The Abramoff-DeLay-Mariana Islands Connection

The paths of retired Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) and disgraced lobbyist Jack Ambramoff intersect not just in Washington, D.C., but in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a chain of 17 small islands in the North Pacific.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie. Coming up, digging to China, you can't get there from here. But first, Tom DeLay left his seat in Congress last week under a legal cloud. The once powerful Majority Leader has been indicted in Texas for laundering campaign funds. His activities are also under scrutiny in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Two of his former aides have pleaded guilty in that investigation. One of the most interesting connections between DeLay and Abramoff involves a South Pacific island paradise, sweatshops, and Chinese garment manufacturers. The island paradise is the Northern Marianas, a string of islands in the Pacific captured by the U.S. in deadly fighting with the Japanese during World War II.

Ms. WENDY DOROMOL (Human Rights Activist): The islands are very beautiful. Huge breadfruit trees, pristine beaches. It's physically gorgeous and very ugly as far as political corruption.

YDSTIE: Wendy Doromol was a schoolteacher there in the 1980s and '90s, but became a human rights activist fighting sweatshops after guest workers on the islands came to her with tales of abuse.

Ms. DOROMOL: The barbed wire around the factories face inward so that the mostly women couldn't get out. They had quotas that were impossible for these people to reach and if they didn't reach them, they'd have to stay until they finished the quota and they wouldn't be paid for that work. They were hot, the barracks were horrible. A lot of the females were told you work during the day in the garment factory and then at night you can go and work in a club and they'd force them into prostitution at night.

YDSTIE: And they also experienced things like coerced abortion?

Ms. DOROMOL: Yes, if some female got pregnant, they either had to go back to China to give birth or have a forced abortion.

YDSTIE: Guest workers were lured to the Marianas by recruiters in countries like China, the Philippines and Bangladesh, who told them they were going to the United States. The recruiters charged workers around $5,000 for the trip. Nashir Jahidi(ph) is one of the workers Wendy Doromol befriended. He came to Saipan, one of the Northern Mariana Islands from Bangladesh by way of the Philippines. He says when he got on the plane, he thought he was going to America.

Mr. NASHIR JAHIDI (Ex-Worker): And not only me, there was some people that recruiter exactly told him that he can be going to Los Angeles by train from Saipan. So when I hear that the plane, you know, the host or somebody's saying they were about to land in Saipan and I when I looked out the window and I saw it's like blue water everywhere and small island and I was like, how?

YDSTIE: So you thought that you were going to be going to California or somewhere on the U.S. mainland?

Mr. JAHIDI: Not only me, most of the worker. They were surprised when they see the United States flag and the local island flag and we used the U.S. dollar, we used the U.S. stamp and everything, then people understand that this is only a small island. There is no way that you have the opportunity like what's in the United States.

YDSTIE: Garment manufacturers were attracted to the Marianas, which had become a U.S. commonwealth in 1976, because clothes made there could be labeled made in the U.S.A. and didn't face import quotas or duties. But despite flying the U.S. flag, the islands were exempt from many U.S. labor and immigration standards. As the abuses that Wendy Doromol helped uncover came to light, garment manufacturers there were sanctioned by the U.S. Labor Department. Then in the mid-1990s when it looked like Congress might force the Marianas to adopt U.S. Labor and Immigration laws, the island's government took action. It hired lobbyist Jack Abramoff to protect its special status. Abramoff was paid millions for his work. Here he is in a 1999 NPR story arguing that there were no abuses.

Mr. JACK ABRAMOFF (Lobbyist): In the Northern Marianas they're scrupulously careful to make sure that no one, if possible, is mistreated in any way, just because of the incredible microscope these people are under.

YDSTIE: But in 1998 Interior Department investigation, which Wendy Doromol had worked on, had documented continued abuses of guest workers on the islands. Abramoff dismissed the allegations.

Mr. ABRAMOFF: Most of the workers on the island would be violently upset if they understood what these self-proclaimed helpers of the workers are up to, which is in essence destroying their jobs and destroying their families' opportunities.

YDSTIE: Abramoff didn't only depend on his own persuasive ability though, he flew more than a hundred congressional aides and members of Congress to the island on fact-finding trips that usually involved a look at a showcase factory and then beach time, snorkeling and golf. Tom DeLay went on one of those trips. Here he is at a New Year's Eve dinner on the Marianas in 1997, congratulating the island's officials and business leaders.

Representative TOM DELAY (Republican, Texas): You are a shining light for what is happening in the Republican Party and you represent everything that is good about what we're trying to do in America, in leading the world in the free market system.

YDSTIE: That tape was from an ABC 20/20 investigative story that aired in 1998. And Global Survival Network, a human rights group, used a hidden microphone to capture the head of the island's biggest garment firm, a man named Willie Tan, boasting that DeLay had assured him his business would be protected.

Mr. WILLIE TAN (Textile Executive): I'm a very good friend of Tom DeLay.

YDSTIE: Tan starts by saying he's a very good friend of Tom DeLay's and that DeLay told him that as a member of the House Republican leadership, he controlled the schedule and would make sure reform legislation didn't get a hearing.

Mr. TAN: So Tom told me, forget it, Willie, no chance.

YDSTIE: In fact, through his House leadership position, DeLay made sure the House never considered any legislation dealing with abuses in the Marianas, even though one bill had 228 co-sponsors. By contrast, the Senate unanimously passed legislation aimed at curbing some of the abuses. Wendy Doromol testified at the Senate hearings. She says Tom DeLay had to be aware of the problems.

Ms. DOROMOL: He must've known what was going on, on the ground at that time. And if he didn't, I have to think, why would someone not know, why would they not know? Only because they wanted to ignore it.

YDSTIE: Federal investigators are looking for a money trail. They've subpoenaed the records of a non-profit group with ties to DeLay that got over $500,000 from Willie Tan's firm. The non-profit was run by DeLay's former chief of staff and spiritual advisor, Ed Buckham. Buckham also employed DeLay's wife, Christine. Now that DeLay has resigned, Democrats have reduced legislation to address the labor and immigration abuses in the Marianas. In the past few years, the garment industry on the island has shrunk as U.S. import quotas have been lifted and the made in the U.S.A. label has become less valuable. But now there are reports of labor abuses involving two other booming industries on the islands, gambling and entertainment, including the sex trade. Attorneys for Abramoff and DeLay declined to comment for this story.

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