Abramoff firm gave $50,000 more to GOP congressional campaigns seven months after visits
Eleven million dollars can buy a lot of access in Washington. Especially if your lobbyist is Jack Abramoff.
Take Beningo Fitial, the current governor of the Northern Marianas Islands, a U.S. territory in the Pacific. He and his company, along with their trade lobby and funds doled out by the islands at his prodding, spent $21.5 million dollars lobbying Washington between 1995 and 2002. Now he says he wants his money back -- but he continues to maintain that Abramoff protected his island's interests.
Fitial—who became Speaker of the Marianas House after a coup organized by Abramoff’s associates and former aides of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay—was treated like a king.
In January 2001, Fitial enjoyed the inauguration of President George W. Bush.
Three months later, in April, Fitial met Bush a second time. He also met then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS). Then he stopped in for visit with Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL).
In other words—Abramoff seems to have arranged for a non-head of state for a tiny island in the Pacific to meet with the three most powerful men in the United States of America. But that’s not all: Fitial also met with then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX) and Senate Interior Department Appropriations Chairman Conrad Burns (R-MT). Fitial appears in photographs with Burns and Delay -- enlarged from tiny thumbnails in his hometown paper -- at left.
That, it seems -- along with a spate of legislative victories keeping the islands from U.S. jurisdiction -- is the value of $21 million dollars. Fitial, not surprisingly, has not been terribly critical of Abramoff since he pled guilty to myriad criminal charges, including fraud, tax evasion and bribing members of Congress.
Six months after his visit to Capitol Hill, Fitial’s family’s companies donated $50,000 to the National Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The following month, Abramoff’s firm, at the direction of former press secretary to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) Michael Scanlon, doled out $50,000 to the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. The Los Angeles Times reported last year that Scanlon secured Fitial's election by promising U.S. tax dollars as "bartering chips."
Fitial also chaired the islands' campaign to raise money for President Bush’s election. The AP reported last May that records show Abramoff’s Marianas lobbying team met members of the Bush Administration at least 195 times between February through November 2001.
A month before Bush was photographed with Fitial, he appointed Patrick Pizzella, a former Abramoff lieutenant, as Deputy Undersecretary of Labor. Pizzella worked the Marianas account with Abramoff; according to the New Republic, the former conservative lobbyist handpicked Pizzella for his Marianas lobbying team.
Asked about his meeting with Bush, Fitial told his local newspaper the Saipan Tribune, "This was a great opportunity to raise the CNMI's (Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands) concerns to the president directly. Indeed, when the President discussed our military's readiness, I made it clear to him that the people of the CNMI support the military's presence and exercises in the Northern Mariana Islands."
“The president,” Fitial added, “said he was very pleased to know that the CNMI is supporting the military's presence in the islands."
Fitial also said he was pleased most by the fact that Lott recalled their meeting in a previous year. He said, "I think our efforts in Washington will continue to pay off for the CNMI people.”
And pay off they did: The Mariana’s $21.5 million, channeled through Abramoff, crushed numerous attempts to impose minimum wage and labor laws on the island territory. The tropical hotspot where Tom DeLay spent New Years in 1998 playing golf remains a haven for U.S. garment manufacturers—including Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Gap—who enjoy the loosely enforced minimum wage of $3.05.
But you wouldn't know that from the labels: all products made in the Commonwealth can be stamped "Made in the USA," thanks to the U.S. Congress.
The Marianas have since accused Abramoff and his staff of overcharging the islands for some $2.2 million in unsupported expenses. The charges included travel, telephone, photocopy, computer research and outside-professional fees. Pizzella was not named by auditors, though was among the most traveled members of Abramoff’s group.
But this didn’t stop now-Governor Fitial from defending Abramoff just last week when asked if he regretted working with the lobbyist. “I will not comment about what Abramoff did outside of the commonwealth,” Fitial told the Marianas Variety Online. “But if you ask me what he did for the commonwealth, (Abramoff) protected our Covenant.”
Covenant is Fitial's political party. Fitial was elected governor of the Northern Marianas in November.