The confession was made at the National Press Club on the evening of March 5 where Abramoff, who went to prison for three and a half years for defrauding tribes of millions of dollars during his time as a lobbyist in the late 1990s and early 2000s, joined a panel discussion on campaign finance reform. Moderators set the stage early for a possible confrontation, telling the packed audience that some tribal leaders were in attendance, including Rick Hill, former chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association and the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin; and Jay St. Goddard, chairman of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council.
Anyone hoping to see Abramoff receive a smackdown from the tribal leaders was disappointed—but one tribal lobbyist did land a punch, by highlighting Abramoff’s current and past coziness with the mainstream media. Tom Rodgers, a Blackfeet lobbyist with Carlyle Consulting, patiently waited for his turn during the question-and-answer part of the program, and when he finally got the microphone, Rodgers framed his query by noting that Abramoff had once said a bevy of racist things about his former Indian clients. E-mails uncovered during the U.S. Senate investigation of Abramoff led by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, in the early-2000s showed he had referred to his Native American clients as “retards,” “morons,” “monkeys,” “idiots” and “troglodytes.” Abramoff’s firm, Rodgers pointed out, also took life insurance policies out on elder Indians and used those payouts to help fund some of their activities.
Instead of requesting an apology from Abramoff, Rodgers surprised the crowd by asking if the former lobbyist and his team had tried to buy or bribe any mainstream reporters to write favorably about his clients. It had already been detailed in 2005 by Bloomberg and other news outlets that Abramoff’s firm paid to influence op-ed writers, and he confirmed that in his response to Rodgers’ question: “To try to get our clients’ stories out, we would go to writers—mainly think-tank folks—to write op-ed pieces and try to get our op-ed pieces placed to promote our side.”