Perfectly Legal

The troubles House Majority Leader Tom DeLay faces for allowing a lobbyist to pay for overseas trips in violation of House rules provide a perfect example of Los Angeles Times op-ed page editor Michael Kinsley's famous dictum: The real scandal is what's legal.

And the congressional rules that may yet ensnare DeLay suggest another truism: Congressional ethics operate according to the reverse-sieve effect -- instead of catching major ethical lapses that have injured the public interest for years while allowing piddling matters to slip through unmolested, the system captures small, technical rule violations. When it comes to substance, ethics rules have little to say, because in the strange Beltway calculus of right and wrong, engaging in flagrant acts of ethical turpitude is often known simply as policy making.

That's a point driven home by the sordid series of scandals in which DeLay has aided and abetted his longtime friend, disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. From boosting the SunCruz gambling fleet sale to Abramoff and his allegedly mob-connected friend Adam Kidan -- a sale that ended with the original owner murdered in a gangland-style hit -- to traveling alongside Abramoff at the behest of an energy concern linked to Russian military intelligence, DeLay repeatedly failed to put a reasonable distance between himself and friends whose concern for making megamillions, whatever it took, was always greater than their concern for the public welfare.

It was DeLay's Abramoff-mediated relationship with the leadership of Saipan, though, that constituted the foulest episode of all. Not paying attention to whose credit card paid for DeLay's 2000 trip to England with Abramoff was one thing. But promoting the benighted labor policies of the Saipan manufacturing titans, and in the process punishing Department of the Interior bureaucrats who were trying to highlight those policies, was something else again -- and a transgression only public opprobrium now has the power to rectify.

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Many observers have looked at Saipan and seen ugly manufacturing sweatshops and sleazy bars where girls as young as 14 are forced into prostitution. But not DeLay. To DeLay, Saipan was an inspiration, not an embarrassment. Indeed, the United States, DeLay told the Houston Chronicle in 1998, ought to create a mainland guest-worker program just like the one Saipan offered Chinese citizens, where “particular companies can bring Mexican workers in” and pay them “whatever the market will bear.” The Saipan solution, he added, was “a shining example of a free-market success.”

Fast-forward nine years. President George W. Bush, also of Texas, has proposed a guest-worker program that would allow Mexican citizens already in the United States to apply for citizenship and to enter the United States as guest workers. But DeLay is still lobbying for a more restrictive program -- one more like Saipan's. “What I understand as a guest-worker program is one where you apply for the guest-worker program in your country of origin, and you have a job when you apply,” DeLay told The Washington Times earlier this year. “You cannot bring your family with you. You commit to work a certain period of time, and you go home.”

Saipan, only 47 square miles in size, is the main island of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), an archipelago that curves up the South Pacific from Guam like a trail of drops from a melting ice-cream cone. A U.S. territory since World War II and a commonwealth since 1986, the islands' white sands and crystal waters have made it a resort haven for Japanese tourists, some 500,000 of whom visit each year. But there are things about Saipan that have made it like no other place in the world -- and certainly no other place under American jurisdiction.

By the late 1990s, roughly 40,000 foreign workers, mainly Chinese and Filipina women, had been brought in, and 20,000 toiled in Saipan's 29 garment factories, producing goods bearing the “Made in the U.S.A.” label for such all-American brands as Ralph Lauren, Levi Strauss, and Tommy Hilfiger -- even though the goods were made of foreign cloth, by foreign workers. Workers paid as much as $7,000 to companies promising them jobs in Saipan. Often they would borrow the money -- then, on arrival, find themselves making only $3.05 an hour. After their one- to two-year contracts were up, they were sent back, often none the richer. These were the guest workers about whom DeLay raved -- and reportedly joked, after a visit to the factories, “I don't see anyone sweating.”

During the winter of 1997–98, DeLay, his wife, his daughter, and three aides spent the New Year's holiday with Abramoff on Saipan. Five aides to then–Majority Leader Dick Armey had already visited in 1997, and DeLay aides had also visited in '96 and '97. Willie Tan, a Hong Kong–born garment-industry mogul who heads Luen Thai enterprises in Saipan, hosted a reception for DeLay within a day of his arrival. Tan had already been successfully sued by the U.S. Department of Labor and ordered to pay workers $9 million in restitution in the early '90s. Before a crowd of politicians and businesspeople that night, DeLay declared Abramoff, who represented the Saipan Garment Manufacturers Association and the CNMI government while at the firm Preston Gates & Ellis LLP, “one of my closest and dearest friends.” That loyalty would be tested in the months ahead -- and it proved unshakable.

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In March of 1998, a private investigator who had been hired by the Interior Department to secretly document the working conditions on Saipan came back with a devastating report that accused garment factories of, among other sins, forcing women to have abortions so that they could keep sewing. That same month, Representative George Miller issued the report “Beneath the American Flag: Labor and Human Rights Abuses in the CNMI,” demanding federal intervention. A Senate committee held a hearing that April, but the Republican-controlled House refused to do so.

As pressure was building, Abramoff had laid out a multi-pronged plan of counterattack: to “defund, or more likely, to severely limit the activities of the Office of Insular Affairs,” the Interior Department office that oversees territories such as the CNMI; to use congressional connections to stack any future public hearings on the CNMI with favorable witnesses; and to continue to fund lush junkets for members of Congress. “Trips to the (islands) are one of the most effective ways to build permanent friends on [Capitol Hill],” Abramoff wrote in a January 31 memo. Then–Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt accused the lobbyists of orchestrating “a massive campaign of intimidation” against the federal workers who opposed Saipan's “low-wage indentured alien worker program.”

Within a year and a half, Abramoff had managed to use his ties to lawmakers he'd brought on junkets to the CNMI to turn the tide against the federal bureaucrats. But before he could do that, he needed more money. By late that spring, the CNMI government was pressed for cash to keep paying the lobbyists, according to a Pacific Daily News report. A CNMI audit showed that the CNMI government had already paid $3.1 million to Preston Gates & Ellis in 1997. So legislators passed a new statute to raise up to $2 million more in fees from the garment manufacturers. “Will the governor sign it soon?” a Preston Gates & Ellis memo anxiously queried the CNMI that spring. “We would like to settle on the contracts … ASAP.” The fee increase was signed into law the next day.

Finally, the GOP–controlled House acted. But incredibly, rather than going after Saipan, the House Resources Committee went after the federal regulators. It subpoenaed materials about alleged anti-GOP activities at the Interior Department. In particular, the department was charged with colluding with Democratic candidates in '98 against DeLay, Armey, and California Representative Dana Rohrabacher, all of whom had visited, or had their staffs visit, Saipan. Committee Chair Don Young of Alaska had also made the pilgrimage to Saipan, as had several members of his staff. Within weeks, the main target of the inquiry, Office of Insular Affairs spokesman David North, an outspoken critic of Saipan labor policies, was forced to resign. Office Director Allen P. Stayman, also a target of the congressional probe, had already left the department.

Fast-forward to 2000. Abramoff, who had also been a fund-raiser for Bush, was rewarded for his dealings with a plum role advising the Bush-Cheney transition team. His assigned area? The Department of the Interior.

So as the debate unfolds over the coming weeks about who paid for Tom DeLay's sojourn in Saipan, it's well worth remembering what the point of his trip was. The Kinsley dictum has never found a truer exemplar.

Garance Franke-Ruta is a Prospect senior editor.