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Two Former Aides to DeLay Paved Way for Lobbyist's Deal

Their work on Saipan helped get a contract for a lawyer now the target of a corruption probe.

May 06, 2005|Walter F. Roche Jr. and Chuck Neubauer | Times Staff Writers

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands — Two former top aides of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's brokered a political deal here five years ago that helped land island government contracts worth $1.6 million for a Washington lobbyist now the target of a federal corruption probe.

Using promises of U.S. tax dollars as bartering chips, Edwin A. Buckham and Michael Scanlon traveled to these remote Pacific islands in late 1999 to convince two local legislators to switch their votes for speaker of the territory's 18-member House of Representatives. They succeeded.

Once in office, the new speaker pressed the governor of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to reinstate an expired lobbying pact with Jack Abramoff, now under grand jury and congressional investigation.

Within months of the visit, Abramoff's law firm had a contract paying $100,000 a month from the Marianas government. Also, the island districts of the legislators who switched sides soon won federal budget benefits from Congress, apparently supported by DeLay.

Although Abramoff collected most of his fees from the island government, his lobbying efforts most benefited owners and operators of apparel manufacturing firms using the territory's cheap labor.

The lawyer-lobbyist, whose fees then were reportedly as high as $500 an hour, helped beat back congressional efforts to raise the minimum wage here to $5.15 an hour.

New details of the Buckham-Scanlon overseas mission that benefited Abramoff, and the trade of political favors nearly half the globe from Capitol Hill, come from interviews, government documents and e-mails reviewed by The Times.

The latest disclosures coming out of the Marianas may add fuel to the year-long political scandal swirling around Abramoff and his ties to congressional leaders, especially DeLay. The Republican majority leader lately has sought to distance himself from the besieged lobbyist he once called a close friend.

DeLay has been stung by charges that Abramoff paid some of the congressman's expenses on foreign travel, including a golf junket to Scotland, in potential violation of House ethics rules. DeLay said he thought expenses were properly paid by a think tank.

Abramoff's prominent lobbying career crashed last year after the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs accused him and Scanlon of ripping off six Indian tribes who had paid them $66 million. Both men took the 5th Amendment at the hearings. A federal grand jury is now investigating.

"This is starting to smell more like criminal activity -- trading congressional appropriations for votes," said U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez). A longtime critic of Abramoff and DeLay's activities in the Pacific island territories, Miller renewed his recent call for an investigation of Abramoff by the House Resources Committee that oversees the region.

DeLay declined to respond to a series of detailed questions for this report but his spokesman issued a statement defending the congressman's actions, which he said were aimed at improving the standard of living for U.S. citizens living in the territory.

In December 1999, when they traveled to Saipan, about a 50 minute plane ride north of Guam, Scanlon was in his last days as communications director for DeLay and also was listed as a staff aide to DeLay on the House Appropriations Committee. A spokesman for DeLay said Scanlon was on unpaid leave at the time of the trip, but records show he did not leave the payroll until January 2000.

Buckham, a former chief of staff for the Texas Republican, had opened his own lobbying firm, Alexander Strategy Group. At the time, his firm collected fees from DeLay's main political fund and then paid a salary to DeLay's wife, Christine, for her work for the fund.

Buckham declined to respond to detailed questions. Scanlon's lawyer did not respond to similar questions. A spokesman for Abramoff also declined to answer questions.

The Northern Mariana Islands, a self-governing U.S. territory subject to acts of Congress, have proven to be a veritable treasure chest for Abramoff. His lobbying successes have been closely linked to his relationship with DeLay.

Since 1995, Abramoff and two law firms where he was a partner collected more than $7.7 million from the commonwealth government, records show.

He lobbied to keep Washington from cracking down on the island's garment industry where workers are paid $3.05 an hour, well below the federal minimum wage of $5.15, to work in what critics say are sweatshop conditions.

The workers, many brought in from China under less-restrictive immigration rules than in the U.S. and most of its territories, produce garments that are still stamped "Made in U.S.A.," thanks, in part, to the efforts of Abramoff and DeLay.

DeLay helped lead the fight beginning in 1997 to keep Congress from enacting reforms opposed by Abramoff and his clients that would have required garment manufacturers to pay their workers the higher federal minimum wage.

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