Rep. Don Young has said he never allowed convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff to be an influential force over him in Congress.
But now a trove of old billing records from two of Abramoff's firms show that his team of lobbyists had more than 120 contacts with Young's personal and committee staffs over 25 months, including at least 10 with Young himself.
The available records cover a single Abramoff client, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the Pacific that Young oversaw when he chaired the House Resources Committee from 1995 to 2001.
The records show that one of the looming concerns of Abramoff and his fellow lobbyists at the time was a bill introduced by Young's fellow Alaskan, Sen. Frank Murkowski, to reform labor and immigration practices feeding the island's notorious Chinese-owned sweatshops. In 2000, Murkowski's bill passed the Senate unanimously, but Young stopped it cold in his committee, refusing to hold even a hearing.
Young has denied taking that action or any other as a favor to Abramoff, now in a federal prison.
"Abramoff is, and has been, inconsequential to my work in Congress," Young wrote in 2006 in response to a Daily News editorial linking him to the lobbyist. "I have never had any personal or professional relationship with Abramoff."
But as more information surfaces in the Abramoff lobbying scandal, the connections to Young only deepen. Among that new information was a private memo written by Abramoff himself to the governor of the Mariana Islands, expressing concern that Young was being forced by term limits to give up his Resources chairmanship in 2001.
"The loss of Chairman Young's authority cannot easily be measured -- or replaced," Abramoff wrote on Jan. 4, 2001, in crediting Young with blocking reform legislation. "We have lost major institutional memory and friendship."
LINKS TO ABRAMOFF
Young has been defending himself over matters related to Abramoff since the lobbying scandal began to unravel in 2005. Young's campaign spokesman and chief of staff, Mike Anderson, declined to say in an interview last week whether some portion of the $1.1 million the campaign has spent on legal fees over the last year relate to the ongoing FBI investigation of the Abramoff affair, which has led to 13 convictions so far of lobbyists, aides, a former congressman and two former administration officials. Young himself refused to discuss the matter the last time he met with reporters in Anchorage in February, and Anderson would not comment on matters involving Abramoff.
Young first came under criticism related to Abramoff over his efforts as Resources chairman to preserve the freewheeling Mariana economy. Investigations by the government, media and human rights groups uncovered widespread abuses in the garment industry and among sex workers there starting in the mid-1990s, but Young asserted those investigations were bogus.
Then, in 2006, a four-year-old letter surfaced from Young asking the head of the General Services Administration to grant preferences in the development of the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, D.C., to disadvantaged businesses. Abramoff was seeking just such a privilege for two Indian tribe clients. A Young spokesman would later say that fact was a coincidence.
Last year, Mark Zachares, whom Young hired as a top aide on the House Transportation Committee, pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from Abramoff and agreed to help investigators. Before going to work for Young, Zachares, originally from Alaska, had been a labor and immigration official for the Mariana government. Prosecutors said Abramoff placed Zachares on Young's committee, and Zachares used his insider spot to help Abramoff's clients. Since Zachares' plea 12 months ago, Young has refused to explain what he knows about how Zachares got his job.
Now the 900-plus pages of Abramoff billing records and memos associated with the Mariana Islands are telling more of the story, though they represent only a fraction of Abramoff's total business activities from the 1990s until his first guilty plea on Jan. 3, 2006.
The documents emerged in 2005, when the Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press and other media obtained them under a public information request from the Mariana capital of Saipan. Dennis Greenia, a blogger and publications director for the nonprofit Co-op America, provided copies of the records to the Daily News. Some of those records are also coming into play in Colorado, where the Denver Post has been writing about another congressman with Abramoff and Mariana Islands ties, former Rep. Bob Schaffer, a Republican now running for U.S. Senate.
As a member of Young's Resources Committee, Schaffer took a free trip to the Mariana Islands arranged by Abramoff's law firm, then played a central role in a 1989 committee hearing investigating Interior department officials in the Clinton administration who were trying to rein in the Saipan government.
The documents span an intermittent period of 25 months from January 1996 to December 2001. At times during that period, the Mariana government let its arrangement with Abramoff lapse. Other months of billing records are missing.
But the records that are available show Abramoff billing the island commonwealth for some 120 contacts by his team with Young's staff and Young himself -- meetings, phone calls and letters.
Abramoff billed the government for just one meeting he had with Young, on March 6, 1997. At the time, the governor of the territory was visiting Washington. One of Abramoff's lobbyists, Lisa Helpert Tucker, reported five meetings with Young from March 27, 1996, to Oct. 2, 1997. Lobbyists Dennis Stephens, Shawn Vassell, William Myhre and Darrell Connor all said they met with Young in 1996 and 1997.
Lloyd Jones, a former Alaska state senator from Ketchikan who went to work for Young, had 10 meetings and phone conferences with Abramoff's team when he was staff director of the Resources Committee, according to the records. Jones, who retired in January, didn't return a call left on the answering machine at his home in Virginia, where he lives with his wife, Jan Faiks, another former Alaska state senator.
Other Young aides, including Kurt Christensen, Dan Kish, Manase Mansur and Bill Simmons, had nearly as many contacts as Jones. Lu Young, the congressman's wife, attended a meeting with an Abramoff lobbyist on Sept. 14, 2000, the records show.
But by far the largest number of contacts -- 35 -- were with Duane Gibson, a lawyer on Young's Resources Committee who followed Young when he became Transportation Committee chairman in 2001. Gibson is a former aide to Sen. Ted Stevens and, with his brother Brett, also a lawyer, owns the Anchorage company that makes Yummy Chummies dog treats.
Gibson, as a congressional official, took a trip to the Mariana Islands in December 1997 that was arranged and paid for by Abramoff's lobbying firm. Abramoff submitted a $48,042 bill to the Mariana government to cover the cost of the trip, which included 10 people, among them:
Lobbyist David Safavian, who a few years later would land a job as the Bush administration's top procurement official in the General Services Administration. Safavian was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2006 for covering up his connections to Abramoff.
Roger France, former chief of staff to Rep. Charles Taylor, R-N.C. France is now living in Anchorage, where he has a contract to develop the public relations campaign to open the Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay region, according to Pebble spokesman Sean Magee.
TROUBLE FOR LOBBYISTS
Shortly after Young took over the Transportation Committee in 2001 for a six-year term -- assuming continued Republican control of the House -- Abramoff lobbyist Dennis Stephens sent an e-mail to Abramoff, with the subject line "duane gibson." It was an idea of how to exploit a new situation with old friends.
"Maybe you and I need to meet with Duane and have him walk us through (a blacked-out name) priorities at his new committee," Stephens said. "Young should be there for six years -- that is plenty of time to develop appropriate clients, sign them up and deliver."
In its charging documents against Mark Zachares, the Alaskan who went to work for Young and pleaded guilty to accepting Abramoff bribes, the government said Abramoff tried to find a job for him in the Interior Department office that oversaw U.S. territories. But the Bush administration wouldn't hire Zachares.
Instead, he got a job as counsel to a subcommittee of Young's Transportation Committee in June 2002, one month after Gibson left to work for Abramoff's firm, Greenberg Traurig.
Zachares' guilty plea made reference to a person who intervened on his behalf to get him the job, but did not name or otherwise identify the person. Young and his spokesmen have refused to provide more information. Lloyd Jones would have been in overall charge of the staff. The chairman of the subcommittee where Zachares worked, Rep. Frank LoBiondio, R-N.J., said Young had overall supervision of the entire staff, including Zachares.
Gibson has consistently declined to talk about anything connected with Abramoff. Reached on his cell phone last week, he said he had nothing to say.
While working at Greenberg Traurig, one of his fellow lobbyists e-mailed Gibson and others that a terrible situation was developing in the White House. An ethics official had advised agencies dealing with Indian tribes that lobbyists should never be allowed to attend their meetings, and that it was a waste of tribes' money to hire lobbyists at all.
Those were "fighting words," the lobbyist, Kevin Ring, wrote Gibson. Tribes with casinos were some of Greenberg Trauig's most lucrative clients.
Gibson responded quickly, telling Ring to find out all he could about the ethics adviser -- and get her fired. He also suggested a dirty trick: start a "phone bank" to place a thousand calls a day to the ethics adviser "from every tribe with a problem."
There was nothing in the records to indicate whether Ring followed through with Gibson's advice.
Greenberg Trauig fired Abramoff in March 2004 as he was falling under increasing scrutiny. Gibson left a few months later. He now lobbies on his own or subcontracts from other lobbying firms, according to his lobbying registrations. By far his biggest contract is with the Pebble Mine partnership, generating nearly $1 million in fees since 2005.
Pebble spokesman Magee said the mine developers got to know Gibson when he was lobbying for the Alaska Miners Association. He said he asked Gibson about Abramoff last week following an inquiry by the Daily News. Gibson said he wasn't under investigation, Magee said. However, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2006 that the Justice Department sought information on Gibson in a grand jury subpoena served on an Indian tribe in Louisiana represented by Abramoff and Gibson.
The situation in the Mariana Islands set up an unusual public confrontation between Young and Alaska's then-junior senator, Frank Murkowski. Both are Republicans.
The Marianas are a string of 14 islands north of Guam, the scene of bloody battles with Japan during World War II. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was assembled on one of the islands. After the war, the people of the islands decided to affiliate with the United States. Their covenant, signed in 1976, allowed them to have their own immigration and labor policies, though Congress retained the right to impose all U.S. laws.
In the 1980s, tariffs on garments made in some Asian countries gave a decided advantage to clothing factories in the Marianas. Though the industry in Saipan was dominated by the Tan family from Hong Kong and the clothing was made by "guest workers" from China, the Philippines, Bangladesh and elsewhere, the labels said, "Made in U.S.A." The island economy boomed, but not without cost in human misery.
A growing number of reports spoke of near slave-labor conditions, with workers kept in sealed compounds, required to work seven days a week without overtime, and sometimes getting no paycheck at all. There were widespread reports of women coerced into getting abortions to keep their jobs. Some women hired abroad found themselves working not in garment factories at all, but sex clubs.
Murkowski was then chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which, like Young's committee, had jurisdiction over the Mariana commonwealth. In February 1996, he and Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, traveled to Saipan to see conditions themselves. They returned outraged.
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.
By the time Murkowski introduced his first bill to take over labor and immigration on the Marianas, in 1997, Abramoff was working for the garment industry and the government. Murkowski failed to get a vote on his bill, but he introduced a slightly scaled-back measure in the next Congress in 1999. This time, the Senate passed it by unanimous consent on Feb. 7, 2000. It went to the House, where it was assigned to Young's committee.
In memos to the Marianas government that March, April and May, Abramoff said his staff was closely monitoring the legislation. In April, he wrote, his lobbyists "continued meetings with House Resources Committee Members and staff to advocate rejection" of the Murkowski measure. Actual billing records for those months are not available, so there's no way to know who the lobbyists were talking to.
Young stopped Murkowski's bill cold, refusing to let it out of his committee. He said the stories of worker abuse were largely fabricated by trade unions and special interest groups promoted by the news media.
"There's no need to move anything," he told a Daily News reporter in July 2000. "Why should you move anything that's really been fueled, very frankly, by hysteria reporting by the media?"
The following January, in his private memo to Mariana officials, Abramoff took credit for the result. "We erected a roadblock in the House to stop the bill from moving," he wrote.
Was that bluster by Abramoff in an effort to convince a client to shell out more money, or did he actually manipulate Young?
Since leaving office, Murkowski has declined to talk about the Marianas issue.
YOUNG DEFENDS ROLE
In the 2006 op-ed column in the Daily News, Young said he was listening to the administration on the islands, not Abramoff, when he spiked Murkowski's bill.
Young also said he got first-hand information when he led a congressional trip to the Marianas and nearby Guam and the Marshall Islands in February 1999. He brought along three delegates from other U.S. territories, eight staff members including Lloyd Jones, and four other congressmen, including Rep. John Doolittle, R-Sacramento, whose wife's home office was raided by FBI agents last year in the Abramoff investigation. Doolittle has not been charged.
Young visited factories and residences. Critics charged that all he saw was what the Tan family wanted him to see.
The visit was covered wall-to-wall by the local paper, the Marinas Variety News & View. A day after Young's group left, on Feb. 22, 1999, it published a small story about an alien worker group that said the delegation provided "no help" with abuse claims. Leaders of the organization, representing Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Chinese, Sri Lankans and Indians, managed to get a one-hour hearing with the delegation -- minus Young, the paper said. Young didn't meet with the group, the newspaper reported, because he "was tired."
WAGE BILL BECOMES LAW
With the Democrats back in control of Congress, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., long a foe of Young's on the Mariana Islands, introduced a bill in 2006 that would bring the islands in line with the U.S. minimum wage. President Bush signed it into law last year. Then, two weeks ago, the Senate approved a House measure extending U.S. immigration law to the islands. That, too, is expected to be enacted.
Find Richard Mauer online at adn.com/contact/rmauer or call 257-4345.
What is the Abramoff investigation?
In his heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s, he was routinely referred to in print as "super-lobbyist" Jack Abramoff. That's been replaced with "disgraced lobbyist." Abramoff and his team of lobbyists, many of them former Republican congressional aides, made tens of millions of dollars advocating for Indian tribes with casinos, U.S. territories and dozens of other clients. But Abramoff's access to Congress was greased with bribes and his dealings with clients were marred by fraud, according to his guilty pleas on Jan. 3, 2006, in Washington and the following day in Florida. He agreed to cooperate in an ongoing FBI investigation of influence peddling.
So far, 11 others have been convicted in the Abramoff case, including three former Bush administration officials, former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and two of his former aides, two former aides to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and an aide to Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.
-- Richard Mauer
From 1995 to 2001, Don Young was chairman of the House Resources Committee, which had oversight of U.S. territories, including the Mariana Islands. From 2001-2007, Young chaired the House Transportation Committee.
Some 25 months of billing records from Abramoff's firms to the Mariana government list the hours worked on its behalf and who lobbyists had contacted. Key lobbyists who worked with Young and his personal and House Resources Committee staff:
Dennis Stephens (more than 50 contacts), still a lobbyist
Lisa Helpert Tucker (nearly 20 contacts), still a lobbyist.
Darrell Conner (more than 15 contacts), still a lobbyist.
Patrick Pizzella, now an assistant secretary of labor
The records show Abramoff himself, Tucker, Stephens and Conner met or spoke directly with Young. There's no way to confirm the accuracy of those records.
Key staff members contacted were:
Duane Gibson, a top official in Young's Resources and Transportation committees, who topped the list with about 35 contacts. Gibson received some notoriety during the aftermath of the 2000 election when he was photographed in the "Brooks Brothers Riot" -- a demonstration by Republican congressional staffers outside a meeting of election canvassers in Miami organized to stop a hand recount of thousands of ballots in the presidential election. After leaving Young's staff in 2002, Gibson went to work at Abramoff's firm and now has his own small firm.
Lloyd Jones, Young's chief of staff at the Interior and Transportation committees. Jones retired in January after working for Young for about a decade. He's a former Alaska state senator from Ketchikan.
Dan Kish, Young's former chief of staff.
Bill Simmons, now a lobbyist, was Young's staff director for the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests until 1999.
Kurt Christensen is now the Republican chief of staff for House Resource's Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. Young is back on House Resources as its senior Republican.
-- Richard Mauer