WASHINGTON — The governor of the Northern Mariana Islands said Thursday that he was cooperating with the Justice Department's corruption investigation surrounding imprisoned GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
The tiny U.S. commonwealth is also still trying to retrieve some of the millions it paid Abramoff's firms, said Gov. Benigno R. Fitial.
Fitial referred questions about the Justice Department's inquiry to his Los Angeles attorney, Tom Pollack, who didn't immediately return calls for comment.
But Fitial, a onetime Abramoff ally who in past years pushed to extend Abramoff's contract to represent the Marianas, refused to distance himself from the disgraced lobbyist.
"When I have a friend, that friend always remains a friend," said Fitial, who became House speaker of the Marianas in 2000 after intervention from two aides to then-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
After becoming speaker, Fitial pushed for Abramoff's contract to continue.
Abramoff is cooperating with the government's wide-ranging influence-peddling investigation after pleading guilty last year to conspiracy and other charges and admitting to bilking his clients.
The investigation has netted convictions from former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and a dozen administration and congressional aides and others.
One current member of Congress, GOP Rep. John T. Doolittle of Roseville, is a focus of the investigation. He was another Fitial ally, endorsing him for governor and pushing federal funding on his behalf.
"Doolittle, he's also a friend," said Fitial.
"I feel the same way," Doolittle told reporters later.
"I have no regrets about trying to help the Marianas in the past. It was right then, and it's right now," Doolittle said.
Fitial spoke to reporters after testifying against Senate legislation that would impose U.S. immigration laws on the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a chain of 14 islands just north of Guam in the Pacific.
A similar bill passed the Senate in 2000, but Abramoff helped block it from advancing in the House.
"He did what he is paid to do, and that is to prevent federal takeover of immigration in the CNMI," said Fitial.
With Abramoff behind bars, the bill looks like it has a chance of becoming law. A House version was introduced Wednesday.
The economy of the Northern Mariana Islands, which Congress made a U.S. commonwealth in 1976, is based on garment factories and tourism, both of which are faltering.
Although Northern Marianas natives are U.S. citizens, the government there runs its own guest worker program outside the purview of the United States government.
U.S. officials say that must stop because of security risks, human trafficking abuses and other problems.