The guilty plea last week by a former senior committee aide to Rep. Don Young sheds new light on the circumstances surrounding Youngs success seven years ago in blocking reforms of the sweatshop industry on the Mariana Islands.
But the plea also raises new questions about why Young, R-Alaska, took the actions he did.
Former Alaskan Mark Zachares, a Mariana Islands official when Young blocked the reforms, admitted Tuesday that he later conspired to illegally use his official position on the House Transportation Committee to enrich disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, once the lobbyist for the island commonwealth.
Zachares admitted engaging in the conspiracy for nearly four years including more than two years under the noses of Young, the committee chairman, and the committees chief of staff, former Alaska state Sen. Lloyd Jones, a long-term Young aide from Ketchikan.
A spokesman for Young said the congressman wouldnt talk about Zachares. Jones didnt respond to requests for comment last week. In return for doing Abramoffs bidding, Zachares received more than $60,000 in cash and benefits plus the promise of a lucrative career working in one of Abramoffs companies, according to the charges. Zachares, 49, is now cooperating with U.S. prosecutors, who have already notched 11 convictions in the Abramoff scandal.
YOUNG BLOCKS BILL
After Zachares father retired from the Air Force, the family moved to Kotzebue in 1977, where his mother, a nurse, worked for the Indian Health Service. Zachares attended the University of Alaska Anchorage and played for UAA in the first Great Alaska Shootout in 1978. He eventually became a lawyer.
From 1994 to 2002, Zachares worked in Saipan for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a string of tiny islands under U.S. jurisdiction north of Guam. Starting in 1998, he was the commonwealths secretary of labor and immigration, according to the criminal information.
Abramoff was the commonwealths lobbyist. According to the Saipan Tribune, he was paid at least $11 million from 1994 to 2001 to prevent Congress from interfering with local regulation of wage rates and immigration the two issues under Zachares authority. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Zachares came to have extensive contact with Abramoff during Zachares tenure as an official of the CNMI, and Zachares and Abramoff became personal and professional acquaintances, the charging document said.
The island economy was booming with garment factories relocated from Asia and run by guest workers from Bangladesh, China and other countries. Clothing produced there is exempt from duties and is allowed to be labeled Made in U.S.A. desired by American retailers but the exemptions from U.S. immigration and labor laws led to widespread reports of abusive practices.
Reform efforts surfaced over the years, including in 2000. That was Youngs last year as chairman of the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over U.S. territories. A bill reached his committee that would have imposed U.S. immigration laws on the Northern Marianas, ending the freewheeling local policies.
Young stopped the bill cold, saying it interfered with the commonwealths right to self-rule. He was supported by then Majority Whip Tom DeLay, who described the Marinas as a perfect petri dish of capitalism.
Im not going to move anything, Young said at the time. Why should you move anything thats really been fueled, very frankly, by hysteria reporting by the media?
Youngs assertion was false. The measure that found its way to Youngs roadblock was fueled by the eyewitness account of none other than U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska.
ABUSES APPALL MURKOWSKI
Murkowski was then chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which had parallel jurisdiction over the Mariana commonwealth. In 1996, he traveled to Saipan and was outraged by the human rights abuses he saw.
Visiting one garment factory, Murkowski said, he talked with some Bangladesh workers who had not been paid and who were living in appalling conditions. He also described a young woman taken to Saipan as a minor and forced to work as a prostitute.
This was occurring under the U.S. flag and supposedly with the protection all U.S. citizens enjoy under our Constitution, Murkowski said in a Senate speech in 1999.
His response was to initiate an immigration reform measure. His bill passed the Senate unanimously in February 2000 but never got to the floor of the House.
That was years before Abramoff or DeLays K Street Project the granting of special access to Republican lobbying firms had entered the popular vocabulary. Both were at work in preserving the status quo in Saipan.
Abramoff teamed up with DeLay in defeating a proposed legislation passed by the U.S. Senate that would have stripped the CNMI of its exemption from the U.S. minimum wage and immigration laws, the Saipan Tribune reported in 2002.
While Young wont answer questions now, he said in an Op-Ed piece in the Daily News last year that he was convinced to oppose reforms by Saipan officials, not Abramoff.
I have never had any personal or professional relationship with Abramoff. My congressional campaign and political action committee have never received a contribution from Abramoff. I have personally never received one cent from him, Young wrote.
But Young and Abramoff continued to intersect after the death of Murkowskis immigration legislation, the charges against Zachares reveal.
ABRAMOFF TIED TO ZACHARES
Term limits forced Young to give up the House Resources Committee after the 2000 election. But his seniority earned him another chairmanship, this one in control of hundreds of millions of dollars in pork-barrel spending the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
One of the mysteries in the Zachares case is what led Abramoff to find a job for him on Youngs committee. From late 2000 through 2001, Abramoff tried to get Zachares appointed as director of insular affairs, the Department of the Interior position that oversees the commonwealth and other U.S. territories, according to the charges. For unexplained reasons, he was unsuccessful.
Zachares left his job in Saipan in January 2002 and asked Abramoff for money, according to the charges. Abramoff paid him $10,000. At the same time, prosecutors said, Abramoff continued to look for a place for Zachares to land.
That place turned out to be Youngs committee.
Zachares was hired as legal counsel to its Oversight & Investigations subcommittee, then became staff director for the Coast Guard & Maritime subcommittee. The then-chair of that subcommittee, Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., said he had nothing to do with hiring Zachares.
Congressman Don Young, who was chair of the full House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during that time, was solely in charge of the hiring, firing and daily management of staff, including Mark Zachares, LoBiondo press secretary Jason Galanes said in a prepared statement last week. Despite being a subcommittee chair, Congressman LoBiondo had no input in the selection or management of staff members for the Coast Guard & Maritime Transportation Subcommittee.
HANDING OUT FAVORS
While doing favors for Abramoff from his positions on Youngs committee, Zachares was rewarded with all kinds of favors, from being invited on a $160,000 golf trip to Scotland to use of Abramoffs luxury box seats at the MCI Center in Washington where the Wizards of the NBA and Capitals of the NHL play.
Young also used Abramoffs Skybox at the MCI Center for several political fundraisers, campaign spokesman Steve Dougherty told the Daily News last year. Most of those events took place during Capitals hockey games, he said.
Dougherty would not say whether Abramoff was reimbursed for the use of the skybox. My answer to you is we pay for all costs that the campaign is legally responsible for, he said.
While records confirm Youngs statement that Abramoff himself never gave Young campaign money, Abramoffs clients have given at least $20,000 to Youngs campaigns and his Midnight Sun political action committee since 1999, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a public interest nonprofit, and campaign finance reports.
On March 12, three weeks before a Justice Department lawyer signed the charges against Zachares, Young spent $25,000 of his campaign money to retain a Washington law firm. Dougherty said the firm, Akin Gump, was hired to advise Young on campaign finance questions related to a donor involved in another scandal, indicted Wisconsin trucking executive and gambling casino developer Dennis Troha.
REFORM ON AGENDA
Now, with Abramoff in prison on fraud and bribery charges and Democrats in control of Congress, reform in the Northern Marianas has once again returned to the political agenda.
Last year, a new governor in Saipan demanded that Abramoffs firms return all the money the government paid him over the years now that the commonwealth was getting nothing but bad publicity for having hired him. Abramoff lost his contract there in 2001.
And this year, Youngs longtime nemesis in House Resources, Democrat Rep. George Miller of California, inserted a provision in the Iraq spending bill that would extend the U.S. minimum wage to the commonwealth. The measure passed the House and Senate, but is expected to be vetoed by President Bush because of its deadline to withdraw troops from Iraq.
Miller, the new chairman of the ouse Labor & Education Committee, has been saying for years that failure to reform immigration and labor policy in the Marianas has not only enriched Abramoff and his clients, its caused real human suffering and threatened national security.
The core corruption in the CNMI is the failure to apply our federal immigration laws to this part of the United States, Miller said in a 1999 oversight hearing chaired by Young. As a result, organized crime, communicable disease and human exploitation, directly attributable to the CNMIs lax immigration laws, not only thrive in Saipan, but threaten every American. The time has long since passed to slam the door shut on these abuses and to restore federal law to the Marianas.
Daily News reporter Richard Mauer can be reached at 257-4345 or at email@example.com.