A Washington lobbyist under federal investigation for his lobbying activities arranged a lavish overseas trip to the island of Saipan for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, over the New Year's holiday in 1997.
DeLay, his wife and daughter, and several aides, stayed for free at a beachfront resort.
The DeLay trip to the South Pacific island, originally reported by a "20/20" investigation, was part of an effort by former aide Jack Abramoff to stop legislation aimed at cracking down on sweatshops and sex shops in the American territory, which is known as the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Abramoff, who was working for the law firm Preston Gates Ellis and Rouvelas Meeds LLP at the time, was paid $1.36 million by Saipan officials and wrote in a memo obtained by ABC News that such congressional trips were "one of the most effective ways to build permanent friends on the Hill."
Abramoff is now under federal investigation for his lobbying activities, including Saipan, according to a source familiar with the investigation.
Andrew Blum, a spokesman for Abramoff's attorney, said on behalf of Abramoff that they did not comment on pending grand jury investigations.
Also, Blum defended Abramoff's lobbying efforts in Saipan, including DeLay's trip. "Any money paid to Preston Gates from the CNMI was for work that Mr. Abramoff and his team did on behalf of the CNMI during the course of their six-year representation," he said. "Rep. DeLay was one of over 100 members of Congress and their staff to visit the CNMI during that time.
After touring one garment plant, DeLay praised Saipan at the New Year's Eve party attended by top factory owners.
"You represent everything that is good about what we are trying to do in America," DeLay said at the time to his audience, which included Saipan officials and factory owners.
Later, according to a recording made by a human rights investigator posing as a potential customer, one of the prominent factory owners said that DeLay had promised to stop the reform laws.
"Do you know what Tom told me?" Willie Tan said. "He said, 'Willie, if they elect me majority whip, I make the schedule of the Congress, and I'm not going to put it on the schedule.' So Tom told me, 'Forget it, Willie. No chance.' "
At least three other DeLay free trips connected to Abramoff and other lobbyists have been coming under intense scrutiny. A 1997 trip to Moscow cost roughly $57,000, a trip to London and Scotland in the year 2000 cost $70,000, and a trip in 2001 to South Korea came to nearly $107,000.
Government watchdog groups found DeLay's trips to be troubling.
"There appears to be a pattern here of foreign travel being improperly paid for and that needs to be investigated by the House ethics committee," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21.
Blum said it was a worthwhile, common practice in Washington for lobbyists to accompany the congressmen on such trips.
"The tradition of lobbyists traveling with members of Congress to visit various jurisdictions so that they could learn about issues that impact the Congress and government policy is well known," he said. "Mr. Abramoff once again is being singled out by the media for actions that are commonplace in Washington, D.C., and are totally proper," he said.
A representative for DeLay said that under disclosure rules, because the Saipan government funded his trip, DeLay did not have to include it on his financial disclosure statements.