News and articles relating to the scandal surrounding Washington D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Missoulian: Burns changed vote on bill about the Marianas islands

By JENNIFER McKEE Missoulian State Bureau
HELENA - U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., met with a Marianas official who had close ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the weeks before Burns received an Abramoff-related $5,000 contribution from the Marianas and reversed his earlier position on a bill about the islands.

The politician, Gov. Benigno Fitial, has said he will cooperate with the Justice Department's ongoing investigation into potential bribery of public officials involving Abramoff, a man Fitial once described as a “close friend,” according to Pacific Magazine, a Hawaii publication that covers the Pacific region.

The Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands is a U.S. territory near Guam. Citizens there are U.S. citizens, although the island is exempt from many U.S. standards, including minimum wage.

In the late 1990s, some

58 percent of the island's population were noncitizen immigrants, drawn to the island's garment manufacturing jobs, government reports show. At the time, workers in the factories earned a minimum of $3.05 an hour, below the U.S. minimum wage of $5.15.

Burns voted against a bill in May 2001 that would have strengthened U.S. oversight over the commonwealth's labor and immigration laws. A little more than a year before Burns had not opposed an identical measure.

Burns has said the $5,000 donation from an Abramoff client had nothing to do with his 2001 change in stance on the bill. Rather, the senator told Lee Newspapers this month he was persuaded to vote against the measure after reading two government reports about the islands and meeting with Fitial, who was then speaker of the Marianas House of Representatives.

Initially, Burns said he didn't know why he changed his position on the bill.

Burns' records show the senator met with Fitial for 15 minutes on the afternoon of April 3, 2001.

Campaign finance records and reports in Pacific Magazine show Fitial is a former executive of Tan Holdings. Eloy Inos, another Tan Holdings executive, donated $5,000 to Burns' Friends of the Big Sky on April 20, 2001, a little more than two weeks after Fitial's meeting with the senator.

Inos worked on Fitial's transition team last December, shortly after Fitial won the islands' governor seat, Pacific Magazine reports.

Inos' check was among $12,000 Burns collected from Abramoff, his clients and associates in the weeks before the vote.

Tan Holdings, the largest employer on the islands, according to the company's Web site, is a member of the Saipan Garment Manufacturers Association.

Records show the garment association hired Abramoff in 2001 to defeat laws that would put greater federal oversight over labor and immigration on the islands, and paid him $460,000.

The Los Angeles Times and Pacific Magazine have both reported that Fitial won his bid for speaker of the Marianas House through the actions of Abramoff's lobbying partner, Michael Scanlon.

Scanlon has since pleaded guilty to bribery and other crimes.

Records show the commonwealth government, at Fitial's urging, hired Abramoff in 2001 and paid him $1.1 million to defeat the kind of bill Burns voted against.

Burns spokesman James Pendleton said the senator couldn't know how Fitial became speaker in 2001. As far as Burns knew, Pendleton said, Fitial was a duly elected official and it made sense that he would want to talk to Burns, who served as chairman of the subcommittee that holds the purse strings to the U.S. office that oversees the islands.

Pendleton said the senator may have known Abramoff represented the island government at the time, but was unsure.

Pendleton said Fitial told him the local government was working to deal with problems of noncitizen workers and that the U.S. government should give them a chance to fix it.

Burns said Fitial's visit wasn't the only reason the senator reversed his vote on the 2001 Marianas bill. He said he read two General Accounting Office reports that came out in the spring of 2000, one looking into immigration and another on the role of the garment industry and tourism.

Those reports examined only the economics of the current situation.

Pendleton said that's what Burns was most interested in, too.

“That was point one,” he said. “The economic impact of (the defeated bill) would be negative.”

Matt McKenna, a spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party, said he didn't believe that a 15-minute meeting with Fitial was the true impetus behind the senator's vote.

“Conrad Burns' explanation of his involvement in the Marianas started out as misleading and has devolved into outright lies,” he said.


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