In his mid-20s, Abramoff set out to spread the Reagan Doctrine. He became executive director of Citizens for America, Reagan's grass-roots lobbying group.
With Republicans out of power in the early 1990s, Abramoff took a break from full-time politics and returned to his West Coast roots. He spent 10 years as a movie producer and made several B-grade films, including 1989's anti-communist romp "Red Scorpion."
In business and in politics, "he was always the consummate entrepreneur," said Marshall Wittmann, a former conservative activist who knew Abramoff during his rise to power and who is now a fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
Abramoff was drawn back into politics in 1994 when the GOP takeover of Congress created opportunities for a talented rainmaker. Washington was full of new GOP lawmakers, and lobbying firms were desperate for people with Republican contacts. With his old friends suddenly in high places and his ticket already punched as a Reagan devotee, Abramoff was in demand almost overnight. He soon acquired a list of top-drawer clients -- Unisys Corp., Tyco International and the government of the Northern Mariana Islands, a remote Pacific commonwealth that lawmakers were eyeing for additional federal regulation.
Abramoff became a bona fide high roller. He bought a majority stake in Signatures, a high-end restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Capitol Hill that was a hot spot for Republican lobbyists, members of Congress and political fundraisers. GOP lawmakers filled his private skyboxes at Redskin, Oriole and Wizard games.
He also showed an interest in charitable organizations. Concerned about the quality of Jewish education in the Washington area, he founded an Orthodox school and sent two of his children there.
A charitable organization he founded, the Capital Athletic Foundation, figures in the charges to which Abramoff entered guilty pleas Tuesday. Prosecutors said he induced a wireless telephone company to make $50,000 in payments to the foundation rather than pay a lobbying fee to the firm Abramoff worked for.
His most lucrative clients, though, were the Indian casino tribes he began to represent in the mid-1990s. Prosecutors say Abramoff and a partner conspired to defraud some of those tribes in five states, reaping millions of dollars from the scheme.
"Can you smell money?!" Abramoff wrote to his partner Michael P.S. Scanlon, a public relations consultant and former DeLay spokesman, regarding an Indian tribe rich with gambling casino profits. Scanlon recently pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges.
Abramoff at one point disparaged some of the tribal members who had made him rich, calling them "troglodytes" and "plain stupid ... Morons."
Last year, Abramoff was forced to listen to those words in a hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. "Why would you want to work for people that you have that much contempt for?" one senator asked.
On the advice of his lawyer, Abramoff did not respond.
Fiore reported from Washington and Groves from Santa Monica.