By Annette Hinkle
In his 2010 documentary, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” filmmaker Alex Gibney tells the tale of Washington scandal and corruption in what many would describe simply as “politics as usual.”
The film documents the rise and fall of powerful lobbyist Jack Abramoff and details his cozy relationship with congressional leaders as well as his bilking of millions of dollars from casino owning Indian tribes for whom he worked. When all was said and done, Abramoff was found to be at the center of a massive corruption scandal and in 2006 was convicted for fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion. He was also found guilty of trading pricey gifts, trips and meals for political favors. Abramoff was released from prison just last month, after serving more than three years of a six year sentence.
But Abramoff wasn’t the only Washington insider to go down as a result of the scandal. Two White House officials, Ohio Congressman Bob Ney and nine other lobbyists and congressional staffers also did time. In 2005, former house majority leader Tom DeLay, another Abramoff associate, was forced to step aside after being indicted on money laundering and conspiracy charges. He resigned from Congress the next year and this past November, was convicted of funneling corporate money to help elect GOP candidates to the Texas Legislature. He’s now appealing that decision.
Those interested in getting a first hand look at how someone like Abramoff could rise to such power in Washington will have a chance to see Gibney’s documentary (not to be confused with “Casino Jack” the new dramatic film based on Abramoff that’s just hitting theaters now) in a screening at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor this Saturday. The film will be followed by a discussion on the issues of money and politics led by Sag Harbor’s Dr. Michael T. Clarjen-Arconada with Congressman Tim Bishop and other elected officials taking part.
“We want to start the community discussion with the pertinent issues — which are full transparency in government at the federal, state, county, town and village level, and what can we do to promote campaign reform,” explains Dr. Clarjen-Arconada.
The screening is one of many being held in communities around the country in conjunction with the film and is sponsored by Fix Congress First (fixcongressfirst.org) and Sunlight Foundation (sunlightfoundation.com), two nonpartisan organizations concerned about the influence of special interest groups on government. Their primary missions are to protect the independence of Congress by fighting the influence of money in politics and making government more open and accountable to the public it serves.
While the movie documents the nefarious activity of one of Washington’s most infamous lobbyists and the beneficiaries of his activities, the discussion afterwards will really focus on the political workings that allows figures like Abramoff to gain power in the first place. It’s a system that many people, including Dr. Clarjen-Arconada, say needs fixing through grassroots involvement.
“His is one single case that was prominent in that he got caught,” says Dr. Clarjen-Arconada. “To be fair, one has to realize there are many problems in the system, which allowed Jack to operate that way in the first place, and it was politics as usual — the behind doors kind of scheming.”
“The culture that gave rise to the Abramoffs of the world, and gave them the latitude to gain the power and influence they did, is really at the center of the event,” notes Dr. Clarjen-Arconada. “The idea of campaign contributions for legislation is a system that allowed him to flourish.”
Dr. Clarjen-Arconada explains that with the event, the sponsoring organizations are hoping to invite discussion about the fundamental issues they say affect American democracy at all levels of government — “the pervasive-corruptive influence of money in politics and the need to find a lasting solution to this problem.”
“I think the problem is the system. Politics as usual is corrupting the entire process,” explains Dr. Clarjen-Arconada. “We need to become involved and be part of the solution.”
While it feels like a distinctly American way of life, Dr. Clarjen-Arconada does not see the issue of politics and money as a problem unique to the U.S. In fact, he spends a lot of time in Europe working with governmental systems there and believes corruption is a worldwide and deeply interconnected phenomenon.
“My feeling is money has always been the main interest in politics. It’s been behind movements, guiding the politicians —and the politicians addiction to those sources of funding has held us hostage,” says Dr. Clarjen-Arconada. “It’s all about the influence of money and that it has been the guiding force in politics.”
Though it also seems as if scandals have gotten bigger and bolder in recent years, Dr. Clarjen-Arconada doesn’t think this is the case. The one thing that has changed, however, is technology, and people’s access to information about these scandals.
“It’s not that the problems are new, it’s that the advent of the Internet has brought them to the fore,” he says, adding that this is also where groups like Sunlight Foundation feel the solution lies in that technology can be used to make government more transparent, allowing it to share information with the public.
“With telecommunications, including the Internet, we now have the opportunity to be aware and discuss the issues and to do something about it,” says Dr. Clarjen-Arconada. “The advent of the Internet is part of the unique situation we are in now. It’s time to bring this to the community.”
The screening and discussion in Sag Harbor comes at a meaningful time, as this month marks the one-year anniversary of Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money on independent political broadcasts in elections.
“With the decision in Citizens United, it opened again the gates for these possible abuses to be widespread,” says Dr. Clarjen-Arconada. “It’s a very salient issue and pushes it to the fore. When candidates get donations, they are fully aware of depending on those funding sources. Then they get addicted to these sources, to this cause, and spend most of their time trying to find sources to get re-elected rather than on the issues.
When asked what he sees as a solution to these issues, Dr. Clarjen-Arconada responds: “What seems to be needed is an amendment to the Constitution to guarantee equal funding for all qualified candidates through public funding. Then perhaps candidates can raise small individual donations, maybe up to $100.”
“This is the kind of reform that is being talked about. Then we could bring the same tools to the local level,” he adds. “A group of community activists with initiatives can assert significant pressure at local levels. We could replicate these kinds of discussions and put pressure on elected officials. That’s a way to reform. It’s an uphill battle and we need to start it.”
“It would be wonderful to see that happen here and lead the way to full transparency,” says Dr. Clarjen-Arconada. “It would be a great outcome and we can say, “We have a dream.’”
“Casino Jack and the United States of Money” (rated R) will be screened at 3 p.m. on Saturday, January 28 at Bay Street Theatre, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor. Doors open at 2:30 p.m. and admission is free. A community discussion of the issues with Congressman Tim Bishop follows.