Jack Abramoff's new job: Selling pizza, not influence

Convicted lobbyist hired to work in marketing for Reisterstown Road pizza shop.

June 22, 2010|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

Convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, still serving a sentence for defrauding clients and conspiring to bribe public officials, has a new job: He's selling pizzas in Baltimore rather than influence in Washington.

Abramoff, recently released from a federal prison camp in Cumberland to a halfway house in Baltimore, began working Monday at Tov Pizza on Reisterstown Road.

"I think people get a second chance," said Ron Rosenbluth, owner of the shop, which boasts of the city's best kosher pizza — which means lots of veggie options but no meat. "If they do their time, they deserve a chance."

Abramoff's job, first reported by the Baltimore Jewish Times, will involve marketing, Rosenbluth said, "to get us more business."

That, in effect, was what he used to do as a high-powered, $750-an-hour lobbyist, until his spectacular downfall. He was convicted on a range of charges, including conspiracy to bribe lawmakers with gifts, travel and meals at his pricey restaurant, Signatures, on Pennsylvania Avenue, and essentially became the face of the so-called "culture of corruption" in Washington. His subsequent cooperation with federal authorities helped bring down, among others, U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican, and aides to then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

He was sentenced in November 2006 to almost six years in prison and sent to a federal prison camp in Cumberland. On June 9, he was released to a halfway house on East Monument Street in Baltimore, where he was expected to remain until Dec. 4.

Instead, he was released after just a couple of days, with other residents being told he was going home for the weekend for religious reasons. Abramoff is an Orthodox Jew. Residents expected he would return Sunday, after the Jewish Sabbath, but instead were told Abramoff would serve the remainder of his sentence on home detention, according to a woman whose husband is currently living at the house.

Officials with the halfway house and the federal prisons bureau said Abramoff's brief stopover on Monument Street is not unusual. "We have individuals that go directly home without spending a single night," said Bill Cimino, community corrections manager for the Bureau of Prisons.

Cimino said Abramoff is required to report to the halfway house several times a week to attend classes and perform other requirements, such as drug testing or programs, that are part of the conditions of his transition plan.

"He is still serving his sentence," Cimino said.

Abramoff, 51, qualified for home detention because he has gainful employment and a residence that passed an agency inspection. Cimino would not say if Abramoff is living at the Silver Spring home that was his residence at the time of his conviction.

Gretchen Crosland, a vice president at the nonprofit Volunteers of America Chesapeake, which operates the halfway house, said the decision to release Abramoff was made jointly with the prisons bureau.

"He's not the only one, or the first one, to leave within a day or two," she said. "We will look at the gentleman's background. We're responsible for these individuals who are out in the community, whether that person can be trusted."

Rosenbluth would not disclose Abramoff's salary but said he "punches in and punches out" like any of the other 18 or so employees there. He expects the former lobbyist to work 40 hours a week, or close to it.

Over the course of Tov Pizza's 26 years in operation, Rosenbluth said, he has "hired a lot of people" out of the federal prison system, estimating the number at about 40 employees. Speaking from the restaurant Tuesday afternoon, Rosenbluth said Abramoff was there at the time but could not be interviewed because he was still under prison supervision.

Rosenbluth said someone he knows told him that Abramoff would need to find a job as part of his release from prison. He interviewed Abramoff, found him to be "a regular guy … like 100 other people I know," and decided to hire him. Rosenbluth said he didn't know much about the lobbying scandal that felled Abramoff, but believes he's served his time.

"So much that has happened since then," Rosenbluth said. "He didn't know what an iPad was."

The Monument Street halfway house that Abramoff breezed through has had its share of infamous residents in the past, including another lobbyist, State House mainstay Bruce Bereano. He spent five months there in 1999 as part of a sentence for mail fraud, sleeping at the house at night even as he continued lobbying legislators in Annapolis during the day.

Abramoff's other Maryland connections include founding a junior-senior high school called Eshkol in Montgomery County in 2002, moving it the following year to an office park in Columbia. But the school had constant financial problems that, coupled with Abramoff's escalating legal ones stemming from the federal investigation into his lobbying practices, led to its closure.

After Abramoff entered guilty pleas in his case, Maryland politicians joined elected officials from coast to coast in returning or giving to charity the campaign contributions they had received from the lobbyist or his clients. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, for example, who had received $5,000 from Native American tribes that were clients of Abramoff, donated that amount to the American Indian College Fund charity.

Then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., currently running for his old job, returned the $16,000 he had received from Abramoff and his wife, even as he stuck with his deputy chief of staff, Edward B. Miller, who had founded a firm that was suspected of laundering money for Abramoff. Miller, who sold the company a few weeks after joining the Ehrlich administration, was questioned by investigators but not charged in the Abramoff case.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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