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By Gaynor Dumat-ol Daleno

SAIPAN, CNMI (Pacific Daily News, Jan. 5) – All-expenses-paid trips to Saipan that benefited a member of the U.S. Congress and a congressional staffer are mentioned in a court document outlining the basis for disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty plea in a case alleging conspiracy to buy influence in the nation's capital.

Beginning as early as January 2000, Abramoff and others "engaged in a course of conduct through which one or both of them offered and provided a stream of things of value to public officials in exchange for a series of official acts and influence," according to the document called factual basis for his plea.

Things offered in connection with what the document called "corruption of public officials" included foreign and domestic travel, golf fees, frequent meals, entertainment, election support of candidates for government office, employment for relatives of officials and campaign contributions.

In his court appearance at a District Court in Washington Tuesday, Abramoff told Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle, ''I plead guilty, your honor,'' in a soft voice as each count was read, Gannett News Service reported.

''All my remaining days, I will feel tremendous sadness and regret for my conduct,'' he added before leaving the courtroom, according to Gannett News Service.

Abramoff pleaded guilty to three felony counts of fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion.

The document accompanying Abramoff's plea did not identify the House member who did favors for Abramoff in exchange for travel and other "things of value."

But the lawmaker's attorney has previously identified the House member as Representative Bob Ney, R-Ohio, according to a Gannett News Service report.

"At the time I dealt with Jack Abramoff, I obviously did not know, and had no way of knowing, the self-serving and fraudulent nature'' of his activities, according to a Gannett News Service report of a statement from Ney.

Since the 1990s, the Northern Mariana Islands government, whose seat of government is in Saipan, has paid at least US$11 million dollars to lobbyists, primarily to Abramoff-associated lobbying firms, in an attempt to keep local government control over the entry of foreigners, documents obtained by Pacific Daily News show.

The Saipan garment industry, once worth US$600 million a year and at some point makers of such brand names as Ralph Lauren and Liz Claiborne apparel, also had enlisted the help of Abramoff to protect local immigration powers that have allowed thousands of workers from China, Bangladesh, the Philippines and other countries to sew American clothing brands for less than the U.S. minimum wage.

Guam, too, is no stranger to Abramoff, who was paid more than US$300,000 in 2001 and 2002 out of the government of Guam coffers to lobby against legislation that, in the end, married the administrative functions of the local Superior and Supreme Courts. The former administration of the Superior Court authorized the payments through a California attorney, Howard Hills, who received the payments on behalf of Abramoff, whose name did not appear in GovGuam paperwork authorizing the use of taxpayer cash.

The payments from Guam were not mentioned in the documents related to Abramoff's plea, but the once-powerful lobbyist's guilty plea is expected to be just another step in what could be a widening investigation.

Abramoff also had close ties to the House's former No. 2, Representative Tom Delay, who had taken his family on a 1997 Saipan holiday vacation during which he joked about foreign garment workers by proclaiming he was surprised the island's factories were air-conditioned and that he did not see anybody sweating.

Any legislation that would extend federal immigration law in the Northern Mariana Islands, he said at the time, would be "dead on arrival" in Congress.

The Northern Mariana Islands government had played host to congressional fact-finding groups at the height of its campaign against immigration reform proposals under the Clinton-era White House. The cost to host each visitor in these fact-finding congressional trips had ranged from US$5,000 to US$6,000 per head, according to Pacific Daily News files.

Abramoff connections to the Republican leadership in Congress frustrated years of efforts by Democrats to force immigration reform in the Northern Marianas and tighten security to the islands' borders.

Under his plea agreement, federal prosecutors could recommend a prison term ranging from nine to 11 years. But he will be under pressure to tell more of what he knows in the alleged "corruption of public officials."

Abramoff faces having to pay restitution of about US$25 million, primarily to Indian tribes that had paid tens of millions of dollars, unaware Abramoff received alleged kickbacks ranging around 50 cents for every dollar they thought they paid for lobbying or political contributions to Washington officials, the documents state.

If Abramoff is found to have misrepresented facts to the federal government before entering the plea agreement, federal prosecutors will not be bound by the plea deal, according to court documents.

Abramoff opened doors for the tiny Northern Mariana Islands government not only to Congress, but the Bush administration's White House, wire reports state.

In Bush's first 10 months in office in 2001, Abramoff and other members of his lobbying team logged at least 200 contacts with the Bush administration on behalf of at least one client, the Northern Mariana Islands, The Associated Press reported.

"The meetings included some with high-ranking officials such as then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and policy advisers in Vice President Dick Cheney's office," the Associated Press reported. "The Marianas' agenda included seeking friendly hires at federal agencies and preservation of its exemption from the U.S. minimum wage."

January 5, 2006

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