Abramoff’s Heirs Lack His Clout When It Comes to Island Territory

By Marcus Baram

Dec 14, 2007 2:09pm

It’s not easy to step into Jack Abramoff’s tasseled loafers. Some of Washington’s highest-powered lobbyists and publicists obviously don’t have the same juice as the jailed superflack when it comes to looking out for the interests of a Pacific island territory notorious for its low wages and sweatshops. The House passed legislation this past Tuesday that extends immigration law and creates a federally-run guest-worker program in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) despite the best efforts of former White House spokesman Trent Duffy and lobbyists Bill Oldaker and Eric Schwerin. "Jack Abramoff is in prison, and Tom DeLay has resigned in disgrace," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a longtime proponent of the bill. "When we pass this bill by an overwhelming margin today, it will send a strong statement that the U.S. House is finally rid of the Abramoff/DeLay axis." The island territory infamously paid Abramoff $6.7 million from 1995 to 2001 to block Congressional efforts to apply the federal minimum wage to workers who toil in the islands’ factories and to change immigration law. As part of his efforts, Abramoff arranged trips to the island for former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). And his lobbying team reportedly assisted in the preparation of Rep. Ralph Hall’s (R-Texas) speech on the House floor in which the Congressman ripped the credibility of "Katrina," an escaped teenage sex worker on the island. ABC’s "20/20" first exposed sweatshop labor conditions on CNMI in a Brian Ross investigation. Though Abramoff now lives in a federal prison in Cumberland, Md., the island’s governor has hired plenty of new lobbyists over the year to represent his interests, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and attracting criticism from the island’s own representative to Congress. The commonwealth’s current governor, Benigno Fitial, used to work as an executive at the Tan Holding Company, a Chinese conglomerate that controlled several garment factories on the island. One of the company’s executives was reportedly billed by Abramoff over $220,000 for the annual rental of skyboxes at sports stadiums around the Beltway. Earlier this year, Fitial hired Duffy as a PR consultant to the commonwealth and renewed its $15,000-a-month contract with Oldaker, Biden & Belair lobbying firm. But they haven’t had much success. Despite their efforts and Fitial’s campaign contributions to President Bush and the Republican National Committee, earlier this year the president signed legislation to increase the island’s minimum wage from $3.05 to $3.55 and to eventually bring it to parity with the national wage. Duffy was hopeful that the bill would die in the Senate saying that the bill’s proponents were "using the ghost of Jack Abramoff to penalize 60,000 American citizens." He argues that the legislation would take away local control of immigration issues, which allowed the island to import workers from Asia for years. Pedro Tonorio, the island’s resident representative to the United States, who said he was elated at the passage of the legislation, decried the hiring of the lobbyists. "I’m perplexed by some of our elected leaders, that they haven’t learned from mistakes that were made in the past," he says. "They’re spending tens of thousands of dollars a month, money that is needed desperately back home." Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage.

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