The World According To Jack
A Los Angeles attorney, Al Meyerhoff was lead counsel for the class in the CNMI sweatshop litigation.
Noel Hillman is hardly a household name . When 35 Democratic senators cried foul over the appointment of the head Abramoff investigator to the federal bench, it created a sound heard 'round the Beltway, but if a tree falls in the forest . . .
However, whether Hillman is replaced by the special prosecutor sought by the Democrats or a career Justice Department official, the investigation should begin by leaving town. The key to the Abramoff scandal can be found not in Washington, D.C., but 9,000 miles away and 10 years ago—in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Specifically, those investigating Abramoff need to take a hard look at the same set of facts that rose to a racketeering lawsuit accusing the CNMI garment trade—Abramoff’s clients—with unlawful trafficking of bonded labor and other human rights violation on U.S. soil.
It was in 1996 that Jack Abramoff first welcomed Rep. Tom DeLay to the CNMI by placing a lei around his neck. For the next decade, with DeLay’s help, Abramoff would be a critical player in perpetuating a system of sweatshops and indentured labor in the CNMI garment industry. How he did so foretold “the culture of corruption” now prevalent in Washington, D.C.
Abramoff was ebullient that day. For good reason. In a speech before garment industry executives, DeLay said the Islands, located in the Western Pacific, “represented what is best about America.” By his lights, they did: business unfettered by pesky regulations, pliable local officials and hardly a trial lawyer to be found. Here was the GOP’s Contract with America in action. DeLay was in paradise. The CNMI government and garment industry would eventually pay Abramoff nearly $10 million to represent that vision before the Republican-controlled Congress that DeLay then led.
In 1975, when the Mariana Islands became a U.S. commonwealth, exempt from U.S. minimum wage and immigration laws, they also quickly became America’s biggest sweatshop. Tens of thousands of “guest workers,” primarily from China, were subject to “fraudulent recruitment practices, substandard living conditions, severe malnutrition, health problems and unprovoked acts of violence,” according to the U.S. Department of Interior. A recent settlement of a human rights class action eliminated the worst forms of abuse—such as “shadow contracts” shackling workers with up to $7,000 in “recruitment fees.” Yet CNMI garment workers are still paid roughly half the federal minimum wage. If they object, it’s back to China or Thailand or Bangladesh. Year in and year out, reform legislation has been blocked in the House of Representatives by the Abramoff machine.
How does this machine operate? For example, under Abramoff’s tutelage, more then 100 Hill staffers, conservative journalists and "think tankers" have been brought to the CNMI on “fact finding” junkets. Back in Washington, they then uniformly lauded the islands as "a true free market success story," a “laboratory of liberty" while characterizing reform efforts as the "modern siege of Saipan." Some siege.
When Abramoff’s contract with CNMI government ended in 2000, he simply went to work for the CNMI Garment Manufacturers Association—same church, new pew. Abramoff was also then reportedly retained by something called "Rose Garden Holdings"—housed in a luxury flat in Hong Kong (you can’t make this stuff up). “Rose Garden” is the creature of one Willie Tan, a Hong Kong billionaire and dominant figure in the CNMI garment trade. His former deputy, Benjamin Fitial, was just inaugurated CNMI governor; two former Tan employees are in the Cabinet. (While previously close to Abramoff, Fitial is now “cooperating” with the Justice Department probe.) The Washington Post recently reported that Tan and other garment interests contributed more than $500,000 to the “U.S. Family Network” with links to Abramoff and was billed by him $223,679 for three Washington area stadiums skyboxes.
Admittedly, the Marianas are just barely subject to the American social contract. They are on the very fringe of the country—in many ways like the wild, wild West. Yet the struggles there over human dignity and social justice reflect two starkly different visions of America. DeLay, Abramoff and the Republican Right prefer a society run by the powerful, oblivious to the dispossessed, requiring few if any regulatory controls, economic forces enjoying a cozy—almost symbiotic—relationship with government, thriving on "free trade" and corporate capitalism. That is CNMI. That is also where they are taking the rest of the country, with real world results demonstrated most recently by the “benign neglect” of New Orleans and deregulation of the West Virginia mines.
During last fall's hearings on the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, much was said about the rule of law. But laws are just paper that reflect core values. Since the New Deal, American laws have been enacted to safeguard our civil liberties, guarantee a minimum wage, provide pensions, protect public health, insure the right to organize unions and protect us all at work and at home. It is those laws and values that now are “under siege.”
The coming congressional elections are the next battle ground in that fight. The people in the CNMI can’t vote. We can.