Abramoff Reached Beyond the Limits

Times Staff Writers

At Beverly Hills High School, Jack Abramoff’s weightlifting prowess was the stuff of legend.

As a senior, he became the first member of the school’s 2700 Club, lifting a combined total of 2,700 pounds in the power squat, dead lift, bench press, and clean and jerk.

His former football coach, Bill Stansbury, recalled a game against Inglewood when Abramoff legally blocked an opposing player and knocked him out cold.


Abramoff also helped organize charitable events, Stansbury said, among them a Quarter-Pounder-eating contest at a McDonald’s, with some proceeds going to the American Cancer Society, and a celebrity basketball game to benefit a youth foundation.

Today, about 30 years later, Abramoff is at the center of a political scandal in Washington -- the result, in part, of the same drive, interest in charitable organizations and excess that he showed in his youth.

During a decade as one of the capital’s most successful lobbyists, commanding hourly rates as high as $750, Abramoff, 46, amassed a personal fortune while lavishing lawmakers and others with golf junkets, free meals and access to sports arena skyboxes.

Now, he has pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud some of his lobbying clients and bribe a lawmaker. Federal investigators are probing whether other lawmakers improperly returned Abramoff’s favors by using their offices to benefit him and his clients.

His reach into the Republican power structure was vast. Beleaguered former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay once described him as “one of my closest and dearest friends.” Abramoff was one of the “pioneers” who raised more than $100,000 for President Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign.

The son of a Diners Club executive, Abramoff moved with his family from Atlantic City, N.J., to Beverly Hills when he was 10.

Soon after, he experienced a religious epiphany. His family was Jewish but not particularly observant, not like the characters in “Fiddler on the Roof,” which he had recently watched. The Orthodox traditions of his grandparents’ generation had perished over the years, and Abramoff, at age 12, decided to be the one to unbury them.

He began walking to synagogue every Saturday and taught himself Hebrew, exhibiting early signs of the chin-to-chest drive that would later help catapult him to become one of the most well-connected Republican lobbyists in Washington.

At Beverly Hills High, he earned a reputation for ambition, hard work and commitment. He held the school record for the power squat, which he completed while holding 510 pounds on his back.

“Jack showed good leadership and was very dedicated, probably the strongest kid on the team,” recalled Stansbury, who was the football team’s offensive line coach when Abramoff played as the starting center. “For his size, he was extremely strong and very aggressive.”

Abramoff was president of the high school Lettermen’s Club, said Stansbury, who is now a teacher and coach at Paso Robles High School. “Jack always had a clear mission of where he wanted to be and how he was going to get there. I had a lot of respect for Jack’s work ethic.”

Steven Herbert, a freelance journalist who writes for The Times’ sports section and attended the same schools a year behind Abramoff, recalled an early setback for Abramoff. He ran for student council president at the Hawthorne School, a Beverly Hills elementary and middle school, in 1972. Heading into a runoff election, Abramoff was disqualified for exceeding the spending limit. The principal, Herbert recalled, penalized Abramoff for holding a party, stating it amounted to a campaign expenditure that pushed him over the limit.

In the handful of interviews Abramoff has granted over the last year, he has refused to discuss the federal probe of his lobbying work but has talked about his past, including the religious revelation in his adolescence.

“I felt a twinge of sadness that that culture had died out in our family,” he told Mother Jones magazine last summer. Recalling the decision he made then: “I’ll be the person to resurrect it.”

He became as conservative in his politics as in his faith and forged early friendships that would help him ascend his party’s ranks. While an undergraduate at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, he met Grover Norquist, a Harvard graduate student who went on to head Americans for Tax Reform. Their common passion for conservative activism led them to organize young Republicans in the 1980 election, which some believed helped Ronald Reagan score an upset in that famously Democratic state.

Norquist was the first of many prominent Republicans that Abramoff would befriend as he took on key political chores on behalf of the GOP.

Abramoff became national chairman of the student wing of the GOP, the College Republican National Committee, a position once held by Bush confidant Karl Rove. There, Abramoff forged his long friendship with activist Ralph Reed, who would years later turn the Christian Coalition into a major political force within the GOP.

In his mid-20s, Abramoff set out to spread the Reagan Doctrine. He became executive director of Citizens for America, Reagan’s grass-roots lobbying group.

With Republicans out of power in the early 1990s, Abramoff took a break from full-time politics and returned to his West Coast roots. He spent 10 years as a movie producer and made several B-grade films, including 1989’s anti-communist romp “Red Scorpion.”

In business and in politics, “he was always the consummate entrepreneur,” said Marshall Wittmann, a former conservative activist who knew Abramoff during his rise to power and who is now a fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Abramoff was drawn back into politics in 1994 when the GOP takeover of Congress created opportunities for a talented rainmaker. Washington was full of new GOP lawmakers, and lobbying firms were desperate for people with Republican contacts. With his old friends suddenly in high places and his ticket already punched as a Reagan devotee, Abramoff was in demand almost overnight. He soon acquired a list of top-drawer clients -- Unisys Corp., Tyco International and the government of the Northern Mariana Islands, a remote Pacific commonwealth that lawmakers were eyeing for additional federal regulation.

Abramoff became a bona fide high roller. He bought a majority stake in Signatures, a high-end restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Capitol Hill that was a hot spot for Republican lobbyists, members of Congress and political fundraisers. GOP lawmakers filled his private skyboxes at Redskin, Oriole and Wizard games.

He also showed an interest in charitable organizations. Concerned about the quality of Jewish education in the Washington area, he founded an Orthodox school and sent two of his children there.

A charitable organization he founded, the Capital Athletic Foundation, figures in the charges to which Abramoff entered guilty pleas Tuesday. Prosecutors said he induced a wireless telephone company to make $50,000 in payments to the foundation rather than pay a lobbying fee to the firm Abramoff worked for.

His most lucrative clients, though, were the Indian casino tribes he began to represent in the mid-1990s. Prosecutors say Abramoff and a partner conspired to defraud some of those tribes in five states, reaping millions of dollars from the scheme.

“Can you smell money?!” Abramoff wrote to his partner Michael P.S. Scanlon, a public relations consultant and former DeLay spokesman, regarding an Indian tribe rich with gambling casino profits. Scanlon recently pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges.

Abramoff at one point disparaged some of the tribal members who had made him rich, calling them “troglodytes” and “plain stupid ... Morons.”

Last year, Abramoff was forced to listen to those words in a hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “Why would you want to work for people that you have that much contempt for?” one senator asked.

On the advice of his lawyer, Abramoff did not respond.


Fiore reported from Washington and Groves from Santa Monica.