ABRAMOFF TOOK GUAM GOVERNMENT TO CLEANERS

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By Gaynor-Dumat-ol Daleno

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Jan. 9) – The web of Guam money that went to lobby shops linked with disgraced Washington, D.C., power broker Jack Abramoff did not just stop with the Superior Court of Guam's about $400,000 payments at the expense of the local government's financial hardship.

When the Superior Court was cutting $9,000-apiece checks that were indirectly paid to Abramoff, he also was hired as a lobbyist for the A.B. Won Pat Guam International Airport Authority for unspecified aviation issues, according to his lobbying disclosure, filed in the U.S. Senate's Office of Public Records.

A host of GovGuam obligations were sacrificed when the local government was paying Abramoff and other lobbyists who promised to open doors to decision-makers in the nation's capital. Payment for the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor was suspended, for example, and Guam taxpayers were left waiting - and some still are - for tax refunds that are at least a year behind schedule.

But whether GovGuam and taxpayers got their money's worth out of the Abramoff deals are in doubt, especially now that the once-called "super lobbyist" has been ensnared in a federal influence-peddling case.

One of the three charges he pleaded guilty to last week was a charge that the "things of value" he lavished on lawmakers and their aides deprived the public of the "honest services" of a member of Congress, according to court documents.

Last week's federal plea agreement, in which he would provide full cooperation in the widening government corruption investigation, made mention of the approximately $25 million paid by Indian tribes to Abramoff and Abramoff lobby shop-arranged congressional visits to Saipan.

The Guam airport agency and Abramoff's ties happened in 2002, under former Democrat Gov. Carl Gutierrez.

But the arrangement between the airport agency and Abramoff was short-lived, at least according to the lobbyist's Senate disclosure. He withdrew from being the Guam airport's lobbyist later in 2002, as the Gutierrez administration waned. He declared income of less than $10,000 from the airport agency.

The next year, in 2003, when Republican Gov. Felix Camacho took office, a group of lobbyists that proclaimed close connections to the White House bagged a controversial contract with the Guam Economic Development and Commerce Authority. Juan Carlos Benitez, a former special counsel to immigration under the early Bush White House, led the group.

The economic agency had acknowledged in local media statements in early 2003 it paid Washington Pacific about $375,000 for a few months worth of lobbying service. In Senate disclosures, it was national lobby shop and law firm Cassidy & Associates that reported Washington Pacific as its client, and listed Benitez as the lobbyist for the Guam issues.

What Washington Pacific primarily said in a press conference in 2003 was that it could get more federal grants for Guam.

Abramoff became a part of Cassidy & Associates, as a consultant, in March 2004 after he left Greenberg Traurig that same month, amid allegations of padded lobbying bill payments from Indian tribes. He became a consultant to Cassidy & Associates for him to steer lobbying business the Cassidy, SourceWatch and The Washington Post reported. SourceWatch.org is a resource of people, groups and issues. It's a project of the Center for Media and Democracy.

An e-mail inquiry to the Camacho administration asking whether it had hired Abramoff was not answered as of press time. The current airport agency administration, which was not responsible for the Abramoff arrangement under the Gutierrez watch, also had not replied to an e-mail question as of press time.

At least one Camacho administration senior official, Anthony Sanchez, is no stranger to Abramoff lobbying payments.

Sanchez was the Superior Court's administrative director who authorized the $9,000-apiece checks that at first were routed through a California lawyer, Howard Hills, according to local court records.

Unless someone from the government of Guam admits to having made a payment or having known of a payment made to Abramoff, or unless Abramoff has made the disclosure, it's hard for the public to know to what extent the disgraced lobbyist had made money from Guam.

In the case of the Superior Court's payments in 2001 and 2002, the paperwork on Guam for processing the payments did not show Abramoff's name.

Abramoff's name was not found in any of the Guam court records for payment through Hills, at least according to documents the Pacific Daily News obtained following a request for access to government records.

Hills was used "as a conduit" for the payments to Abramoff, according to an Office of the Public Auditor report.

And Abramoff's lobbying disclosure made no mention of Guam, and instead listed Hills as his client.

Former Guam Delegate Robert Underwood, who has experience in Congress for 10 years, said Abramoff had a pattern of picking clients the lobbyist viewed as "most vulnerable" to promises that doors would be opened for them to the powers in the nation's capital.

Indian tribes and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands were among those whom Abramoff picked on, perhaps for their lack of familiarity with the federal system as they should be, Underwood said.

"Inevitably, Guam got drawn into the picture," Underwood said.

The Superior Court payments essentially were made to lobby against legislation that Underwood had been pushing for three congressional terms, beginning in the 105th Congress. The legislation married the administrative functions of the local Superior and Supreme Courts.

It also lowered the Superior Court's administrative powers including its function of hiring and managing its budget; and awarding vendor contracts, for example, would be merged with the Supreme Court of Guam for greater efficiency and toward saving money.The legislation eventually passed, and now that the Guam judiciary is under the new leadership with Chief Justice Philip Carbullido, no more money has been spent on lobbying, and the process for awarding contracts that came under question by the public auditor's recent report has been corrected, the new court leadership has said.

The judiciary has stated, too, that no GovGuam rules for awarding contracts were broken. And an audit report found the Superior Court payments for Abramoff were cut in smaller checks as an apparent attempt to play it safe just in case there would be monetary ceilings to contracts awarded without competition for a better price.

But it's not enough to say no law was violated, said Underwood, who has expressed interest in running for governor this year.

"'No laws were broken' is not the standard by which a court system should operate," he said. "It should be above reproach."

The people of Guam, Underwood added, "need to know which of their officials, if any, have had direct, indirect or ongoing relations with Mr. Abramoff, because it reveals ... not only the twists and turns of the judicial bill, but other things as well."

"The lesson that we should always learn is, first of all, don't ever think somebody is going to ... facilitate something that is not real," Underwood said.

"It's a lesson we should have learned in funding Max Havoc," he said of the movie flop filmed on Guam in exchange for the local government to guarantee the loan used to fund part of the moviemaking. GovGuam could lose as much as $800,000 if the loan defaults.

"It seems there is not going to be a shortage of people in the world who will come to us and say, I can open doors for you," he said. "But there is no substitute for hard work in Washington, D.C."

Underwood said he hopes Guam residents would not just shrug off the Guam payments to Abramoff, and the manner in which they were done.

"There is a tendency sometimes to think, well, politicians, they are corrupt, or lobbyists they are corrupt," Underwood said.

"I think the way to deal with it is, here you have a pattern of corruption that is traceable, that is definable and that has touched the lives of the people of Guam. The minute that we deal with it the direct way, we teach a lesson to ourselves, and we teach a lesson to the next generation."

January 9, 2006

Pacific Daily News: www.guampdn.com

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