"Nothing surprises me about the extent of greed or rapacious abuse of power," says documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney.
It's hardly a surprising statement coming from the Academy Award-winner whose films have explored the Enron scandal, CIA black sites, Detroit's war on electric vehicles, a Harlem drug lord and Henry Kissinger.
Gibney's latest film, "Casino Jack and the United States of Money," examines the rise and ignoble fall of notorious Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff - and, more broadly, the culture of corruption that pervades America's political system.
Abramoff entered the Washington scene in the early 1990s and soon established himself as the most successful and free-wheeling of lobbyists. Forming a tag-team of sorts with Republican Rep. Tom Delay, who wielded extraordinary power over the party's distribution of fundraising dollars as Majority Whip (and later Majority Leader), Abramoff was able to sell more access more profitably than anyone had ever seen.
It's perhaps not surprising that it was competing lobbyists who dropped the dime on him, leading to a four-year prison sentence.
What made Abramoff so successful? His colorful, charming personality and its ability to open doors? (His resume stretched from producing the 1989 Dolph Lundgren action flick "Red Scorpion" to running a D.C. restaurant catering to conservative tastes while serving "liberal" portions.)
A life history that seemed too vivid to be true? (He helped arrange a confab of right-wing guerillas in the African jungle, complete with a congratulatory letter from President Ronald Reagan.)
An agility at making like-minded friends? (Along the way Abramoff's path intersected with those of Republican Party figures on their way up -- Karl Rove, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist -- and down -- DeLay, Bob Ney.)
Most of all, it was his propensity to push the envelope when it came to political wheeling and dealing.
"He broke multiple sound barriers," Gibney said. "Everything he did was extreme, which was his great virtue from a filmmaker's perspective because you can see the rule by the exceptions. It was an exaggeration, I should say, of business-as-usual. Everybody else does it, he just did it bigger and more outlandishly than everybody else."
Abramoff's conservative ideology meshed with that of the GOP power brokers who ruled Congress beginning in 1994. But his downfall came after bilking Native American tribes of millions of dollars in fees, which he pocketed or passed on to other interests.
Abramoff ultimately pleaded guilty in 2006 to defrauding banks of $23 million stemming from the purchase of a casino cruise line in Florida. (A mob-style hit on the cruise line's owner didn't help, publicity-wise.)
He is currently nearing the end of a four-year prison sentence at a minimum-security prison camp in Cumberland, Md.
Gibney (left) found the story of Abramoff's rise and fall "wickedly funny."
"You think of these august corridors of power, and here he was funneling money from the government of Malaysia through a lifeguard in Rehoboth Beach in order to sell a meeting with the president for a million bucks," said Gibney (left). "You can't make that s**t up!"
Nor would you need to, with a political system that welcomes such characters with open palms.
An Act of Imagination
If I were a rich man,
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
All day long I'd biddy biddy bum
If I were a wealthy man.
Born in New Jersey and raised in Los Angeles (his father was president of Diners Club International), Abramoff displayed an early sign of his conservative ideology (and theatrical tendencies) when, at age 12, he was inspired to convert to Orthodox Judaism after watching the musical "Fiddler on the Roof."
A football player and wrestler in school, he became a leader of the College Republicans at a time when Ronald Reagan's ascendancy to the White House was a siren call for young conservatives. Together with Ralph Reed (who later became leader of the Christian Coalition) and future anti-tax guru Grover Norquist, Abramoff devised agitprop demonstrations against Communism, promoted the cause of "freedom fighters" in Central America, and preached the destruction of liberals using the colorful language of George C. Scott's "Patton" ("Spill their guts! Shoot them in the belly!").
When the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, Abramoff was ready.