Marianas governor and Doolittle ally says cooperating in probe
WASHINGTON (AP) – The governor of the Northern Mariana Islands said Thursday he’s cooperating with the Justice Department’s corruption investigation around jailed GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which is focused in part on GOP Rep. John Doolittle of Rocklin.
The tiny U.S. commonwealth also is still trying to get back some of the millions it paid Abramoff’s firms over the years, said Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, a one-time Abramoff ally who counted Doolittle among his congressional supporters.
Fitial referred questions about the Justice Department’s inquiry to his Los Angeles attorney, Tom Pollack, who didn’t immediately return calls for comment.
But Fitial, who in past years pushed to extend Abramoff’s contract to represent the Marianas, did not distance himself from the disgraced lobbyist, or from Doolittle.
“When I have a friend that friend always remains a friend,” said Fitial, who became House speaker of the Marianas in 2000 after intervention from two former aides to former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. After becoming speaker Fitial pushed for Abramoff’s contract to continue.
Abramoff is cooperating with the government’s wide-ranging influence-peddling investigation after pleading guilty last year to conspiracy and other charges and admitting to bilking his clients. The investigation already has netted guilty pleas from a dozen administration and congressional aides and one former congressman, ex-GOP Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio.
The Justice Department’s interest in Doolittle appears to focus on payments Doolittle’s wife, Julie, received from Abramoff for fundraising work unrelated to the Marianas. But Doolittle was also heavily involved in Abramoff’s advocacy for the Marianas, endorsing Fitial for governor and pushing federal funding on his behalf.
Doolittle was lobbied on the issue by his own former legislative director, Kevin Ring, who went on to work with Abramoff and now is himself under investigation.
“Doolittle, he’s also a friend,” said Fitial.
Fitial spoke to reporters after testifying against a Senate bill that would impose U.S. immigration laws on the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a chain of 14 islands just north of Guam in the Pacific. A similar bill passed the Senate in 2000 but Abramoff helped block it from advancing in the House.
“He did what he is paid to do and that is to prevent federal takeover of immigration in the CNMI,” said Fitial.
With Abramoff behind bars the bill looks like it has a chance of becoming law. A House version was introduced on Wednesday.
The economy of the Northern Mariana Islands, which became a U.S. commonwealth in 1976, is based around garment factories and tourism, both of which are faltering.
Although Northern Marianas natives are U.S. citizens, the government there runs its own guest worker program outside the purview of the U.S. government. U.S. officials say that has to stop because of security risks, human trafficking abuses and other problems. Legislation by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, would impose U.S. immigration rules over time, with some exceptions.
Fitial told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that the island is solving its own problems and changes to its guest worker program could damage the economy.
“This legislation will cripple our recovery efforts,” he testified.
The Marianas paid at least $6.7 million to Abramoff’s Preston Gates firm from 1993 to 2001, and at least $1.7 million more to his subsequent firm Greenberg Traurig, records show. Auditors for the island later questioned some of those payments.
Marianas Attorney General Matthew Gregory said the island was working to recover some of the money but had so far been unsuccessful.
FBI agents visited the Marianas in February to interview officials there in the Abramoff affair, according to a report in an island publication.