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Last year, two close associates of one of the most powerful members of the U.S. House spent part of their New Year's holiday 8,000 miles from Washington in the Northern Marianas. Although the islands are known for their balmy weather, golf courses and great snorkeling, the trip could hardly be described as a junket--the advisers to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) were there on a political mission.
Ed Buckham and Mike Scanlon wanted to lend support to a conservative politician vying to become speaker of the U.S. territory's House of Representatives. As the two operatives toured airstrips and ports, assessing the islands' infrastructure needs, their message was subtle but clear: Elect Ben Fitial speaker, and congressional largess would follow.
Soon after the visit, several local lawmakers switched sides and threw their support to the DeLay-backed candidate, saying they were convinced the islands would have a better chance of winning federal funds if they elected someone with such close ties to congressional leaders. Fitial became speaker in January.
It was only the latest success in an extraordinary campaign by a powerful network of GOP lawmakers, conservative activists and lobbyists to apply their free-market ideology to this small outpost in the western Pacific, home to a bustling, low-wage garment industry that sends more than $ 1 billion worth of goods every year to the U.S. mainland.
For years, labor unions and human rights activists have tried to improve conditions at what they consider the sweatshops of the Northern Marianas, whose best-known island is Saipan. But they have been blocked at virtually every turn by the coalition of conservatives assembled by Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, a firm that has used the issue to cement its reputation for lobbying congressional Republicans.
With the aid of powerful GOP allies such as DeLay and House Resources Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), Preston Gates has turned the Marianas into a cause celebre for conservative activists and a profitable business for itself and its allies. The firm has collected more than $ 6 million in fees from the government and businesses in the islands, and Buckham--DeLay's former chief of staff--has leveraged his ties to both the whip and Marianas officials to secure a multimillion-dollar power plant contract for a major energy company in DeLay's district.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a strong critic of the lax wage and immigration laws on the islands, said the conservative campaign on the Marianas is a cautionary tale in which the very people at the center of the controversy are the only ones who lose out. "It's a story of a very narrow special interest triumphing over the rights and dignity of the workers," he said.
But Jack Abramoff, who has directed the Preston Gates lobbying campaign, compares the laws Miller and others are seeking to impose with the Nuremberg Laws restricting Jews' activities under the Nazis.
"These are immoral laws designed to destroy the economic lives of a people," Abramoff said. Conservatives "see in this battle a microcosm of an overall battle. . . . What these guys in the CNMI are trying to do is build a life without being wards of the state."
Composed of 14 islands in the Pacific just north of Guam, the area now known as the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, or CNMI, was seized by the United States from the Japanese during World War II. But it wasn't until 1986 that a covenant went into effect granting Northern Marianas residents U.S. citizenship and all the benefits that flow from that, except the right to vote in federal elections.
For House Republicans, the territory embodies many of the ideals they promoted when they seized the majority in 1994. It is exempt from federal labor and immigration laws, setting its minimum wage at $ 3.05 an hour; of the roughly 79,000 residents, many are low-wage workers from China or the Philippines. The factories churn out clothes bearing the label "Made in the USA," which can be sent without tariffs or quotas to the mainland. "It is a perfect petri dish of capitalism," DeLay said in an interview. "It's like my Galapagos island."
But Democrats and labor activists say the dearth of regulations has fostered abhorrent conditions for workers. They accuse the garment manufacturers of forcing people to work long hours without overtime, failing at times to pay them at all, and requiring them to live in crowded "barracks." In 1995, when the U.S. Senate adopted a bill to impose U.S. immigration standards on the Northern Marianas, then-Gov. Froilan Tenorio hired Preston Gates to block the measure in the House.
The man Tenorio turned to, Abramoff, had impeccable GOP credentials. A former chair of the nation's College Republicans, Abramoff become so close with his executive director, Ralph Reed, that he let the future Christian Coalition leader sleep on his couch for a time. These days, Abramoff is a top fundraiser for DeLay and other House Republicans and a major fixture on the city's power lunch circuit.
Abramoff and his team, which includes DeLay's former deputy chief of staff, Bill Jarrell, and ex-representative David Funderburk (R-N.C.), launched a full-scale push to elevate the Marianas into a major issue for House Republicans, coordinating a series of free visits for lawmakers and their aides. More than 85 people took part in these visits: DeLay celebrated New Year's Day 1998 on the Northern Marianas with his wife, daughter and Buckham, his top aide at the time.
At the suggestion of Preston Gates, the territory also cultivated conservatives outside Congress. Among those who visited the Marianas at the government's expense were officials from conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, the Institute for Justice and the Traditional Values Coalition, a major conservative lobbying force.
Andrea Sheldon Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, had heard from a Senate Democratic staff member that forced abortions were performed on the islands. One Sunday at church she confronted a Preston Gates employee, who offered to pay her way to the Northern Marianas.
"I was loaded for bear," recalled Lafferty, who made the journey in August 1997 and became convinced the allegations were false. She has now become a fierce proponent of the territory, starting a chapter there and even arranging for lawmakers to visit.
Other groups that have traveled to the Marianas at the territory's expense, such as Citizens Against Government Waste and Americans for Tax Reform, have launched blistering attacks on legislation that would strip the garment manufacturers of some of their special privileges, such as being able to use the "Made in the USA" label.
Indeed, Preston Gates has managed to scuttle just about every legislative thrust aimed at the Marianas. Early this year, when Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska) tried to revive his bill to apply U.S. immigration laws to the islands, the lobbyists persuaded Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.)--two of whose former aides work at Preston Gates--to put a hold on the measure and delay its consideration for weeks. Though the measure ultimately passed in the Senate, giving the firm its sole legislative defeat of the year, it stalled in the House after Resources Committee Chairman Young declared his opposition.
Young, who will be honored at a Preston Gates reception during the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, has been helpful to the cause in several other ways. He helped force the resignation of an Interior Department critic of the islands' garment industry after his committee uncovered evidence that the official engaged in partisan activity on government time. He also killed an effort this March by Democrats to impose the federal minimum wage on the islands, saying it would place an "undue burden" on the people there.
But for Preston Gates, there has been no better congressional friend than DeLay, who has repeatedly cranked the legislative gears on the territory's behalf. He and his allies have taken a particular interest in the political fortunes of Fitial, who before he became speaker this year served as second-in-command to Willie Tan, the Marianas' most powerful garment factory owner.
DeLay and his aides made local lawmakers aware of the whip's close ties to Fitial, putting an airport runway wanted by some Marianas lawmakers on a list of projects in this year's transportation spending bill.
Now his aides are hoping to add $ 350,000 to an energy and water bill to promote projects on the islands.
"I just see a very clear interference," Diego T. Benavente, a local politician and supporter of Fitial's rival, said of DeLay's efforts.
Buckham said in an interview that he went to the Marianas as a favor to Fitial. "They always say, 'We hope you can help us,' and we say, 'We hope we can help you too,' " he said. "I'm sure it did show he had powerful friends in Washington. I'm not going to deny that."
Fitial, who boasts that he is the defending putting champion at DeLay's annual charity golf tournament, said he was forced to call upon House Republicans to fend off attacks from liberal Democrats. "He's a friend. Of course I look to my friends for help," he said, adding that the islands' policies have come under fire "because there are stupid people in Washington who do not understand, or pretend not to understand, our issues."
Another beneficiary of DeLay's assistance has been Buckham, who has represented the energy giant Enron Corp. in a power plant permit dispute in the Marianas, making $ 50,000 in fees last year. When Enron felt it was unfairly cut out of the territory's bidding process, Buckham asked DeLay to write local officials.
DeLay sent the letter last summer, emphasizing that the territory "desperately needs a fair hearing in far-off Washington D.C., which at least some of us here have been able to provide," and that the same courtesy should be extended to Enron. The bidding was reopened, and Fitial subsequently pushed through a measure helping ensure that Enron would obtain the $ 120 million contract for an 80-megawatt power plant, prompting outcries from other bidders.
Fitial and his allies plan to keep up the pace regarding Washington. Although Fitial's legislation to provide $ 700,000 for new federal lobbying fees, which the speaker said would go to Preston Gates, was vetoed as part of a larger spending bill, Abramoff and Preston Gates have reason to be optimistic. On Friday the House held a special session to approve a resolution calling on the governor to hire D.C. lobbyists.
Despite the criticism, Abramoff says the Preston Gates lobbying campaign has been a success. "They were one step away from being taken over," Abramoff said. "We had a limited amount of time, so we went and educated the Republicans. It saved them."
GRAPHIC: Map, The Washington Post