WASHINGTON – Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., came to the defense of disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff on Monday, saying he's a good person who's been unjustly criticized.
"They're portraying Jack as a monster. I see him more as a good person who's done bad things and has to be punished for doing bad things," Rohrabacher, a longtime friend of Abramoff, said in a phone interview.
"I think that he obviously has done some things that are wrong and illegal and he's going to have to pay the price for it," Rohrabacher said. "I think that a lot of other things that have been characterized as corruption on the part of Abramoff are actually standard operating procedures for lobbying in Washington, D.C. — arranging trips and things like that.
"So I think that he's received a lot of unjust criticism."
Abramoff pleaded guilty last week to federal conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud charges. He has agreed to tell the FBI about alleged bribes to as many as 20 members of Congress and aides.
The investigation, which helped force Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to step down as House majority leader and is sparking lobbying reforms on Capitol Hill, has left Abramoff scant defenders on Capitol Hill.
"I'm certainly not going to kick a friend in the teeth when he's down," said Rohrabacher.
Rohrabacher said he has not been contacted by prosecutors in the probe, and said Abramoff never tried to bribe him. Still, he said he's planning to return $3,000 in campaign cash he got from the ex-lobbyist, and he's also willing to return some $4,500 he got from Indian tribes that Abramoff represented, if the tribes want the money back.
The two men met when Rohrabacher was a speechwriter in the Reagan White House and Abramoff was chairman of College Republicans.
Rohrabacher visited the Northern Mariana Islands on a trip Abramoff arranged while representing the commonwealth, and the congressman's name has surfaced repeatedly in billing papers Abramoff and members of his then-firm, Preston Gates & Ellis, submitted to commonwealth officials in the last half of the 1990s. The Pacific islands' public auditors later questioned some of the charges.
Rohrabacher also dined at Abramoff's restaurant, Signatures, and agreed to be listed as a personal reference when Abramoff sought a $60 million loan to purchase a fleet of casino boats in Florida.
Rohrabacher, a nine-term House member, said he doesn't regret his association with Abramoff or helping him with the loan.
"There was no reason at that time, when Jack needed a personal reference, for me to think that he was anything but a fine upstanding person who I knew," he said.
Rohrabacher also contended Abramoff's clients got good value from him — despite the lobbyist's admission that he conspired to defraud Indian tribes
"It's being presented as he didn't provide any service. It was just the opposite," Rohrabacher said.
"He was a professional political maneuverer par excellence, and he did everything he could for his clients."