D’ACQUA IS AN ITALIAN RESTAURANT located halfway between the White House and the Capitol on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the space once occupied by Signatures, the celebrated Washington dining spot owned by disgraced—and incarcerated—lobbyist Jack Abramoff. (We’re staying with Abramoff for one more issue of the Spectator, because although he’s in a maximum security prison, he remains a factor in the 2008 election.)
On May 14, D’Acqua hosted an unusual dinner party. Hill staffers, human rights activists, and a few foreign “guest workers” who had come to the U.S. seeking political asylum raised their glasses to celebrate a bill that had just passed both houses of the Congress.
The group listened to congratulatory letters from California’s former Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey and Democratic Congressman George Miller, which were read aloud. They toasted the successful conclusion of a fifteen-year campaign to extend U.S. labor law to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands—a Pacific archipelago administered by the United States from World War II until 1986, when it became a self-governing U.S. territory. No one could miss the irony of celebrating in the place where Abramoff, once one of K Street’s most influential lobbyists, entertained those members of Congress whom his clients in the garment trade needed in order to keep the Northern Marianas free from the modest constraints of U.S. labor law.
In the 1980s and ’90s, the economy of the Northern Marianas was fueled by foreign capital and poorly paid “guest workers” who had jobs sewing in sweatshops. Labor contractors recruited workers from various parts of Asia, charging them placement fees as high as $7,000 for jobs that paid $3.05 an hour. Workers often ended up in bondage to the contractors and lived in squalid residential camps. In some cases, their employers restricted where they could go when not at work. A 1998 investigation by the U.S. Office of Insular Affairs found that pregnant women were often forced to have abortions in order to keep their jobs.
A HISTORY OF ABUSE—Ronald Reagan complained about working conditions on the islands. The elder George Bush expressed misgivings, and in 1992 his Labor Department sued five shops owned by the Tan Companies, the biggest employer on the capital island of Saipan. The result was a $9 million fine that provided restitution for workers who had been locked in residential compounds and forced to work eighty-four hours a week with no overtime pay. It was at the time the largest fine ever handed down by the Labor Department.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton finally got behind a campaign to “federalize” labor standards in the Marianas, supporting legislation that would have increased the $3.05 per hour minimum wage to the $5.15 then paid in the U.S. To keep the Congress from getting behind labor standards, the government of the commonwealth and companies doing business on the islands hired lobbyists—most notably Jack Abramoff, then with the Preston Gates law firm. Abramoff’s connections with the Republican leadership paid off, and the Clinton administration lost its fight to improve conditions.
The most prominent opponents of the legislation, such as Texans Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, have moved on. But two lesser-known Congressmen who helped kill the labor legislation are running for seats again this year. Both are dealing with separate corruption scandals. And both of their campaigns are dogged by questions about how far they would to go to block fair labor standards in the Marianas. Jack Abramoff, who represented the government of the commonwealth and many of its garment manufacturers, is a factor in both candidates’ campaigns.
Bob Schaffer was a member of Abramoff’s Northern Marianas Caucus. Schaffer served in the House from 1997 to 2003, resigning to fulfill a term-limit promise he made to Colorado voters in his first campaign. In 2006 he ran for the Senate seat vacated by Ben Nighthorse Campbell and lost in the Republican primary to beer tycoon Peter Coors. In 2008, Schaffer is his party’s candidate to replace Republican Sen. Wayne Allard, who is retiring. Schaffer was one of many members of the House who traveled to Saipan on Congressional delegations—or “codels”—paid for and organized by Jack Abramoff.
Don Young is a Republican House member who has represented Alaska since 1973. In 1999, as chair of the House Resources Committee, Young was in a position to either advance or stop legislation that would have made the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands a much more humane place for the 35,000 guest workers from China, Bangladesh, and the Philippines working in factories that attached “Made in the U.S.A.” tags to the garments they produced without complying with the most basic American labor standards.
WITNESS INTIMIDATION—Jack Abramoff wasn’t an issue in Schaffer’s first campaign for the Senate—but he is now. Schaffer’s Northern Marianas obsession was no state secret. But in April theDenver Post made it a central issue in the campaign, when it provided a detailed account of Schaffer’s 1999 trip to Saipan. In Schaffer’s papers at Colorado State University, the Post turned up two color photos from the trip: one of Schaffer talking to a woman worker in a Saipan factory, another of the Congressman standing at the stern of a boat and helping his wife, Maureen, with her parasail harness. The juxtaposed photos on the page-one story said almost as much as the fifteen column inches that accompanied them. Campaign Money Watch, a 527 advocacy group, followed the Post‘s reporting with a TV spot criticizing Schaffer’s support for sweatshops in the Pacific.
Schaffer’s travel disclosure forms reveal that a staff member traveled to the islands with him and his wife. The Traditional Values Coalition paid $23,417.34 for the ten-day trip in August and September 1999. Schaffer listed the purpose of the trip as a “Fact Finding Mission: Re Labor Issues, Religious Freedom and Other Charges.” The Traditional Values Coalition is a Christian extremist organization directed by the Rev. Lou Sheldon. It does little foreign trade advocacy and is best known for its virulent anti-gay campaigns. It often worked in collaboration with Abramoff.
Schaffer’s work on behalf of Abramoff’s clients was neither discreet nor subtle. His bravura exercise in advocacy at a September 16, 1999, committee hearing was over the top even by the debased standards of a House that was then bitterly divided. With fewer than two terms in office, Schaffer was a relatively junior member of the House Committee on Resources. Yet he played a dominant role at the hearing, at which he showed up with a file full of documents, which he used to depict critics of labor conditions in the Marianas as federal bureaucrats engaged in excessively partisan advocacy.
Schaffer argued against an increase in the minimum wage, citing a lower wage of $2.50 to $2.60 for workers in American Samoa. He grilled employees of the Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs (OIA) about their worker advocacy.
But most remarkable was what can only be described as Schaffer’s cross-examination of Nousher Jahedi, a Bangladeshi guest worker from Saipan who had traveled to Washington to testify. Schaffer exhausted his allotted time impeaching Jahedi’s credibility and challenging his testimony that he was never paid by an advocacy group or federal official to participate in labor demonstrations in Saipan. Schaffer even questioned Jahedi about the specific placards and banners he carried at labor demonstrations.
His questioning of the Bangladeshi laborer wasn’t limited to a House committee hearing room. In the middle of the night, before the questioning, Schaffer telephoned Jahedi to ask him about the testimony he was preparing to give the following morning. The Republican Congressman was essentially intimidating a witness as he prepared to testify. Jahedi, who had been receiving threats over the telephone before this, was so disturbed by Schaffer’s call that he immediately called a labor rights advocate at a non-profit group to ask for help.
Regardless of what Bob Schaffer said that night, the message was the phone call itself. A member of the Congress of the United States was calling a Bangladeshi worker who had left his country for the prospect of earning $3.05 an hour. The thuggish quality of Schaffer’s behavior was evident in his prelude to questioning Jahedi at the hearing, when he referred to “the nice conversation” the two men had shared the previous night.
Schaffer’s inquisitional tactics went unchallenged by Don Young, who chaired the committee. George Miller (D-CA), who has invested more than fifteen years in trying to improve labor standards in the Marianas, reminded Schaffer that the Bangladeshi laborer testifying before the committee had made his statement under oath and should not be further pressured.
FOREVER YOUNG—National Republicans working to limit the inevitable loss of House seats in November must wake up every day thinking that Don Young is a bad story about to break. Young was already under investigation by the FBI regarding allegations that an Alaska company was funneling illegal money to him when the Senate voted by a 68-24 margin in April to refer his situation to the Justice Department. At issue was the $10 million earmark Young had altered in a transportation appropriation—after the bill had been passed by both houses of Congress.
It was Young who killed a 2000 bill, sponsored by then-Senator Frank Murkowski (R-AK), that would have required employers in the Northern Marianas to pay the federal minimum wage. Murkowski’s bill was at the top of Jack Abramoff’s hit list, and Young’s fingerprints were all over it. Yet Young was able to avoid any direct connection to Abramoff, even as one of his former staffers, Mark Zachares, pleaded guilty to an Abramoff-related corruption charge. Zachares had also worked for the Office of Insular Affairs in the Northern Marianas. (The Rev. Sheldon’s Traditional Values group—predictably—attacked Murkowski’s bill.)
Young argued that his interest in the Northern Marianas was part of his oversight responsibility as chairman of the House Committee on Resources. He used his chairmanship to shift the Marianas debate from one of exploitative labor standards to the matter of over-zealousness on the part of Clinton administration appointees working on behalf of laborers, subpoenaing the records of one White House official and two political appointees at the Interior Department in a very public pursuit of incriminating material.
He managed to make a convincing argument. But eight years after the fact, and on the eve of an election for his nineteenth term in the House, it turns out that Young was making a case that wasn’t exactly true. His attack on Clinton administration political appointees at the Office of Insular Affairs was a strategy designed by Jack Abramoff himself.
In April, the Washington Post reported on a memo Abramoff sent to the Marianas’ biggest factory owner, laying out plans for a campaign that would bring friendly lawmakers to the islands to “build permanent friends” who would work to block labor reforms. The friends would focus on the Office of Insular Affairs.
Beyond the memo, 900 pages of billing records, some obtained by the Los Angeles Times, others by Dennis Grenia, who works for the non-profit Co-Op America, place Young at the center of Abramoff’s campaign to keep the Northern Marianas free from U.S. wage-and-hours standards. The 900 pages, most of which are organized and indexed by Grenia, document at least 120 contacts between Abramoff’s lobbying team and Young and his staff—including meetings, phone calls, and letters.
Young refuses to talk to the press and denies any involvement with Abramoff, who represents only the latest in a long list of problems confronting him. It’s not exactly a good sign when the Congressman’s hometown newspaper is speculating on whether he will be indicted before, or after, the primary. The good news for Young is that the Anchorage Daily News predicts indictments after the election. The bad news is that Young has spent $1.2 million on legal expenses this campaign cycle, according toCongressional Quarterly. And a legal defense fund he created to provide additional help from donors has yet to attract a single dollar.
ELECTORAL IMPACT—The smart money has moved to Lt. Governor Sean Parnell, the front-runner in Alaska’s Republican primary. Alaska Democrats are probably pulling for Young, even if they can’t cross over and vote in the closed Republican primary. The likely Democratic candidate, former state house minority leader Ethan Berkowitz, has led Young by as many as 15 points in polls that match the two candidates in a one-on-one contest.
In Colorado, Democratic Congressman Mark Udall’s 10-point lead over Schaffer has slowed Schaffer’s fundraising, as Republican donors move their money to more viable candidates. Although Schaffer is not in the same league as Don Young, his campaign is troubled by his relationship with a Colorado earmark-hustler convicted of defrauding the federal government. Schaffer has not been connected to the $3.7 million earmark, hidden in an appropriations bill in 2000, that provided funding for Bill Orr’s National Alternative Fuels Foundation. But he joined Orr’s foundation board shortly after losing the 2006 Senate primary, then left the board soon after learning about a federal investigation that resulted in Orr’s conviction.
The conservative Club for Growth has endorsed Young’s strongest opponent in Alaska’s August primary. The equally conservative National Review wonders why Young wasn’t swept from office in the 2006 elections, which it described as “an ethical cleaning of a house that had become filthy with the stain of entrenched one-party rule.” And the Wall Street Journal describes Young as “everything that’s wrong with the Republican Party.” In Colorado, Republicans are asking if they elected the wrong guy when they picked Bob Schaffer to run for what should have been a safe Republican seat.
Dennis Grenia, who has created what might be described as a National Clearing House on Abramoff’s crimes in the Marianas, predicts more Abramoff-related indictments before November—and more Congressional races influenced by the jailed lobbyist.
He has been right in the past.
Like Banquo’s Ghost, Jack Abramoff has a way of returning from the dead to influence the course of political events. He is scheduled to be sentenced on September 4. That’s the same day John McCain speaks at the Republican National Convention.