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By Gaynor Dumat-ol Daleno

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, May 1) – The 2002 federal report that assessed Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands' vulnerability to possible terror attacks also mentions a history of corruption in the local governments.

With that in mind, allowing the Northern Mariana Islands to continue control over immigration and for Guam to keep its customs authority could be a weak link to securing America's borders, according to the report.

"The level of corruption, lack of capability and influence of insular and cultural considerations inherent in both territorial governments present a constant detriment" to federal authorities, according to the report.

"On Guam, political personages and members of their families have been allowed to pass freely through territorial customs checkpoints without personal or baggage inspection as a matter of routine," according to the report.

Gerard Bautista, Guam International Airport Administration air terminal manager, said airport officials would reserve comment until they have a chance to view the report.

Though the report is five years old, and was initially labeled "sensitive -- for official use only," it recently became a public topic as it was mentioned in last week's conspiracy charge against former Northern Marianas official-turned-congressional staffer Mark D. Zachares.

Zachares pleaded guilty last week in the U.S. District Court of Virginia, making him the 11th defendant to plead guilty or be convicted in the federal investigation into fallen lobbyist Jack Abramoff's lobbying activities.

Of all the defendants in the Abramoff scandal, he has the closest ties to Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas.

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) government paid about US$7 million for Abramoff to lobby against a U.S. takeover of immigration control in the CNMI. The plea agreement states the CNMI payments occurred between 1996 and 2001.

In his plea agreement, Zachares acknowledged having "attempted to obtain, at Abramoff's request," the security assessment report that details Guam and the CNMI's vulnerabilities to possible terror plots.

Abramoff helped Zachares, a former head of the CNMI Labor and Immigration Department, get "various high-level positions" on the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from June 2002 through November 2005, according to Zachares' plea agreement.

Zachares accepted US$10,000 in two wire transfers, US$30,000 worth of tickets to sporting events and concerts, and an all-expense-paid golfing trip to Scotland, according to the prosecution's case and his plea agreement.

The trip to St. Andrew's and other world-famous golf courses, according to the plea agreement, cost more than US$160,000.

Zachares has become an example of what the 2002 report had warned about the potential for local officials on Guam and the CNMI to be corrupted.

"No later than October 2000, during Zachares' tenure as secretary of the (CNMI Labor and Immigration Department), Abramoff and Zachares discussed the prospect of Abramoff finding a job for Zachares in Washington, D.C.," according to the plea agreement.

"In January and February 2002, during the time Abramoff and Zachares were planning Zachares' move to a Washington, D.C., government position, Abramoff caused two US$5,000 payments to be wired from the Capitol Athletic Foundation, an Abramoff-controlled entity, to Zachares' personal bank account," according to the plea agreement. The bank account was in Saipan, according to the prosecution's case.

The security assessment report states Guam and the CNMI are considered "high-risk security areas."

"The current national focus on the war on terrorism requires realistic, current and proactive protective measures to safeguard U.S. citizens and interests. Guam and the CNMI are two strategic areas, which constitute the westernmost border of the U.S. homeland. Maximum protection of these vital areas is mission essential to U.S. interests," according to the report.

"Without trivializing a serious situation, the current security posture of Guam and the CNMI is analogous to a fence ... with a number of large holes in it; everyone is focused on the front gate and little attention is being paid to the outer perimeter," the 2002 report said.

"The present security posture is 'soft' and if left unattended there is a high probability that existing critical vulnerabilities will be exploited by a deliberate act against federal, military or civilian interests," according to the report.

The report further states: "The political environment in Guam and the CNMI is largely controlled by a few well-placed families and wealthy business people in each location. Nepotism and financial advantage are a distinct part of island politics."

"Some office holders use their influence to appoint their relatives to government positions or to funnel lucrative government contracts to their relatives and business associates," according to the report.

Political and family ties are "zealously maintained and opposing candidates are sometimes outwardly vilified if they ... do not subscribe to the island way," according to the report.

"Public corruption has a rich history on Guam and in the CNMI and has become an integral part of the political and territorial landscapes," the report said.

Northern Marianas officials, including CNMI House Speaker Oscar Babauta and Senate President Joseph Mendiola were unavailable for comment yesterday.

CNMI Gov. Benigno Fitial's press secretary, Charles Reyes Jr., yesterday said: "Many of the charges against (Zachares) allegedly occurred when he was working in a federal capacity. It's unfortunate that the CNMI is still going to be tainted by it, but the only thing that exists is a history."

"Right now our most important issues are with economic development," Reyes said. "We're trying to increase investments and opportunities and we don't want to let past politics interfere with our current economic policy."

CNMI Attorney General Matthew Gregory last week, in an e-mailed comment, stated that the report is primarily focused on physical security of federal offices on the islands, "and the shortcomings of the federal governmental ability to protect its facilities, with a strong emphasis on obtaining additional funding from Washington."

"CNMI immigration is mentioned almost as an afterthought," according to Gregory.

He said the CNMI government officials "look forward to continuing and improving on this partnership with the federal government."

Public Auditor Doris Flores Brooks said she disagrees with generalizing public corruption on Guam.

And tying local corruption cases to national security, she said, "is a reach."

"I don't like us to be painted with a broad brush that there is rampant corruption because that is hard to prove," the public auditor said.

And because Guam is a small community, there is what she called "subtle influence" from certain people or groups, but she added that doesn't necessarily warrant a broad paint of corruption.

Guam's corruption cases or complaints, she said, appear magnified in the context of it happening in a local community with a variety of local media paying close attention to the local government, Brooks said.

But in the context of other, more national public corruption, Guam cases "pale in comparison," she said.

The Abramoff influence also has extended its reach to a certain level at the White House, according to e-mails released by the U.S. House Government Reform Committee, which released its report in September last year.

The Government Reform Committee mentions Susan Ralston, a former executive assistant to Abramoff, as an Abramoff White House contact.

Ralston became executive assistant to White House senior aide Karl Rove.

"The documents reflect Abramoff and his associates often contacted Susan Ralston for assistance," according to the Government Reform Committee.

Ralston has resigned from the White House in the aftermath of the public release of her e-mails to and from Abramoff and his lobby associates, according to national media reports.

On Nov. 28, 2001, according to an e-mail released by the committee, Abramoff wrote to Ralston: "Hi there. Any use of my trying to get a meeting or quick phone call with Karl to ask his intervention in getting Zachares hired? ... Not having him in the position is starting to really kill us."

On Dec. 19, 2001, Abramoff again e-mailed Ralston, according to the congressional committee: "Would it solve things if we were to come up with another candidate for (the Interior's Office of Insular Affairs) and try to get Mark another job? He is very competent, but it's clear that the idiots on the island are nervous about him getting the position. I have an idea for another person who knows the area, but is not a political football. We really need to get this position filled and it looks like we have a standoff about Zach."

On Dec. 19, 2001, Ralston sent an e-mail reply to Abramoff: "He is still in the mix. A memo is being prepared on the situation, but it is being monitored closely. ... Red flags still there."

Zachares was a prosecutor in the CNMI government between 1994 to 1998, but it was during his term as CNMI head of Labor and Immigration between 1998 and Jan. 13, 2002 when he met Abramoff, according to his plea agreement.

But even when Abramoff did not succeed in getting Zachares the Interior job, the lobbyist found a job for Zachares under Alaska Rep. Don Young's office instead.

In November 2005, as the Abramoff investigation was gaining steam, Zachares left his employment with the House Transportation Committee, according to court papers.

But before he left his congressional employment, Zachares had asked Abramoff to place him with a job at Homeland Security, according to court papers.

Zachares, 48, pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, the Justice Department has announced.

He is cooperating with federal authorities and awaits sentencing. Zachares faces up to five years in prison and a US$250,000 fine.

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