Sweeney: You Call That A Sweatshop?

Rep. John Sweeney (R-NY) joined the Abramoff party today. And his blithe remarks about the lack of apparent mistreatment in the Northern Mariana Islands could mean political trouble.

In 2001, The Albany Times-Union reports, he took a trip to the Northern Marianas (CNMI), Jack Abramoff’s infamous client, but failed to disclose that the trip was privately-funded, as Congressional rules require. Sweeney says he thought the trip was paid for by the Marianas government; it was actually paid for by the island’s chamber of commerce. Pretty small potatoes for an Abramoff story.

But it gets better. The paper quotes remarks that Sweeney made during his visit to the U.S. territory, which had become notorious stateside for its human rights abuses:

Sweeney was quoted in the Saipan Tribune on Jan. 15 as saying reports of poor working conditions in the CNMI were overblown, and that he had seen worse sweatshops back home in New York. Carlson said Sweeney was “absolutely not” aware of any severe mistreatment of workers or forced prostitution before he made these comments.

The mistreatment of CNMI workers, of course, was no secret. They had been the subject of numerous news stories, Congressional hearings, and federal investigations. And it seems that Sweeney was more aware of the CNMI’s reputation than he’s letting on:

On Jan. 15, 2001, the Tribune reported Sweeney had indicated in his speech that the CNMI needed to continue efforts to combat its poor image back in the states.

“The reputation of the commonwealth is not really what ought to be,” Sweeney said. “I come (sic) here and found that the truth projected to me in Washington was not the truth at all.”…

Abramoff viewed these Congressional trips as prime opportunities to raise the islands’ profile. Over the years, he ferried dozens and dozens of lawmakers and staffers to see for himself that the so-called human rights abuses over there weren’t so very bad. Somehow they never saw what human rights activitists had seen. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), who’s worked for more than a decade to improve conditions there, said that “a blind pig could run into the human rights violations and the exploitation of workers on the islands.” Abramoff’s travellers, of course, ran anything but a blind course.

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