WASHINGTON – Fallen lobbyist Jack Abramoff may be persona non grata in official Washington, but plenty of his friends in the outside world are singing his praises in an effort to spare him prison time.
More than 260 people — including rabbis, military officers, a professional hockey referee, a congressman and a U.S. territorial governor — all wrote letters asking a federal judge for leniency when Abramoff is sentenced on fraud charges Wednesday in Florida.
Their letters, obtained by The Associated Press, put a new spin on the foibles and crimes of a man who became the face of Washington's latest corruption scandal.
The former Republican superlobbyist may have fleeced clients, like Indian tribes, of millions of dollars, but Abramoff often donated half or more his income each year to charities and community projects, religious leaders told the court.
Abramoff was "driven in a material world yet sought to find some balance and channel his considerable energy and creativity for a more noble purpose," Rabbi Kalman Winter wrote U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck, who will sentence the lobbyist in the Florida case.
Though auditors in the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands questioned his lobbying expenses as excessive, Abramoff was a "personal friend and political champion" of the "beleaguered" Pacific islands, its current governor wrote.
"He was a natural crusader and political activist, with great sympathy for our un-represented Commonwealth," Marianas Gov. Benigno R. Fitial wrote in a letter penned on official government stationery.
The Marianas, famous for their low-paying garment factories, hired Abramoff to keep the islands' workers exempt from U.S. laws like the minimum wage.
Others argued that Abramoff's glitzy capital restaurant, Signatures, wasn't just for wining and dining lawmakers for free or hosting political fundraisers. It also was a place where Abramoff gave free meals and advice to friends down on their luck.
"Jack was the kind of person who would offer his guest a glass of water if a server wasn't around to do so," friend Monty Warner wrote, noting Abramoff always picked up the check.
"They were to discuss someone who need Jack's help with a mortgage payment or someone's needing a new job to keep their career afloat, or to work through issues they might have been having with their spouse that they wanted Jack's advice in working out," Warner wrote.
Abramoff and a former colleague each face prison sentences of just more than seven years when they are sentenced Wednesday. Abramoff faces separate prison time in a corruption case in Washington. He is cooperating with prosecutors investigating possible corruption in Congress and the Bush administration.
The letters, which ask the judge for lowest possible sentence, also were a reminder of how far Abramoff has fallen from Washington's graces.
Once nearly omnipresent on Capitol Hill, where he doled out political donations and lent his restaurant to lawmakers for fundraisers, Abramoff got just a single letter of support from a member of Congress — his longtime friend Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.
"Over many years, I've known a far different Jack that the profit-seeking megalomaniac portrayed in the press," Rohrabacher wrote. "Jack was a selfless patriot for most of the time I knew him."
In an interview Rohrabacher said he took a risk others in Congress wouldn't — writing the letter — because he didn't want Abramoff's many accomplishments to be lost among his crimes.
"All I can say is that Jack was a good friend, and even your good friends at times do wrong things and he's admitted that and has to pay the price for that. But that doesn't mean that you abandon him because he's made wrong choices in his life," the lawmaker said.
A former top Republican official in California's Assembly, Steve Baldwin, and two military officers were the others with government connections willing to attach their names to letters praising Abramoff.
Air Force Capt. Andrew Cohen, a chaplain, wrote the court about Abramoff's generosity in taking in Cohen's family of seven for several weeks last year when the military family couldn't find housing.
Cohen wrote that Abramoff was a complete stranger and his act of generosity arose from "humanitarian considerations" and a "sense of national service and duty to assist a service member and his family."
Army Reserve Capt. Michael Young told the court that Abramoff cared for his family during a lengthy deployment to Afghanistan, crediting the Abramoff household with providing "emotional support for my wife and children during this mission."
The letters from average citizens were strewn with references to Abramoff's generosity, like the time the lobbyist gave $10,000 to a rabbi "overwhelmed by medical bills" or the countless times he took children to professional sports games to teach them sportsmanship.
"Jack is a good person, who in his quest to be unsuccessful, lost sight of the rules," National Hockey League referee Dave Jackson wrote, describing the time Abramoff brought 14 kids to his dressing room before a game.