Two Amigos And Their Gulag Archipelago

By Lou Dubose

May 12, 2005

Lou Dubose is the author, with Jan Reid, of The Hammer: Tom DeLay, God, Money and the Rise of the Republican Congress by Public Affairs.

Jack Abramoff won’t make the May 12 Salute to Tom DeLay banquet at the Capitol Hilton.

That doesn’t seem fair.

For decades the two men—one an Orthodox Jewish lobbyist and Republican Party rainmaker, the other a fundamentalist Christian Congressman and Republican Party rainmaker—were a team.  Raising money. Handicapping races. Supporting candidates. Lining up K Street support for Republican candidates and legislation. Playing the world’s best golf courses. But mostly raising money—a political forte the two men shared.

Oddly, it’s because of the money that Abramoff is not welcome at the DeLay tribute. Jack got a little carried away. He is currently under investigation by a multi-agency task force, U.S. attorneys, and two Washington, D.C., grand juries regarding $82 million he and former DeLay press aide Mike Scanlon billed (or bilked from) six Indian tribes. Sen. John McCain is running a similar investigation out of Senate Indian Affairs.

Abramoff, a top-tier Washington lobbyist, and Scanlon, who at the time was operating his own public relations firm, billed their American Indian gaming clients at rates that stunned Washington’s lobbying cultures. They pocketed much of the $82 million because it wasn’t billed by Abramoff’s lobbying firm but by Scanlon’s small shop. But a big chunk of it went to Republican Party campaign committees. Scanlon, for example, contributed $500,000 to the Republican Governors Association in 2002. Abramoff raised $100,000 for George W. Bush’s last two presidential campaigns (and served on Bush’s White House transition team.) He also gave at least $30,000 to Tom Delay’s political action committee (and was a member of DeLay’s “kitchen cabinet”).

DeLay is completely entangled in Abramoff’s Indian scheme and even took a $70,000 golf trip on the tribes’ tab. And accepted tens of thousands of Indian gaming contributions. But long before they discovered American Indians, these guys were doing Micronesians on a remote Pacific archipelago.  Captured from the Japanese in World War II, the Northern Marianas was for a quarter of a century a United Nations trust governed by the United States. In 1975 it became the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI). Suddenly it was a sweatshop haven, exempt from U.S. import laws yet unregulated by U.S. labor law. Apparel shops could pay $3.05 an hour, dodge the most basic workplace safety regs and still stick “Made in the U.S.A.” tags on clothing sold to Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Calvin Klein, Liz Claiborne, J.C. Penney and other retail outlets.

Sweatshop owners and the islands’ governor feared intervention 10 years later: Retain my services as a lobbyist and you get access to Tom DeLay.

He was working a seller’s market. There had been signs that Washington was not happy with labor conditions on the islands. Reagan administration officials, never a group to worry too much about labor conditions, were first to complain. Then, in 1992, a Bush I administration official told a congressional committee the garment industry in the Commonwealth was built on a foundation of cheap alien labor, favorable tariff treatment, tax breaks, rebates and other assistance underwritten by the federal government.

All true. All utterly understated.

The Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands was a for-profit American labor gulag. Women were flown in from China, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Bangladesh, India and other underdeveloped countries. They lived 10 or more to a room in workers’ compounds surrounded by fences topped by razor wire. Privacy was sheets suspended between cots. Sanitation was poor. Women queued up at the single bathroom, faucet and shower provided them.

They often worked 70-hour weeks and received no overtime pay. At times, some worked around the clock for two or even three days to meet production quotas. They had little choice. Many workers spent much of their first year paying off the $5,000 to $7,000 they had paid labor recruiters to book their jobs and transportation.

In 1992, San Francisco Congressman George Miller began investigating working conditions on the islands. In the same year, the U.S. Department of Labor fined five garment factories $9 million in back wages for 1,200 workers who had been locked in worksites and barracks and required to work 84-hour weeks with no overtime. It was the largest fine the department ever levied. In 1995, the Philippines, not exactly a country with a reputation for defending workers’ rights, began denying visas to Philippine citizens bound for labor camps in the Commonwealth. By mid-1997, the Clinton administration was moving to impose federal labor standards on the commonwealth. The president himself wrote to the governor, warning that “certain labor practices in the islands are inconsistent with our country’s values.”

By then the government of commonwealth had retained Abramoff—at the time one of the hottest lawyer/lobbyists on K Street. That connected the government to the good offices of then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay.

DeLay delivered.

When Governor Froilan Tenorio visited Washington in 1997, DeLay stood on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and told the story of the Marianas Miracle:

“Governor Tenorio did not come to Washington looking for taxpayer benefits, welfare or handouts. He came to promote market reforms. During his administration, Governor Tenorio has actively pursued and courted businesses around the globe to open shop on the CMI. Like President Reagan in the 1980s, Tenorio has kept taxes low. Low tax rates have actually increased productivity, which in turn increased revenue for the government of the CNMI…The economic changes that have taken place in the CNMI have been nothing short of miraculous.”

He didn’t mention working conditions or the $9 million fine.

Abramoff also delivered. He paid for part of the trip for Tom and Christine DeLay, and their daughter Danni Ferro, to spend Christmas 1997 and New Years' Eve at the Saipan Hyatt. They were accompanied by 14 staffers, including Scanlon, who would later help Abramoff elect his candidate for speaker of the house in the Commonwealth. Airfare alone was $75,778. But it was chump change. Abramoff and his law firm billed the Marianas $9 million. He even booked some work for a friend, right-wing Rabbi David Lapin, who pocketed $1.2 million for an eight-day ethics course he taught in the Marianas. The high cost must have had something to do with the difficulty of imposing ethical standards on such a wild place.

DeLay even took a tour of the garment factories. When a reporter asked him about sweatshop conditions DeLay said the factories were air-conditioned. “I didn’t see anybody sweating.”

At a New Year’s Eve banquet at the Hyatt, DeLay toasted “one of my closest and dearest friends, Jack Abramoff, your most able representative in Washington, D.C.” He then warned the factory owners and elected officials about the Clinton administration.

“You are up against the forces of big labor and the radical left. Dick Armey and I made a promise to defend the islands’ present system. Stand firm. Resist evil. Remember that all truth and blessings emanate from our Creator. God bless you and the people of the Northern Marianas.”

God blessed them. Wages in the Marianas remained $3.05 an hour. Abramoff would return the compliment DeLay paid him at the New Year’s eve party, later telling a group of cheering Young Republicans that, “Tom DeLay is who we all want to be when we grow up.”

It’s too bad Jack can’t be on the podium to share that sentiment with the crowd gathered in Washington to honor his old friend.