Why did a congressman from California adopt the cause of a distant cluster of islands that his constituents most likely had never visited, much less heard of?
Two words: Jack Abramoff.
While Tom DeLay was the Northern Mariana Island‘s “biggest supporter on Capitol Hill,” there is another congressman whose efforts for the islands deserve special mention: Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA). Doolittle, who took tens of thousands of dollars from Abramoff and his clients, was such an ardent advocate for the Marianas that Jack Abramoff referred to him in an email as the islands’ “hero.”
What did he do to deserve such an honor?
A TPMmuckraker investigation shows that Doolittle stayed in close touch with the island’s needs through Abramoff and his team. According to billing records from Abramoff’s lobbying firm in 2001, Doolittle met several times each month with members of Team Abramoff to discuss the concerns of the Northern Marianas (CNMI) government, which had been an Abramoff client since 1994*. He signed “Dear Colleague” letters praising the islands; he met a number of times with island officials; and he was responsible for earmarking at least $400,000 in federal funds for the CNMI.
Doolittle’s office did not respond to my request for comment on this story.
The California lawmaker’s work for the Marianas and Abramoff’s other clients won him consistent and substantial support from the now-disgraced superlobbyist. Dating back to 1999, Abramoff, his associates, and their clients contributed at least $140,000 to the lawmaker’s campaigns and political action committees.
Perhaps Doolittle’s most significant favor for the islands was the $400,000 he secured in 2001, his first year on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development. The money funded a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on possible “improvements to [the CNMI’s] water infrastructure,” according to the bill.
Appropriations bills do not list the sponsors of earmarks, but a story in the local paper The Saipan Tribune credited Doolittle with securing the money; and billing records from Abramoff’s firm show several meetings between one of Abramoff’s lobbyists and both Doolittle and his staff regarding appropriations for the Marianas that year.
“It stinks,” said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense of the earmark, noting that the Corps of Engineers was one of Congressâ biggest pork barrels. “It looks like pay to play.”But Doolittle’s favors extended beyond earmarks. He met a number of times with Marianas officials, particuarly Ben Fitial, a close Abramoff associate who rose from Speaker of the House to be Governor of the Marianas. Doolittle visited the islands in February of 1999 as part of a congressional delegation. At least twice, in April of 2000 and April of 2001, he met with Fitial in Washington D.C. And in August of 2001, he endorsed Fitial in his run for governor, citing his ability to “get things done” and “[persuade] the Congress.”
Over several years, the congressman showed himself to be a prodigious letter writer for the islands. It at least one instance, there is evidence the letter was written by one of Abramoff’s colleagues.
Unfortunately, Doolittle’s support went mainly to those islanders who put money in Abramoff’s pocket — not the poor laborers who worked in the sweatshops which dot the islands.
In late May of 1999, the territory was still reeling from the bad publicity stemming from its garment factories, which had been widely criticized for their sweatshop conditions, when it made national news. ABC’s 20/20 aired a special investigative report on the factories, featuring an undercover camera that showed the conditions that the workers, mostly Chinese immigrants, were forced to endure.
Doolittle was there to help the island’s moneyed interests with damage control. The lawmaker, along with Rep. Joel Hefley (R-CO), sent a letter to his congressional colleagues denouncing the report as a ratings grab and arguing that the problems on the Marianas were really no worse than “any other city on the mainland” (you can read the letter here).
Another letter, sent in March of 2001, trumpeted the findings of a report by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); the inspector had found the conditions in the islands’ garment factories to be improving. It was a sign, Doolittle wrote, that the factories were “well on their way to becoming a model for the rest of the world.”
An Abramoff associate apparently had a hand in writing that letter. Records from Abramoff’s firm show that Kevin Ring, Doolittle’s former chief of staff who went on to work for Abramoff, billed the islands on March 12, 2001 for “work with Rep. Doolittle office regarding letter on OSHA report.” Doolittle’s letter went out the next day, according to The Saipan Tribune.
And there is, finally, Doolittle’s May 2001 letter to Ben Fitial, expressing his eagerness to earmark money for the islands. The islands were seeking funds for an Army Corps of Engineers study to improve two of their seaports. “Please know that I will continue to work with you to ensure these important projects obtain sufficient federal support,” Doolittle wrote. For reasons probably known only to Abramoff and his colleagues, the ports study was never funded, and Doolittle ended up earmarking the $400,000 for the water infrastructure project instead.
*Preston Gates lost the Mariana Islands as a client in late 1998, though they soon began representing the garment manufacturers through a private client, the Western Pacific Economics Council, an association of CNMI garment makers. The contract with CNMI was reinstated in 2000.