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In a hallway beneath Verizon Center, there’s a quaint relic of the most scandalous intersection of this town’s fave pastimes—sports and politics—we’ve yet seen. Just off the arena floor, under the seats of Section 108, sits a row of ornate lockers with metal plaques attached to the door of each to identify its user. Judging by the engraved names toward the end of the row, the section closest to the court is reserved for only the heaviest hitters who conduct business in the building.
There’s abe pollin. And ted leonsis. And jack abramoff.
Yup, the same Jack Abramoff. Given his local pariah status—a meeting of everybody still willing to admit to ever knowing the guy could probably be held in the locker—and how his name has become synonymous with something bigger and more evil than one man could possibly be, the sight of the plaque in such a luxe setting is spooky and probably akin to what the sight of the Enron Field marquee did to Houstonians after the stock bubble burst.
“I’m surprised Jack Abramoff’s locker is still there,” says Daniel Weiss, who as chief of staff for Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) had been chronicling Abramoff’s lobbying activity for over a decade by the time of his downfall. “That’s just incredible. But maybe it’s a living memorial to the corruption that took place in the building.”
Abramoff, who has been busy of late making appearances at the sort of court where basketball isn’t played, won’t be using the Verizon Center locker in the near future. He pleaded guilty in federal court in January to several counts of fraud, conspiracy, tax evasion, and corruption charges related to his lobbying for Indian casinos and other interests; he was sentenced to six years in jail. In announcing Abramoff’s plea, the Department of Justice said he had used “tickets to sporting events and other entertainment” as carrots while throwing what turned out to be illegal fundraisers. He was scheduled to start serving his sentence last week but got a temporary reprieve while he cooperates with federal authorities on related criminal investigations.
Many of the shindigs were held in the building formerly known as MCI Center (it became Verizon Center in March). For several years, he leased a luxury box in the arena, which gave him entree to every event held there, and also had two courtside season tickets for Wizards games.
According to Verizon Center management, among the perks associated with these top-tier tickets is access to the Johnnie Walker Club, a bar outside the players’ dressing rooms, and use of the lockers in the subterranean hallways.
“On their way from the court to that lounge, it’s a place they can put their coat and their briefcase,” says Matt Williams, spokesperson for Abe Pollin and Washington Sports and Entertainment, the corporate owner of the arena and the Wizards.
Abramoff’s name, Williams says, is still attached to the locker because he is still its rightful lessee. He’s apparently no longer in control of the skybox, but despite the legal shenanigans, Abramoff somehow managed to renew his Wizards season tickets for the 2005–2006 season.
“That place was very important to Abramoff’s operation,” says Judd Legum, research director for the Center for American Progress, a D.C.-based think tank that has pushed for lobbying reform in the wake of the Abramoff scandal. “If you look at the lawmakers who are wrapped up in this thing, many used that skybox. They found that the box was a way to gain favor with lawmakers.”
Legum, who has compiled a long list of Republican congressmen who used Abramoff’s MCI Center box for fundraising, says arena management abetted lobbyists by putting phony face values on tickets. Federal law at the time banned lawmakers from accepting gifts in excess of $50. Although skybox leases could run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, after the arena opened in 1997, tickets to sit in the pricey suites showed a face value of just $49.50. In direct mailings to potential season ticketholders for the Wizards, Pollin pointed out what great and legal gifts the top tickets would make for lawmakers.
“These tickets fit right in the gift ban of $50, even though you’re sitting in the luxury skybox,” says Legum. “That’s the way all these stadiums work, and that’s why they build these new arenas with so many skyboxes.”
Abramoff’s other sports-related scams included an organization called the Capital Athletic Foundation, which was advertised as a youth charity but according to investigators ended up being used to funnel money to causes that were wholly nonathletic (except to those who consider casino gambling a sport). And at the height of his lobbying career, he also had two skyboxes at FedEx Field and another suite at Camden Yards.
But, of all Abramoff’s sports holdings, all that remains is the locker with his name on it. Weiss says that any reminder of Abramoff leaves him peeved. But, he says, maybe the plaque serves a better purpose if it stays up.
“My gut reaction when I saw that was that there should be police tape covering his name,” says Weiss of the arena locker, which he happened upon in January. “But now, with everything we learned about how he used the MCI Center to achieve his goals, how high a profile he had at that stadium, how this was where he was hitting on all cylinders, I think that locker puts it all in perspective. There, he was a man at the top of his game, and his game was corruption. Now, he’s going to jail. He’s going to be playing a new game.”
Calls to Abbe Lowell, Abramoff’s attorney, were not returned.
Williams says he doesn’t know whether Abramoff will renew his Wizards season tickets for 2006–2007, which would allow him to keep the locker. “A lot of people want those seats,” Williams says.