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New book on federal takeover: ‘The enemy won’

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Dec. 27, 2011) – Convicted felon and former CNMI lobbyist in Washington, D.C. Jack Abramoff said he and his lobby firms stood between the CNMI people and "the hostile bureaucrats and congressmen bent on their destruction" but conceded that "the enemy had won" when the federal government took over CNMI immigration and minimum wage starting in 2007.

Abramoff devoted several pages and passages in his new book, "Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth about Washington Corruption from America's Most Notorious Lobbyist," about his and his firms' lobbying on behalf of the CNMI.

"By 2006, the Democrats had taken control of Congress, and the CNMI's days were numbered. The Democrats passed their long-desired takeover legislation as part of a federal minimum wage increase in 2007. Now the enemy had won. The garment industry folded quickly, and the CNMI economy tanked," he said in concluding Chapter 8, "Political Golf," of his 303-page book.

From 1995 to 2001, Abramoff was instrumental in blocking the passage of legislation establishing federal authority over the CNMI’s immigration system and raising the local minimum wage.

The lobby firms he represented billed the CNMI $11 million during those years.

But none of those CNMI government officials he wrote about in his book browsed or read "Capitol Punishment" from cover to cover. At best, they only read or heard about certain passages referring to them, as of yesterday.

Rep. Froilan Tenorio (Cov-Saipan), whom Abramoff described as a "tireless public servant in the Marianas," said yesterday that Abramoff successfully blocked legislation for years that would have taken away CNMI control over its immigration and would have led to economic turmoil at the time.

"It was during my term that the CNMI collected the most revenue from 1994 to 1998," Tenorio told Saipan Tribune. "After that, the economy kept coming down. Mr. Abramoff's work was worth the money. If he had asked for more money and if we had that money, I could have given him more. He was effective, successful in what he was hired to do, to prevent damage to the CNMI. We were helpless out here."

Tenorio, also a former speaker, said if he were still governor today, he would retain lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

"For me, I'd rather have a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. than a [nonvoting] delegate. You can't compare the job of a lobbyist to that of a delegate," he said.

Tenorio said Gov. Benigno R. Fitial is now just waiting for the next election when Congress could be controlled again by Republicans.

"I hope it will be a Republican Congress again so we can ask them to give us back control of our immigration," Tenorio said.

It was Tenorio's chief of staff and cousin, Brenda Tenorio, and a few of her employees who actually met with Abramoff in mid-May 1995 when a team from the CNMI went to Washington, D.C. looking for a lobbyist, Abramoff said.

"But as much as his friends loved him (Froilan), they were also constantly caught off guard by his idiosyncratic behavior. His public pronouncements were blunt and, sometimes, very odd. One day he would advise the young ladies of Saipan to marry only rich guys. Another day he would proclaim it ethical for a sitting governor to take loans from a felon. Froilan was a source of unending wonder to us, but on matters of principle and personal clashes, he was unbending," Abramoff said.

Abramoff said Juan N. Babauta, then the CNMI resident representative in Washington, D.C., "focused almost entirely on getting the Congress to approve upgrading his position to that of delegate but with little success."

"Babauta was the archetype Pacific islander emissary to Washington, D.C. His natural shyness, coupled with his truckling and unctuous demeanor left him invisible to almost all of official Washington," Abramoff said.

Babauta, when asked for comment yesterday, said he has not read Abramoff's book and declined to comment on the former lobbyist's description of him.

In 1997, Froilan Tenorio drew a reelection challenge from his uncle, former governor Pedro P. Tenorio, fondly known as Teno.

It was during the transition from Froilan to Teno's administrations in December 1997 that Abramoff planned a trip to the CNMI for then House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Abramoff wrote about golfing with then Tan Holdings executive and future governor Benigno R. Fitial, Teno, and DeLay.

Besides describing Fitial as "one of the leaders who helped shape the covenant that we fought so vigorously to defend" and "one of the most affable and knowledgeable representatives the CNMI had," he also said Fitial was a "great golfer."

Abramoff said the CNMI had real financial problems that the Teno administration did not engage their lobbying services. He said they spent over half a million dollars in billable time keeping the CNMI free from the new assaults by Interior's Allen Stayman and Rep. George Miller "but there was no one paying us."

Then main garment producer Willie Tan "stepped in and organized the private sector to pay our fees, or at least a portion of them," said Abramoff.

Abramoff also said Fitial later on told them about his plan to return to politics, run for the legislature, and reclaim the speakership of the House."

"We did all we could to support him, and in 1999, Ben won his seat in the legislative elections. But the Republicans decided to give the speakership to Heinz Hofschneider, a local politician more like Teno and Babauta than Ben or Froilan. Ben responded by bolting the party and forming a new one, the Covenant Party," he said.

Abramoff said in January 2000, Fitial was just a few votes short of winning the election for speaker.

"In Washington, we had done all we could do to promote him, including raising money and getting members of Congress cut taped messages in support of his candidacy. But that wasn't enough," he said. The efforts also included having the representatives from Rota and Tinian vote for Fitial.

When Fitial announced his gubernatorial candidacy, he was defeated by Babauta whose term began in January of 2002, when Abramoff said their representation ended.

"I had to watch what followed from the sidelines. Initially the Republicans still ran the Congress, and we had enough allies in the Administration to prevent a return to the wars of the Clinton years. The CNMI would survive Babauta's ineffectual term and live to see Ben Fitial elected as governor in 2005," Abramoff said.

Fitial, in an interview on Dec. 16, said he has not read Abramoff's new book but reiterated that Abramoff is "my friend."

When asked whether he would invite Abramoff to come to the CNMI again, Fitial said, "Mr. Abramoff can come here anytime if he wants to. If he comes here, I will entertain him as my brother."

Press secretary Angel Demapan, when asked yesterday, said he's sure the governor "would like to read it."

"Mr. Abramoff was very instrumental in aiding the CNMI to stave off previous attempts at federalization. Ironically, the very economic effects Mr. Abramoff warned leaders about federalization is now taking shape at the moment," Demapan said.

Florida-based human rights activist and former CNMI teacher Wendy Doromal, in her blog, said Abramoff's book "contains such a distorted portrait of the CNMI that it is insulting to anyone with even a minimal knowledge of the history of the Mariana Islands over the last 30 years."

"Abramoff’s arguments in defense of keeping the corrupt CNMI labor and immigration system show ignorance of the reality of the true situation. Or is it denial because he realizes that his actions helped to perpetuate a system where tens of thousands of foreign workers became victims of illegal recruitment, scams, human trafficking, forced prostitution, and a host of labor abuses, unpaid wages, illegal deductions, contact violations and more? At any rate, it is an inaccurate and offensive view," Doromal said.

After serving his prison term for a corruption scandal, Abramoff was released from prison and recently released his book which intended to "show the dirty underbelly of America's government and what steps must be taken to reform it."

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