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People have been giving Bob Schaffer, the Republican candidate for Senate in Colorado, a hard time about his advocacy on behalf of the Northern Mariana Islands. But Schaffer thinks it’s about time to give credit where credit is due: after all, he braved an interminable flight to the end of the earth to investigate human rights abuses.

But the trip was organized by Jack Abramoff, you might say, and has been demonstrated to have been just another cog in Abramoff’s lobbying strategy. Abramoff’s goal was to keep the federal government from spoiling the Marianas’ “perfect petri dish of capitalism,” and a key tactic was to attack Clinton’s Interior Department to distract from the human rights abuses on the islands. Schaffer was a more than willing participant.

Schaffer took to the airwaves earlier this week to air his grudges on a local conservative talk radio program. The Denver Post had done him wrong, he said, by covering the issue with such clear bias.

But more than anything, he’s not getting credit for going where so few other lawmakers dared to go:

And by the way, I’ll tell you there’s 435 members of Congress, these reports had been in circulation throughout the 90s, and there weren’t very many who went and investigated them the way I did. I don’t owe anybody any … any kind of remorse or regret for investigating these abuses firsthand….

This is a controversial issue, this island has been at the source of great political conflict for quite a long time, on a number of levels, not just these allegations of sweatshops and so on, but there’s a big political controversy taking place there about the sovereignty and relative independence that this commonwealth has compared to other states, or even compared to other U.S. protectorates.

So, a lot of people in Congress would walk away from that and not even look into it because of the controversy. I frankly didn’t care, and went and saw what I saw, and followed my own instincts and inclinations based on both favorable and unfavorable reports about the island.

Of course, this might carry more heft if Abramoff hadn’t been constantly ferrying lawmakers, staffers, and their families over to the Marianas in the late nineties — some 85 people in all by mid-2000. It turns out that it wasn’t that hard to lure people over for a free trip to tropical islands.

Abramoff didn’t sponsor all the trips. Like, say, the one taken by then-Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-AK), who returned outraged by the conditions there and spent the next several years trying to pass a bill to reform the labor and immigration laws on the Marianas (Abramoff was able to block it with the help of his House Republican friends). But somehow those who took the Abramoff organized trips didn’t come back so angry.

Omitting the fact that documents show that he knew Abramoff’s lobbying firm had made the travel arrangements for his trip, Schaffer says that nobody led him around by the nose while he was on the islands. It was five days of unfettered and unrelenting access, he says:

Nobody led me around there, nobody showed me a sanitized version of what they wanted me to see. My wife and I, and a staffer, and the two individuals from the Family Values Coalition led an investigation according to what I as the member of Congress thought was the best way to spend five days.

We worked around the clock by the way and conducted dozens and dozens of interviews, both on-site and off-site.

Ignore that picture of him parasailing with his wife during his visit there and it’s an inspiring evocation.

You can read a full transcript of portions of the interview below. The audio is here.

Question: Now that we know about Jack Abramoff and we know the kind of strings that were pulled for the labor or sweatshops in the Marianas Islands… I’ve never been there, you were there. Do you have second thoughts on, one, accepting that trip, and two, your response to what you saw there?

Schaffer: Well, first, even with hindsight, the trip was paid for by a Christian organization called Family Values Coalition which represents about 20,000 churches in the U.S. and internationally, and I went with the leader of that organization, the pastor and his daughter.

They paid for the trip and I organized the trip and decided on my schedule and the places I would see, and the organizations I wanted to meet with. And so when I met with a Catholic bishop there, for example, and other Catholic politicians and leaders of other pro-life denominations on the island, I picked those meetings, nobody else did. When I visited the factories I visited, I picked them, it was based on various human rights reports that were done by government organizations as well as non-government organizations. I decided which settings we were going to see.

When we, for example, interviewed some of the workers who had been part of class action lawsuits against some of the factories, or, in some cases, the island itself, it was me who decided that we wanted to seek out the lawyers behind that class action lawsuit, and they introduced me to their clients who were alleging various abuses. I interviewed them myself, and nobody else did that for me.

And by the way, I’ll tell you there’s 435 members of Congress, these reports had been in circulation throughout the 90s, and there weren’t very many who went and investigated them the way I did. I don’t owe anybody any … any kind of remorse or regret for investigating these abuses firsthand.

Question: Did you like what you saw in terms of their guest worker program, wasn’t that served as kind of an entrée for the Denver Post, weren’t they … didn’t you suggest it was a model for the way we should deal with workers from south of the border?

Schaffer: No, that’s a perfect example of The Denver Post‘s failure to report accurately. I meant a very narrow aspect of the CNMI’s, of the commonwealth’s, immigration process, and that was a pre-process of qualifying foreign labor in their home country before they’re given entry visas to set foot on American soil. I suggested that the U.S. government looking for a solution ought to consider that kind of a process.

That is far from suggesting I endorse everything that goes on in the CNMI , that goes on there. The Denver Post immediately took that statement and suggested that I’m somehow in favor of forced abortions, which I am clearly not. I’m against that idea and would fight vigorously against such notion.

Secondly, they suggested I was in favor of any abuse that occurs, or had occurred, or continues to occur on that island, and I’ve never said anything of that sort, or given any indication of anything along those lines, yet that’s what voters have read. I regret that you can’t rely on objective reporting anymore and….

This is a controversial issue, this island has been at the source of great political conflict for quite a long time, on a number of levels, not just these allegations of sweatshops and so on, but there’s a big political controversy taking place there about the sovereignty and relative independence that this commonwealth has compared to other states, or even compared to other U.S. protectorates.

So, a lot of people in Congress would walk away from that and not even look into it because of the controversy. I frankly didn’t care, and went and saw what I saw, and followed my own instincts and inclinations based on both favorable and unfavorable reports about the island.

Nobody led me around there, nobody showed me a sanitized version of what they wanted me to see. My wife and I, and a staffer, and the two individuals from the Family Values Coalition led an investigation according to what I as the member of Congress thought was the best way to spend five days.

We worked around the clock by the way and conducted dozens and dozens of interviews, both on-site and off-site. We utilized human rights organizations that were there at our disposals, [that had] agreed to work with me. And again, I didn’t just go there to look at that which was positive and favorable.

We worked pretty hard to make sure that we gave anybody who had complaints, or grievances, to communicate them to me. And we found some problems and in other cases we found situations that looked like any well-run factory anywhere else in America. We saw what we saw and it was mixed, and I’ve never characterized it as anything other than that.

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