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Law firm asked to give back Abramoff money
Times chief political Reporter
The governor of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands wants a Seattle-based law and lobbying firm to pay back millions of dollars the government paid to hire lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Gov. Benigno Fitial said in a letter to Preston Gates this week that the firm overbilled the Pacific island government, Charles Reyes, the governor's press secretary, confirmed yesterday.
"The government is in a very bad financial situation, and if any of those funds can be recovered, that would be welcomed by the government," Reyes said.
Fitial, who is reported to have helped get island business for Abramoff, also is worried about the bad publicity the scandal has brought on the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).
"Now this is coming back to haunt the CNMI government, and it has had a very adverse effect on our government. We don't want to be tainted by any allegation of corruption."
The letter was sent to the firm's D.C. office, formally known as Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, where Abramoff worked from 1994 to 2000.
A letter also was sent to Greenberg Traurig, a lobbying firm, where Abramoff went to work in 2001.
Spokeswomen at both firms said they had not received the letter and had no comment.
The letter was reported in Tuesday's edition of the Saipan Tribune, which obtained a copy. Reyes said yesterday that the government would not release the letter. The Tribune reported that the letter asks the firms to repay all the lobbying fees paid to hire Abramoff from 1994-2001. The paper said the government claims it was overbilled, sometimes triple-billed, and alleges other improprieties, but the paper had no details.
The commonwealth is a U.S. territory in the Pacific, which includes the main island, Saipan. The islands are home to garment factories where immigrant workers, typically paid below the U.S. minimum wage, make clothes labeled as made in the United States.
The island government hired Preston Gates to help stop Congress from passing wage and immigration laws that would have affected the garment industry.
Last month, Abramoff pleaded guilty to charges of corruption, including a scheme involving the Marianas account.
In his plea agreement with the federal government, Abramoff admitted he paid for a senior aide to Congressman Bob Ney, R-Ohio, to travel to the islands in January 2000 to help Preston Gates in "obtaining and maintaining" lobbying clients. The plea agreement lists the aide's trip among the "official acts and influence" done in exchange for donations, free meals, concert tickets and other items Abramoff provided.
The same charge was part of the plea agreement of Abramoff's former assistant, Michael Scanlon, in November.
At the time of the trip, Preston Gates had lost its lobbying contract — which earned it $6.7 million over several years — with the CNMI government. It was reinstated in August 2000 — after the trip by the Ney aide and a separate trip a month earlier by two former top aides to congressional leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
The Los Angeles Times reported last year that the DeLay aides lobbied local politicians to back a candidate that DeLay and the garment industry supported for speaker of the territory's Legislature. Fitial, now governor, was that candidate and won his election as speaker. The newspaper said, "Fitial took several steps to pressure the island government to renew and extend contracts with Abramoff's law firm."
Reyes said yesterday that CNMI officials thought the visits by congressional aides were a positive step for a territory trying to build awareness in Washington, D.C.
"We understood that everything was legal and aboveboard," he said.
Reyes said the commonwealth is in the same situation as American Indian tribes Abramoff represented — tribes that say they were bilked of millions by the lobbyist.
The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a major Abramoff client, has reached a settlement with Greenberg Traurig and is in discussions with Preston Gates, according to tribal Attorney General Donald Kilgore.
In the Mariana islands, Reyes said officials are struggling to find a way to represent their interests in Washington, D.C. He said the commonwealth is the only territory without a delegate in Congress.
"The concept of a lobbyist right now is not popular," he said. "We have to take a step back and re-evaluate, in view of this development, how we can get past this and continue to push our issues."
David Postman: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
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