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Bush Assistant Labor Secretary worked on troubled Abramoff accounts worth millions of dollars

John Byrne

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A onetime member of Jack Abramoff's lobbying team who romanced Congress and opinion leaders for lobbying accounts valued at more than $21 million and shuttled members of Congress to the Northern Marianas Islands remains an Assistant Secretary in the Department of Labor, RAW STORY has found.

Patrick Pizzella, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Administration and Management, worked with Abramoff to lobby on behalf of dozens of clients—among them the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, eLottery and the Saginaw Chippewa. Lobbying work Abramoff did on these accounts is under investigation by a Senate Committee, the IRS and the Department of Justice.

Pizzella is the sole member of Abramoff's lobbying retinue remaining in the Bush Administration at the level of congressional confirmation. David Safavian, a onetime gambling lobbyist and Abramoff colleague, resigned and was arrested in September for obstructing justice in connection with the investigations. Abramoff pled guilty to counts of bribery and fraud Tuesday and faces a decade in prison.

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Though he is not accused of breaking any laws, scrutiny of Pizzella's lobbying work may bring unwelcome light to Bush as Washington scrambles to distance itself from the embattled lobbyist. RAW STORY, along with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, recently filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking any information about contacts between Pizzella and any members of Abramoff's staff.

"Mr. Pizzella has extensive knowledge about the Abramoff operation, considering he was on their team," Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics spokeswoman Naomi Seligman said Wednesday. "We do not know, but certainly intend to find out, how his current position at the Labor Department helped Mr. Abramoff and clients."

Pizzella has faced the most criticism for his work rallying on behalf of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands. Far from being a sun-bathed tropical hotspot, the islands, technically a United States territory, house a panoply of foreign-owned sweatshops and operate under minimal legal regulation. As part of Abramoff's team, Pizzella worked on Marianas accounts valued at $2.8 million.

A 1998 congressional report found that 91 percent of the Marianas' private laborers were "indentured aliens" working to pay off creditors who brought them to the islands. A U.S. commonwealth since 1975, the Marianas enjoy the privilege of being able to identify products as "Made in the USA" even though they don't have to adhere to American labor laws.

As an Abramoff staffer, Pizzella attracted attention for ferrying members of Congress and prominent Republicans to the string of islands north of Australia. According to a 2001 New Republic report, Pizzella extended personal invitations to at least 11 members of Congress; the Wall Street Journal estimated that 100 representatives visited the islands during Pizzella's tenure.

Pizzella also brought prominent Republican intellectuals to the islands—including the Institute for Justice's Clint Bolick, the Heritage Foundation's John Mitchell and the Wall Street Journal's John Fund. According to the New Republic, guests flew first-class, dined at posh restaurants and slept at the beachfront Hyatt Regency. The trips paid off: Bolick and Mitchell returned to write pro-Marianas articles for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times.

Along with about a dozen other lobbyists, Pizzella also advocated for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. During the three years Pizzella worked the Choctaw, they dished out $5.7 million for the work.

Investigators of Abramoff's Choctaw work have since accused him of laundering funds.

Documents show Abramoff diverted Choctaw money to bogus Christian anti-gambling groups and purchased gear for a "sniper school" in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Pizzella's role in the Choctaw lobbying remains unknown.

Pizella and Abramoff also represented eLottery, a company that sought to sell state lottery tickets online. News reports and investigations have since shown that Abramoff arranged for the firm to quietly fund anti-gambling efforts to derail competing plans. A senior DeLay aide also communicated with Abramoff to help quash an effort to ban online gambling.

Pizella's Marianas work, however, has attracted the most attention. When Bush took office, Abramoff picked up his lobbying pace: Records obtained by the Associated Press in 2005 showed that Abramoff's lobbying team had at least 195 contacts with the Administration between February and November 2001.

The documents revealed his coterie had extensive access to Bush administration officials, meeting with Cheney policy advisers, Attorney General John Ashcroft and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, among others. Abramoff's contacts with Bush on the Marianas date to 1997, when then Gov. Bush wrote a letter praising a school plan on the islands, saying, "I hope you will keep my office informed on the progress of this initiative."

In January 2001, Abramoff wrote in a letter to Saipan that "several friends" would be taking high-ranking posts in the Administration.

"Our standing with the new administration promises to be solid as several friends of the CNMI (islands) will soon be taking high-ranking positions in the Administration, including within the Interior Department," Abramoff penned.

Pizzella was among these friends—and his appointment to the Labor Department was surely an auspicious decision for the islands. The Marianas were often at odds with the Clinton Administration and routinely fought efforts to extend U.S. labor laws to the islands. In 2001, advocates in Congress including DeLay successfully nixed plans to extend the U.S. minimum wage to the Marianas and secured at least $2 million in federal aid.

DeLay, under fire for his connections to Abramoff, frequently enjoyed the islands' largesse. The Texas Republican traveled with his family and staff for the 1997 New Year's, enjoying golf and snorkeling. He told his hosts, as recorded on ABC News: "You are a shining light for what is happening to the Republican Party, and you represent everything that is good about what we are trying to do in America and leading the world in the free-market system."

Later, he told the Washington Post that the islands were "a perfect petri dish of capitalism. It's like my Galapagos Island."

While with Abramoff, Pizzella also worked with a former deputy chief of staff to DeLay, William Jarrell.

Human rights advocates disagree with DeLay's rosy assessment. They say the Marianas are a haven for labor and sexual abuse. Phillip Kaplan, a former Marianas human rights worker, described the plight of one housemaid he encountered in a 1997 report.

"A [Marianas] housemaid is raped by her employer, a police officer. She returns home to the Philippines with child. Fearful of family disgrace, she gives birth in the jungle, and the child is given to her married sister. The child is ill and needs an operation. The mother returns to the CNMI where she was raped so she can earn enough money to pay for the operation. Her new employer, a fire fighter, rapes her. She conceives. Depressed and suicidal she is hospitalized for fear she is going to harm her baby, who is seriously underweight. Recovered, she agrees to marry a man she does not love, fearful of returning to home unwed and with a second child."

Saipan's regulatory limbo has helped to fortify the bottom lines of popular U.S. clothing brands. Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Calvin Klein and Liz Claiborne are among the labels that have benefited from the island's dearth of labor laws. The islands' minimum wage—albeit weakly enforced—was $3.05 an hour in 1998.

Originally published on Wednesday January 4, 2006



 


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