Wednesday, October 18, 2006

TU Scoop on Sweeney and his "friends"

Sweeney trip in question: Visit to U.S. territory with Jack Abramoff associate possibly broke rules

By ELIZABETH BENJAMIN, Capitol bureau First published: Wednesday, October 18, 2006

ALBANY -- U.S. Rep. John Sweeney may have violated congressional ethics rules by failing to reveal who paid for a trip he took to a Pacific island with a lobbyist hired by convicted Washington influence peddler Jack Abramoff.

In January 2001, Sweeney traveled 8,000 miles to deliver a speech to the Saipan Chamber of Commerce in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory infamous for its garment sweatshops and prostitution trade. He traveled with Tony Rudy, who had just left the staff of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to work for Abramoff.

The Saipan Chamber of Commerce says it paid for Sweeney's visit, but Sweeney never reported any privately funded travel as House rules require. Those rules prohibit lobbyist-paid travel.

Sweeney, a Clifton Park Republican, initially refused to answer questions for this story, speaking only through an aide. His deputy chief of staff, Melissa Carlson, said the congressman believed the Marianas government had paid for the trip.

Under House rules, U.S. government-paid travel, including travel financed by the island commonwealth, does not need to be disclosed. However, this week the Marianas government disputed Sweeney's assertion, saying it did not pay for the trip.

Tuesday, Sweeney said he will do whatever is necessary to comply with House ethics rules.

"It was our understanding that this was paid for by the Marianas government," the congressman said. "If it was based on misinformation that may have been given to us by a guy who's now an admitted felon, I will go to the Ethics Committee and ask what I should do."

Abramoff lobbied on and off for the Mariana Islands government from 1994 to early 2002, eventually earning more than $11 million.

Rudy,who met with Sweeney after the trip to lobby him on behalf of the territory, pleaded guilty in March to conspiracy charges connected to the cash laundering and political influence enterprise run by Abramoff.

Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion charges. Both he and Rudy are cooperating with law enforcement officials in an ongoing investigation.

"If it indeed is true" that private money purchased his trip to the Pacific, Sweeney said, "I feel betrayed and misled." Sweeney insisted Abramoff did not personally organize or pay for this trip, as he did for other members of Congress and congressional aides -- including DeLay -- in violation of House ethics rules. Sweeney said he never met Abramoff, adding that his only connection to the disgraced lobbyist was Rudy. No suggestion has emerged that Sweeney directly assisted Abramoff or broke any laws. Sweeney is among the Democrats' top targets as they fight for a net gain of 15 seats necessary to take over the House. He is fighting the toughest re-election battle of his congressional career against a Democratic political neophyte, Kirsten Gillibrand. Last year, the Department of Justice began reviewing the personal financial records of members of Congress and former staffers in search of ties to Abramoff. Among them were DeLay, U.S. Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif, whose efforts to help Abramoff with Marianas-related projects have been well-documented, and U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican who pleaded guilty last Friday to accepting numerous gifts, including trips, casino chips and meals, in exchange for legislative support for Abramoff's clients. Sweeney has so far remained untainted by the DOJ investigation. Sweeney is not the only Capital Region congressman with travel connections to Abramoff.

Abramoff lobbied on and off for the Mariana Islands government from 1994 to early 2002, eventually earning more than $11 million.

Rudy, who met with Sweeney after the trip to lobby him on behalf of the territory, pleaded guilty in March to conspiracy charges connected to the cash laundering and political influence enterprise run by Abramoff.

Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion charges. Both he and Rudy are cooperating with law enforcement officials in an ongoing investigation.

"If it indeed is true" that private money purchased his trip to the Pacific, Sweeney said, "I feel betrayed and misled."

Sweeney insisted Abramoff did not personally organize or pay for this trip, as he did for other members of Congress and congressional aides -- including DeLay -- in violation of House ethics rules. Sweeney said he never met Abramoff, adding that his only connection to the disgraced lobbyist was Rudy.

No suggestion has emerged that Sweeney directly assisted Abramoff or broke any laws.

Sweeney is among the Democrats' top targets as they fight for a net gain of 15 seats necessary to take over the House. He is fighting the toughest re-election battle of his congressional career against a Democratic political neophyte, Kirsten Gillibrand.

Last year, the Department of Justice began reviewing the personal financial records of members of Congress and former staffers in search of ties to Abramoff.

Among them were DeLay, U.S. Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif, whose efforts to help Abramoff with Marianas-related projects have been well-documented, and U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican who pleaded guilty last Friday to accepting numerous gifts, including trips, casino chips and meals, in exchange for legislative support for Abramoff's clients.

Sweeney has so far remained untainted by the DOJ investigation.

Sweeney is not the only Capital Region congressman with travel connections to Abramoff. Sweeney is not the only Capital Region congressman with travel connections to Abramoff.

In 1997, Abramoff personally led a congressional delegation that included U.S. Rep. Michael McNulty, D-Green Island, on a trip to Pakistan. Abramoff did not tell either the group's sponsor, a now-defunct nonprofit group, or the lawmakers that he was a registered lobbyist for Pakistan.

McNulty said he had been misled. McNulty did file a report of his trip with the clerk of the House within 30 days, as is required when private sources pay expenses for trips made in connection with official duties.

Sweeney said he still has no direct confirmation that anyone other than the Marianas government paid for his trip. "We operated under the best information we had," he said. "We believed we were in full compliance."

However, in recent days the Times Union received contradictory accounts of who paid from the Marianas government and the Saipan Chamber of Commerce.

Charles Reyes, a spokesman for Marianas Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, said in an e-mail that the islands' government did not pay Sweeney's bill.

"Our finance office confirms that, based on available financial records, the CNMI government did not make any payment to or for Congressman John Sweeney for any expenses in connection with the congressman's travel to the commonwealth on or about January 2001," Reyes wrote.

Christine Parke, executive director of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, said in an e-mail that the chamber "did pay for Mr. Sweeney's expenses out of the proceeds of the dinner." She said she had no supporting documents and could not provide a total cost.

At the time of his trip, Sweeney had just been named to the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which could potentially direct federal funds sought by the commonwealth. But he did not sit on any committees with direct jurisdiction over the islands.

Parke could not say how Sweeney came to the chamber's attention. Carlson said Sweeney was invited because of his experience as state labor commissioner under Gov. George Pataki, a post Sweeney held from January 1995 to June 1997. She insisted Abramoff did not set up Sweeney's trip or recommend him to the chamber.

On Jan. 4, 2001, Abramoff wrote to then-CNMI Gov. Pedro P. Tenorio seeking the renewal of his lucrative lobbying contract with the commonwealth. At the time, Abramoff had switched firms and Tenorio was reportedly concerned about the growing costs of Abramoff's services. The lobbyist was charging the commonwealth $100,000 a month, plus costs and fees.

Four days later, on Jan. 8, 2001, the Saipan Tribune reported Sweeney would make a trip to the islands that weekend. The newspaper is published by the Tan Holdings Group, whose president, garment industry mogul Willie Tan, was also an Abramoff associate.

According to the Tribune story, Sweeney would be given "an opportunity to brief with local business and CNMI leaders, as well as enjoy some of the island's visitor attractions." Saipan has a number of resorts and golf courses.

On Jan. 15, 2001, the Tribune reported Sweeney had indicated in his speech that the CNMI needed to continue efforts to combat its poor image back in the states.

"The reputation of the commonwealth is not really what ought to be," Sweeney said. "I come (sic) here and found that the truth projected to me in Washington was not the truth at all."

Carlson said CNMI officials had "concerns about sweatshops" and wanted Sweeney to advise them on potential reforms. She said the congressman made some recommendations and suggested he could help if his suggestions were put in place, but the CNMI government never followed up.

"The congressman always believes that firsthand experience is preferable to hearing something from a second source," she said.

The CNMI, a chain of 14 islands northeast of Guam, is exempt from federal immigration and wage laws -- a status critics say has fostered sweatshops, trafficking in women and prostitution.

Over the years, at Abramoff's urging and with the support of the islands' garment industry, GOP House leaders blocked legislation to federalize the CNMI's immigration and wage laws and stop the islands from producing clothes stamped "Made in U.S.A."

Abramoff also worked to secure federal money for the islands.

Sweeney was quoted in the Saipan Tribune on Jan. 15 as saying reports of poor working conditions in the CNMI were overblown, and that he had seen worse sweatshops back home in New York. Carlson said Sweeney was "absolutely not" aware of any severe mistreatment of workers or forced prostitution before he made these comments.

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a longtime champion of legislation to change CNMI wage and immigration laws, traveled to the islands in 1998 on a fact-finding mission to document abuses there.

Problems were obvious "unless you choose not to look at the facts on the ground," Miller said, adding: "A blind pig could run into the human rights violations and the exploitation of workers on the islands."

Miller said he met women "forced into the sex trade, " workers living in barracks behind barbed wire and others who "wanted us to find someone to buy their kidney so they could go home, because they were trapped."

Several months after his trip, on April 6, 2001, Sweeney accepted a $1,000 campaign contribution from Abramoff's law firm, Greenberg Traurig. The firm made no more contributions to Sweeney until August 2004 -- about five months after Abramoff departed.

Partners and lobbyists at the firm where Rudy worked after leaving Greenberg Traurig in 2002, the Alexander Strategy Group, and others associated with them gave Sweeney at least $8,850 in campaign aid in 2005. The Alexander Strategy Group closed in January.

Within months of returning from the CNMI, Sweeney met separately with Marianas Gov. Fitial and Rudy in Washington. Rudy also met with members of Sweeney's staff.

The Tribune reported Fitial had meetings with Sweeney and his fellow Appropriations Committee member, Doolittle, in Washington on April 8, 2001, to discuss the islands' infrastructure and development needs.

"I am very glad that the CNMI has friends in such powerful positions," Fitial told the paper. "Whether the issue is construction funding or Compact impact assistance, the Appropriations Committee will make the important decisions, and I am confident we will receive a fair hearing because of our friends that serve on that committee."

Sweeney said he could not recall any appropriations being discussed.

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