Bush, DeLay buddy under investigation

    Auditors questioned whether a tiny U.S. territory in the Pacific got its money’s worth when it paid millions of dollars to the firm of a lobbyist now under investigation for his work for Indian tribes.

    Jack Abramoff, who has ties to President Bush and No. 2 House Republican Tom DeLay, was the lead lobbyist for Seattle-based firm Preston Gates & Ellis when it worked on behalf of the Northern Mariana Islands to keep them free from certain U.S. labor and immigration laws during the last half of the 1990s, according to reviews conducted by the islands’ public auditors.

    The auditors questioned why the firm charged the islands for a golf tournament; quoted officials as saying they could save lobbying money by flying fewer members of Congress to their Pacific location; and said some payments to Abramoff’s firm were made illegally, according to the documents reviewed by The Associated Press.

    Andrew Blum, a spokesman for Abramoff attorney Abbe Lowell, said fees paid to Abramoff or his lobby firms were “more than justified.”

    “Mr. Abramoff and his team worked tirelessly on behalf of the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands and achieved tremendous results for this client,” Blum said.

    Preston Gates partner Jonathan Blank, speaking for the firm, declined to address specific audit findings.

    “This report seems to be primarily concerned with internal government procedures,” Blank said. “Looking quickly at the report, it would seem we did our job.”

    Abramoff, a major fund-raiser for President Bush, now is under investigation by a federal grand jury for deals under which he and an associate received at least $66 million from six Indian tribes to lobby for their casinos and other issues. The tribes question whether some charges were excessive.

    Democrats in Congress also are exploring Abramoff’s ties to DeLay, the House majority leader, citing foreign trips DeLay took that were arranged by the lobbyist and questioning whether DeLay made legislative decisions based on the relationship. DeLay, R-Texas, denies wrongdoing.

    One of those trips occurred in December 1997 when DeLay traveled to the Mariana Islands on a trip organized by Abramoff and paid for by the commonwealth government and the Saipan Garment Manufacturer’s Association.

    DeLay told the Houston Chronicle at the time that he saw nothing wrong with accepting the trip and that he viewed the Saipan garment industry as an example of “free-market success” because it didn’t have to follow most U.S. labor laws, exemptions he said he would fight to maintain.

    Abramoff was the lead lobbyist for the islands for Preston Gates through 2000, then took the account to a new firm, Greenberg Traurig.

    The audit reports said the island’s lobbying costs fell after Abramoff changed firms, but they also questioned why the island awarded the new contract to Greenberg Traurig without competitive bidding.

    The auditors concluded the islands’ government broke its own laws when it paid Preston Gates just over $3 million from October 1996 to October 1997 after their contract had expired, and they questioned whether the islands got their money’s worth.

    The reports recommended that the commonwealth government further examine its contracting practices, and concluded that its agreement to do so largely resolved the audits.

    The tiny commonwealth with a population of about 80,000, located in the Pacific Ocean near Guam, “may have in the past paid more than it needed to for lobbyist services,” the auditor reported in November 2001.

    The auditor also reported that while island government officials believed the lobbying work helped keep them free from new U.S. regulations, “it may be difficult to validate to what extent lobbyists were the reasons behind preserving the status quo.”

    Another audit concluded about $1.2 million in government payments to Preston Gates were “not adequately supported.” The charges included travel, telephone, photocopy, computer research and outside-professional fees. Auditors said Preston Gates also improperly billed the government $2,000 for a June 1996 golf tournament.

    The audits showed that between October 1993 and September 2001 the Preston Gates firm reaped about $6.7 million from the commonwealth’s government, about 72 percent of the government’s overall lobbying payments. The Mariana Islands government was one of the firm’s biggest clients, the audit said.

    When Abramoff moved to Greenberg Traurig, the islands began to get more work for their money, but Abramoff began to do less work, the reports said.

    “Our analysis of billings and time charges shows that the CNMI (islands’ government) has received more lobbyist services from Greenberg Traurig, in terms of time spent, than it did from Preston Gates,” the audit said.

    The new firm was to lobby the U.S. government “to preserve the Commonwealth’s current independence from certain aspects of United States immigration, customs, and labor laws, to provide representation of Commonwealth’s issues during the transition to the new Bush administration, and to advance other Commonwealth interests.”

    © 2005 The Associated Press