“The festival was over and the boys were all planning for a fall.
The cabaret was quiet except for the drilling in the wall.
The curfew had been lifted and the gambling wheel shut down.
Anyone with any sense had already left town.
He was standing in the doorway looking like the Jack of Hearts.“
Part of the problem is Casino Jack is a maddeningly mercurial sort — and unlike the recently-released Ney, the soon to trial DeLay, chastened aide Neil Volz, and others, he and “Gimme Five” kickback co-conspirator Michael Scanlon choose not to go on the record here. So, right away, there is a cipher at the center of this ostensibly biographical story. And even more problematic for the film’s narrative and structure: Casino Jack had his fingers in a lot of pies, and if there was any way to game the political system somehow to make money, he was on the case. In short, this is one long, twisted, and convoluted story.
And thus, Gibney is left with the ungainly task of trying to explain how Abramoff turned Northern Marianas sweatshops into a bribe farm for GOP congressmen, and how his shady, playing-both-sides kickback operation gamed Native American casinos. Not to mention how his phantom think-tank on the Delaware coast was in fact a money-laundering outfit. Or how the seemingly Mob-connected takeover of a fleet of Suncruz casino ships — and the murder of its former owner — went down. And, amidst all this, how Abramoff managed to move up the GOP food chain by throwing his money around, and was depressingly successful at it. This is all not even withstanding weird tangents like Red Scorpion. So, while Gibney does an admirable job explaining the details of these various operations, he has to jump through so many hoops to get it all down that the Big Picture often gets lost.
I’m probably being a little too hard on this doc, if only because I went in with very high expectations. I was hoping Casino Jack would be more of a concise and devastating prosecutorial brief about the plague of unfettered money in politics, but it’s more broad and meandering than that. (And, to be fair, whenever you take a subject this broad, there will be some meandering — See also Why We Fight.) Still, as I said, even if the high-level connections aren’t quite nailed down, Gibney does a good job of nailing the specifics of each particular grift — the sweatshops and casinos and whatnot. And, coming across with the nerdy charm of a more buttoned-down, politically-minded version of R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, author and ex-Republican Thomas Frank (The Wrecking Crew, What’s the Matter with Kansas) is an appealing interviewee throughout, and he enlivens the discussion considerably.
Speaking of Frank’s ex-GOP years: If you already knew the contours of this Abramoff story (and I suspect most of the people who bother to see this film will), perhaps the most interesting part of Casino Jack is the first half-hour, which chronicles the old College Republican days of friends Abramoff, Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed. And from Reed’s penchant for outlandish stunts at campus protests, to Norquist’s unabashed admiration for Leninist tactics, to Abramoff et al’s abortive attempt to engage the Third World in their free-market fundie ways, it’s seem as if the young Reagan Right of the ’80s were mainly just a cracked-funhouse-mirror version of the ’60’s New Left they so despise. (This is also in keeping with what you might expect from books like Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm, about the ’64 Goldwater campaign.)
Still, as we move into the present day and these young conservatives fan out into the political system, Casino Jack and the United States of Money unfortunately gets its overarching message muddled. Is this movie about the former (Abramoff) or the latter (the U.S.M.)? Is Casino Jack a uniquely well-connected criminal mastermind, or, worse, the clearest expression of a political system overwhelmed by cold, hard cash? It’s true the answer to this question may just be “yes,” but the documentary can’t seem to decide at times if it wants to skewer Abramoff (and, by extension, his “unindicted co-conspirators”) or catch bigger game — the whole rotten system — and as a result, both sorta end up writhing off the hook.
At one point, Casino Jack gets caught up recounting the exceptionally douchey e-mail traffic between Abramoff and Scanlon, which is fun and all. (The best laugh in the movie is when the beach bum lifeguard running their Delaware front operation turns out to be savvier than these two would-be Masters of the Universe: “Uh, you’ve been putting this all in e-mails?”) But, even as we delve into these sordid details, the scarier implications of the Abramoff story feel shortchanged — that not only does this pay-to-play stuff seem business as usual for the Dubya White House and DeLay ring, but worse, that this monied corruption festering at the heart of our republic is both legal and even institutionalized.
And so, when the Citizens United fiasco comes up at the end, it unfortunately feels like a bit of a non-sequitur, rather than the sad culmination of the story we’ve been told for two hours. Casino Jack and the United States of Money is an able attempt at muckraking, but, to my mind, it fails to capture the true horror unfolding here: Jack Abramoff may be languishing in prison right now, and for many, many good reasons. But the mess of a system he thrived in is still right here with us — and if anything, after Citizens United, it might soon be getting worse.
It played its part against the Barksdale operation in Baltimore. Now it seems an undercover wire may have helped bring down GOP rep and Abramoff flunky Bob Ney. “‘Heaton’s substantial assistance in the investigation and prosecution of Ney was critical to Ney’s decision to admit his involvement in the corrupt relationship with Abramoff,’ Butler wrote. ‘The tapes made by Heaton captured important circumstantial evidence that statements Ney had made to others about matters material to the investigation were false or intentionally misleading.’“
“‘Whether or not you’ve served your constituents well, on some level you have seriously betrayed the public’s trust and abused your power as a congressman,’ Huvelle told Ney. ‘You have a long way to go to make amends for what’s happened.'” Casino Jack flunky and former House GOP poobah Bob Ney gets thirty months in prison for his role in Abramoff’s operation. Ney, meanwhile, is still blaming it on the booze: ““I will continue to take full responsibility for my actions and battle the demons of addiction.” Um, at what point between opening the beer and it touching your lips did taking bribes enter the equation? Save that stuff for Oprah…Most people hopefully realize that Ney’s corruption had less to do with the demon rum than with standard operating procedure under Boss DeLay and the Republicans.
Federal prosecutors build out their case against Bob Ney, and disclose that the disgraced former GOP rep had possibly shady dealings with Abramoff and DeLay’s Russian connections at Naftasib. “Abramoff’s lobbying team got the congressman to intervene with the U.S. Consulate in Moscow to help resolve a passport issue for the daughter of Abramoff client Alexander Koulakovsky, the e-mails show…A charity sponsored by DeLay received a $1 million check from a London law firm linked to the two. Former charity officials told The Washington Post last year the donation originated with Russian oil and gas executives, and was intended to influence DeLay’s vote on an issue affecting the Russian economy.“
Remember when Boehner and the GOP banked on their widespread corruption not playing on Election Day? Well, they chose poorly. Among the many seats lost by the GOP last night were those of Abramoff flunkies Conrad Burns, Richard Pombo, and Bob Ney, notorious friend-of-pages Mark Foley, the recently-FBI-implicated Curt Weldon, mistress-beater Don Sherwood, and the fatcat architect of it all, Boss DeLay. (Surviving the corruption purge: the Foley-connected Tom Reynolds, Duke Cunningham‘s replacement, Brian Bilbray, and — though a runoff hopefully won’t shake his way — corrupt Dem William Jefferson.)
A new minority staff report by the Senate Finance Committee concludes that “[f]ive conservative nonprofit organizations, including one run by prominent Republican Grover Norquist, ‘appear to have perpetrated a fraud’ on taxpayers by selling their clout to lobbyist Jack Abramoff.” Among the organizations called out are Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform and the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (sheah), an outfit created by Norquist and former Dubya Interior Secretary Gail Norton, whose office was already waist-deep in ill-gotten Casino Jack loot. (In fact, Abramoff’s point person in Norton’s office was CREA’s president, Italia Federici.)
Update: In related news, Abramoff flunky Bob Ney pleaded guilty today to conspiracy and making false statements (without, mind you, resigning his seat in Congress.) While he didn’t speak with reporters, Ney’s written statement noted that the “treatment and counseling I have started have been very helpful, but I know that I am not done yet and that I have more work to do to deal with my alcohol dependency.” Ok, one more time, people. Alcoholism means you drink too much. It does not mean that you bilk the public, indulge in bribes, or send teenagers dirty IMs.
“Sen. Conrad Burns gazed at a debate audience and asked if anyone could guess who was blocking efforts in Washington to control health-care costs. ‘Abramoff?’ shouted a heckler.” Taking a look at the Montana Senate Race, the Post argues that the Casino Jack scandals still aren’t making much of a dent in the midterm elections. Nevertheless, the case continues to play out in official Washington: After agreeing to plead guilty last Friday to corruption charges stemming from the Abramoff investigation, the GOP’s Bob Ney — recently the recipient of a Republican standing O for his flouting of the law — is forced to give up his House chairmanships. Ney hasn’t given up his seat yet, but either way, he’s out in November.
Oof, it’s been a bad 24 hours for Casino Jack’s cronies in the House. With the public in an increasingly unforgiving mood towards congressional incumbents, GOP fave and Abramoff flunky Bob Ney drops out of his Ohio House race. And, one day after losing a bid to get his name off the ballot in Sugar Land, Boss DeLay announces he’ll step aside for a write-in candidate. Update: It appears Ney’s leaving will cause some ballot trouble as well for the GOP.
“In the fall of 2004, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) told Senate investigators that he was unfamiliar with a Texas Indian tribe represented by lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Days later, evidence emerged that the congressman had held numerous discussions with Abramoff and the Indians about getting Congress to reopen their shuttered casino.” A new Senate report on tribal lobbying catches Abramoff flunky Bob Ney in a lie. Hmmm. Hopefully, that’ll cut into his GOP standing O next time ’round.
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