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Photograph shows Bush meeting now-Governor of Marianas Islands, who helped Abramoff get millions

John Byrne and Ron Brynaert
Published: January 23, 2006

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President Bush with Beningo Repeki FitialOn the heels of a Time Magazine article revealing the existence of photographs of President George W. Bush with fallen conservative superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, RAW STORY has found another photograph of Bush with a leading Abramoff client.

The President appears in a snapshot with Beningo Repeki Fitial, then-Speaker of the House for the Northern Marianas Islands. Fitial is vice president of Tan Holdings – the family conglomerate which owns numerous clothing factories on the islands that were a routine stop for Abramoff-flown lawmakers. Tan Holdings was one of the firms which made up the Saipan Garment Manufacturers’ Association, an Abramoff client.

He was also, incidentally, chairman of the Bush for President Committee for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

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The photograph appears to have been taken the same day Bush met Raul Garza Sr., the former chairman of the Texas Kickapoo tribe who Time says was photographed with Bush. Abramoff, once the largest lobbyist in Washington, pled guilty to bribery charges earlier this month and his work has drawn new scrutiny to D.C.'s $4 billion lobbying business.

The White House could not be immediately reached for comment. When speaking to Time, a spokesman said, “The President stopped by a meeting with 21 state legislators and two tribal leaders. Available records show that Mr. Abramoff was not in attendance."

The White House omitted Fitial’s attendance.

Fitial was photographed at a May 9, 2001 event hosted by Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative anti-tax group led by longtime Abramoff friend and conservative heavyweight Grover Norquist, and the photograph appeared in a circular produced by the group. Norquist led Abramoff’s successful campaign to become chairman of the national College Republicans in the 1980s.

The event raised the hackles of investigators when it emerged that Abramoff had arranged for one of his Indian tribal clients, the Louisiana Coushattas, to pay $25,000 to “sponsor” the event as a means of getting face time with President Bush. The Democratic Party has trumpeted this revelation, asserting that Abramoff sold access to the president.

It’s not known whether Fitial, the garment manufacturer’s association or the Marianas government paid to attend the event.

What is known is that two Tan family companies gave $25,000 each to the National Republican Senatorial Committee for the 2002 elections, and that Marianas donors contributed $36,000 to President Bush’s reelection campaign.

What’s also known is that the garment manufacturer’s association paid Abramoff’s Greenberg Traurig lawfirm $460,000 in 2001 to represent them in Washington. Furthermore, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas themselves spent an additional $2.1 million that year on Abramoff’s team.

Both the islands and the garment manufacturers lobbied for the same goal, according to their federal lobbying reports: to “prevent enactment of legislation to impose federal controls over local labor and immigration rules.” Abramoff’s work for the islands and the manufacturers stifled several efforts to impose U.S. minimum wage laws on the islands, which are a U.S. protectorate, and yielded at least $2 million in federal funds.

The Marianas minimum wage—albeit weakly enforced—was $3.05 in 1998. 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 have all benefited from the island's dearth of labor laws.

Lobbying efforts, money yielded access to Bush officials

According to the Associated Press, the Marianas’ lobbying efforts achieved far more than just a photograph.

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.

“The documents show his team also had extensive access to Bush administration officials, meeting with Cheney policy advisers Ron Christie and Stephen Ruhlen, Ashcroft at the Justice Department, White House intergovernmental affairs chief Ruben Barrales, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles and others,” the AP wrote.

A month before Bush was photographed with Fitial, the president appointed Patrick Pizzella, a former Abramoff lieutenant, as Deputy Undersecretary of Labor. Pizzella had aggressively worked the Marianas account with Abramoff, leaving his retinue just months before. According to the New Republic, the former conservative lobbyist handpicked Pizzella for his Marianas lobbying team.

A 2001 report by The New Republic indicates Pizzella made a whirlwind number of trips with congressmen to the islands, saying he 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. It's unknown who paid for these trips, or even who these congressmembers are.

Abramoff praised Bush’s appointment of Pizzella in a letter to the Commonwealth. Notably, Abramoff seemed to reference Pizzella’s new post in a January 2001 letter even though he wasn’t officially appointed until April 2001.

"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 wrote.

Former DeLay aides, Fitial got Abramoff Marianas contract

Along with two former aides to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), Fitial helped Abramoff sink the Marianas lobbying deal.

“Using promises of U.S. tax dollars as bartering chips, [former DeLay chief of staff] Edwin A. Buckham and Michael Scanlon traveled to these remote Pacific islands in late 1999 to convince two local legislators to switch their votes for speaker of the territory's 18-member House of Representatives,” the Los Angeles Times revealed in May 2005. “They succeeded.”

Benigno Fitial was “an underdog contender” for speaker of the House, the Times wrote. DeLay’s former aides targeted two key members of the legislature and promised to help get money for needed projects, ensuring their support for Fitial.

Soon thereafter, the Fitial-led House passed two resolutions enjoining the island’s governor to hire a lobbyist, “including a July 26, 2000, resolution calling for selection of Abramoff's firm,” the Times wrote.

A few days later, the island’s governor, Pedro Tenorio, hired the firm for $200,000 a month.

Fitial defended Abramoff earlier this month

The photograph of Bush and Fitial is sure to drag the president into a new firestorm over his connections to Abramoff and his clients.

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.



 


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