. Let’s watch it. It’s a minute and 36.
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got Ralph Reed to not only mount public opposition to this plan, but to put pressure on members of Congress who then put pressure on the Department of Interior to prevent the Jena Tribe from opening a casino.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: It was very interesting to us in Indian country when a letter came out signed by a number of representatives to the Department of the Interior saying please stop what the Jena Band was trying to achieve.
GIBNEY: Most members who signed the letter opposing the Jena casino got campaign cash from competing casinos.
SUSAN SCHMIDT: Ultimately the Jena lost. The Jena did not get their casino and Abramoff won and defended the interests of his clients the Coushattas.
GIBNEY: Jack used tribal members from all his Indian clients as a piggybank to send over $5 million to political causes and candidates, mostly Republican. Some of the biggest recipients were Bob Ney, Tom DeLay, John Doolittle, J.D. Hayworth, Patrick Kennedy, Conrad Burns.
NEIL VOLZ: Jack Abramoff was so skillful at convincing a lot of Indian tribes or companies to donate all kinds of money to political candidates and political parties as he saw fit. And so, yes, Jack Abramoff was a huge rainmaker, one of the largest rainmakers in town.
END VIDEO CLIP
LAMB: You know there are a lot of names that popped up on that. First of all, how did you do that?
GIBNEY: How did I do what?
LAMB: That whole scene with the slot machines.
GIBNEY: Oh, well, we worked with a great design firm called Big Star in New York, and we had the concept and then they helped us to execute it. To actually put the photographs in, to composite it and put the shadows so it has a you know, we actually shot a real slot machine which turned out to be more difficult to do than I thought. And then we put it all together in a kind of postproduction process. It was fun.
LAMB: I know I’ve said this a couple times. It’s amazing how many people in your documentary are no longer in politics, no longer in power, but some are. John Breaux is on that list.
He has a lobbying firm here in town. Thad Cochran is still in the Senate, Harry Reid. J.D. Hayworth’s running against John McCain. Congressman Kennedy is leaving office, on and on. Did you get any sense as you saw all these names come by you and interview them, that this scandal had the impact of chasing people out of Congress?
GIBNEY: I think it did have the impact of chasing people out of Congress, and that was probably a positive development. So I don’t want to minimize or overdo the idea that Jack Abramoff was scapegoated in the sense that there was no other impact.
I think the Abramoff scandal, so called, really did have an impact and a lot of people left. On the other hand, what’s interesting about Washington is, you know, you see them coming back, and J.D. Hayworth would be a good example of that.
He may unseat John McCain who is the guy who went after Abramoff. In a kind of bitter irony, J.D. Hayworth now touts the fact that McCain’s committee didn’t find anything wrong with what he was doing during this influence peddling scandal.
Maybe John McCain wishes he had dug a little deeper and released a few more e-mails that might have revealed more about J.D. Hayworth’s role. But anyway, you know, there’s no doubt your question is very good, and there was definitely an impact, and a lot of people lost their job.
LAMB: There are a lot of connection and names that you’ve been using, and there’s another one I want to ask you about and that’s the name William Sloane Coffin. I found that in your background. Explain that connection.
GIBNEY: William Sloane Coffin, Jr., the activist minister, was my stepfather. He was the chaplain at Yale. He married my mother when I was around 14. In 1968 he was charged with conspiracy, I believe with Dr. Spock, the famous baby doctor. And he had known my mother from before and we were living in Cambridge and he came up to be in the trial and would come by the house and they fell in love and they got married.
And then I moved to New Haven and ultimately I went to Yale, you know, and Bill was a big influence on my life. And I and I remember he also was, you know, he died as it happened right around the same time that my father died.
It was a big blow. I think he also you know he died as it happened right around the same time that my father died. It was a big blow. I think in the obituary of the ”Washington Post,” my father was on the top of the page and William Sloane Coffin, Jr. was on the bottom of the page. And my father would have been annoyed that Bill booted him off the obituary page of the ”New York Times.” But you know, there you go.
But Bill was very important influence on my life and he also, when I was making ”Taxi to the Dark Side,” you know, urged me to hurry up. He felt very strongly about that issue.
LAMB: Another quick connection, you’re you’ve got your father had seven children I understand and one of them is a brother that’s here at the ”National Journal,” no, not at ”The Atlantic Monthly?”
GIBNEY: That’s right. He’s an editor at ”The Atlantic Monthly,” James Gibney. And I have another brother, Frank Gibney, Jr. who’s also a journalist. So three out of the seven went and I wouldn’t you know, I’m not a print journalist.
I work in film, but nevertheless I have, I’m told, some journalistic tendencies. So three of us sort of followed in our in our father’s footsteps and I have, I think, three sisters and one other brother, Thomas.
LAMB: Another name from your documentary we haven’t seen much of him yet, but it’s Michael Scanlon who is awaiting sentencing I understand. Let’s watch.
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GIBNEY: In Washington, Jack’s huge fees angered lobbyists. They began to leak information to the ”Washington Post” Sue Schmidt.
SUE SCHMIDT, JOURNALIST, WASHINGTON POST: I got a call from a well-known lobbyist in Washington, a Republican, and he told me, ”You ought to look into Jack Abramoff. He’s representing these Indian tribes and charging millions of dollars and he’s working with this young guy, Mike Scanlon, who came off Tom DeLay’s staff.” And Scanlon is, you know, living like a sultan.
Michael Scanlon And irresistible pitch man, Scanlon became Jack’s go to guy for selling grassroots political campaigns to the Indian tribes.
MICHAEL SCANLON, FORMER LOBBYIST: What we have built is a state of the art database, political grassroots database. Let’s say, for example, we had a problem with a particular state senator.
Let’s say that you wanted to make sure that somebody didn’t win. We might not have enough to get our candidate enough votes to win it, but we can certainly, certainly prevent someone from getting elected.
GIBNEY: Scanlon’s political work paid off. Only a couple of years after he left DeLay’s office, Scanlon was flying in private jets, dressing in hand tailored European suits and buying more than $20 million in real estate, including a sprawling Rehoboth Beach compound once owned by the DuPonts.
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LAMB: Michael Scanlon, where is he today?
GIBNEY: Michael Scanlon, so far as I’m aware is still living in Rehoboth Beach. One of my producers, Zena Barakat, actually went up and chatted with him briefly and not to any consequence, but last I looked he was still there and he’s awaiting sentencing. I believe one of the reasons that’s taking so long is they’re waiting for the result of the Honest Services fraud case that’s going up before the Supreme Court very soon as I understand it.
So that would be a tough irony I think for Jack Abramoff if the Supreme Court overturns Honest Services fraud, it’s possible that Michael Scanlon might go free and that might never serve any time, which if I were Jack Abramoff, would be a bitter pill to swallow, because I think Jack Abramoff in my view was a zealot who became corrupt. Michael Scanlon was closer to a kind of Washington criminal.
LAMB: I’m going to run a clip next, and we had a lot of debate on whether to run this or not, but decided to run it. And I want to tell the audience, those that are sensitive to this stuff, it’s bad language, and if you don’t want to hear it please turn this off now.
And we’re not we’re doing it because it shows the strength of the language behind the scenes that you found in e-mails. It’s only a minute 10 seconds, but if you don’t want to hear it please turn it off.
MELANIE SLOAN: Every person in America should learn one thing from Jack Abramoff, it’s don’t put all this in writing.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: They are ripe for more pickings and we have to figure out how. Can you meet tomorrow?
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Coushatta is an absolute cake walk. Your cut is at least 800 K.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: How can I say this strong enough? ”You is da man.”
DAVID GROSH: I couldn’t believe they were talking about this through e-mail.
RON PLATE: I can’t believe they’re e-mailing back and forth about stuff.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: They are cheap mother fuckers who don’t want to pay our fees. I say fuck them and let’s go get you a different tribe which appreciates hard work.
CARLOS HISA: That’s page after page after page. My mouth just dropped to the floor. I couldn’t believe it.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Two point seven five is chump change. What the hell were we thinking?
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: According to your e-mails, you and Mr. Scanlon referred to tribes as morons, stupid idiots, monkeys, f’ing troglodytes, which you define as a lower form of existence and losers.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: I hate those fucking ingrates. I told Cherokee to come up with the dough or prepare for another Trail of Tears.
END VIDEO CLIP
LAMB: Why did you use that?
GIBNEY: Because I thought much like the audio tapes of the Enron traders who took down the California grid, that it the trade the language itself betrayed a kind of moral bankruptcy, really.
And you can hear the viciousness. It’s the viciousness of the language that I think is telling. And that’s why it was important to use it and not just bleep it. Sometimes it’s hard to hear the face of immorality, but that but that would be it.
LAMB: People want to buy this and watch the whole thing what’s it cost and can they do it now?
GIBNEY: I don’t think they can do it yet. It will be out on video. It’s still depending on where you live making the rounds in theaters around the country. And the best place to find out about that is to go to the Web site Magnolia Pictures Web site. I think it’s magpictures.com.
LAMB: You had a lot of write ups, a lot of reviews and one is rather critical. I’m sure you’ve read it, by Gary Chafetz. You know him?
GIBNEY: Sure, I know Gary. I’ve played tennis with him.
LAMB: And this was on June the 9th or June the 5th is when we pulled it down. He’s a former ”Boston Globe” reporter on the ”Huffington Post,” which you also write for?
GIBNEY: I’ve written for the ”Huffington Post.”
LAMB: He says there are so many disappointing things with this documentary I don’t know where to begin. My overarching problem was that Gibney made no attempt to be objective and that he omitted a plethora of important information that might have afforded the audience the opportunity to draw more balanced, nuanced and certainly more informed conclusion about this complex scandal.
He prior to that says that you he says you’re both hard core liberals. Put all that into context for us?
GIBNEY: I’m not sure how to put it into context. I mean, you know, Gary and I had long arguments about this. Gary wrote a book about this called ”The Perfect Villain,” in which he tried to make the argument that Jack Abramoff was wrongly accused, shouldn’t have been prosecuted, shouldn’t have gone to jail, and fundamentally didn’t do anything terribly wrong. And I just disagree.
In terms of was is objective or balanced, you know, I think you have to say that, you know, a lot of sides were represented in this. Tom DeLay is interviewed for the film. Bob Ney is interviewed for the film.
Neil Volz is interviewed for the film. I went out to the Marianas. Sue Schmidt, who broke the, you know, who helped to really break the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal story is interviewed for the film.
You know, this is not like a packet of liberals, you know, ganging up on Republicans, just the opposite. It’s actually more or less from the inside out of the of the Republican Party. And I did, I think, what Gary didn’t do. I mean, Gary didn’t go out to the Marianas. Gary didn’t go down to speak with the Tigua tribe in El Paso, Texas.
He didn’t go down to Louisiana to talk with the Coushatta. And he didn’t talk to Bob Ney. He didn’t talk to Adam Kidan. He didn’t he didn’t talk to a lot of people. So my view is that I did a pretty thorough job, really, of reporting and filming this story. And I just disagree with what Gary says.
LAMB: By the way, he calls in here the work that Susan Schmidt did sleazy. Why would he do that? What’s his point on that one?
GIBNEY: That’s a good question. I mean, Gary in his book is very angry about Sue Schmidt’s reporting. He believes that she grossly misrepresented the Tigua affair, which was the attempt by Jack to lobby for the Tigua Indians of El Paso.
I think Gary’s argument is overwrought. Susan Schmidt and her colleagues at the ”Washington Post” won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting. I don’t think her reporting was sleazy.
LAMB: Last clip before we say good-bye, you use some ”Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Let’s watch.
START VIDEO CLIP
J. MICHAEL WALLER: It has become so accepted, so part of our political culture now that it’s normal. You’re average citizen doesn’t have the voice that he or she would expect to have because these voices are much louder and they’re much better financed.
NEIL VOLZ: This is a story about human failure. I mean, I don’t think the corruption as a part is an issue. The corruption I was involved in was the human failure. It’s an issue of power. I became just a machine, a cog in the machine, like hey, get up. Go do your thing. Get yours. I just lost track of what brought me here.
SUSAN SCHMIDT: Abramoff couldn’t have flourished if this system itself was not corrupt, where the need for money, the members of Congress and their need for money is so voracious and so huge that they don’t have their guard up.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: This has all gone into a feeding frenzy with money.
BOB NEY: Well, what do you expect me to do, dude?
BOB NEY: I don’t know what the solution is. I would have loved to have public financing. Here’s your money and here’s your money and you don’t have to raise any. This would and all of that if you had a different system, but right now we don’t.
JIMMY STEWART, ACTOR: There’s no place out there for graft or greed or lies or compromise with human liberties. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here.
MELANIE SLOAN, AUTHOR: I think the lesson that we all should take from this is that the price for a free society, I think, is to be vigilant about our democracy. They were only able to be influenced by Jack Abramoff and take advantage of the money he was offering because we let them.
END VIDEO CLIP
LAMB: ”Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” anything changed since that came out with Jimmy Stewart?
GIBNEY: Well, the French have an expression, ”Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose,” you know, the more things change the more things stay the same. I think things have gotten a lot worse in terms of the influence of money in politics, a lot worse.
But they, you know, corruption was always there and that’s why I think Melanie Sloan’s comment there about how we have to be eternally vigilant is the right one. But Jefferson Smith is a really interesting figure and character because he embodies the kind of American naivetι but a kind of bold and important naivetι, meaning that the urge to create out of, you know, moral wreckage something good.
Ironically, I think he’s also a kind of argument against term limits. One of the reasons that Jefferson Smith in that great Capra film, ”Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” gets manipulated is because he comes in as the rube and doesn’t know that much. And who knows more and who knows how the machinery works? It’s the lobbyists, the ones who always stay there.
So if you have a kind of rotating crop of Congresspeople and senators it’s not really the best way to solve this problem, but I think that ”Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is still a very important film for us because we have to remember our ideals, our idealism and fight for it. That’s what it’s all about it seems to me.
LAMB: So when can we see in the theaters outside of the Tribeca Film Festival earlier your documentary on talk show host Eliot Spitzer?
GIBNEY: Has that been officially announced? Is he officially a talk show host now?
LAMB: Well, he has been one in the last couple weeks so I thought maybe, you know
GIBNEY: Yes, that’s true.
he might be leaning that way.
GIBNEY: It’s going to Magnolia Pictures, the same people who distributed this film will have the film out, I believe, later this year. So keep your eyes peeled. I think it’s a pretty good one.
LAMB: Alex Gibney, our guest, the documentary’s called ”Casino Jack and the United States of Money.” Thank you very much for joining us.
GIBNEY: Thank you, Brian, good to be here.