Beltway insiders are enthralled with the saga of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose activities involving Indian tribes he represented are the subject of a Justice Dept. task force investigation (see BW Online, 4/22/05, "'Fear and Loathing' Among the GOP"). Abramoff has close ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), which adds to the intrigue.
But Abramoff's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, has seen it all before. He makes his living coping with scandal. Lowell has defended some of the biggest names in Washington, including Representative Gary Condit (D-Calif.), who balked at cooperating with a police probe of the disappearance and death of an aide. He also represented House Democrats who defended Bill Clinton during the 1998-99 impeachment proceedings.
Lowell is regarded as a dogged litigator with a reputation for defending clients against enormous odds. Born in New York City borough of the Bronx, he grew up believing that lawyers have an obligation to help balance the power of the individual against the government. He met Abramoff through his charitable work in Washington's Jewish community, where both men are active.
Recently, Lowell talked to BusinessWeek's Lorraine Woellert. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:
Q: Folks on Capitol Hill are shaking in their boots. Are you scaring people?
A: Why do I have all of them shaking in their boots? Why would people remotely assume that that's remotely helpful to Jack? It's odd that people think that Jack Abramoff would be helped by the deluge of public information.
Q: You're one of a small number of lawyers who function as well in the political arena as you do in the courtroom. In a high-profile case like Abramoff's, how important are the events outside the courtroom?
A: A lawyer's first responsibility is to protect his or her client's legal position. Everything else comes second. There's no victory in winning some PR battle if your client goes to jail. But you have to realize that there's a complex mix between how all those component parts work. What the press says, what the Congress says, what the public thinks does affect the client's legal position sometimes. You try to see if there's a strategy that works on all fronts.
Q: How does a client like Abramoff get a fair hearing in Congress?
A: Congress isn't immune to excess or latching on to the scandal du jour. You can only hope that Congress will do the right thing, and sometimes, in the interests of your client, you have to risk somebody in Congress not liking you as much the day after.
Q: How do you handle the media blitz?
A: Sometimes a matter of public interest -- Jack Abramoff, the impeachment, former Congressman Condit -- gets so overwhelming that you're like that little boy putting his various fingers and toes in the dike. You're able to accomplish little more than that. At some point you sort of give up trying.... The Abramoff case has become like standing in the middle of a tsunami with an umbrella.
Q: In the Abramoff case, you have outside public relations firms helping with damage control. How do you turn the press attention into an advantage?
A: People just have to be absolutely truthful. The press has to know that if you say something they can bank on it. You can't be mesmerized by the press or intimidated or fawning. The most fundamental thing is to be honest.