Then-Rep. Bob Schaffer parasails off the Northern Mariana Islands, 1999.
Photo credit: CSU Library
Just before boarding a plane to the Mariana Islands in 1999, then-Congressman Bob Schaffer announced he was embarking on a fact-finding mission to get to the bottom of repeated allegations of labor abuse in the American protectorate.
“I plan to walk right into those factories and living quarters to see for myself what conditions exist,” Schaffer said in a news release in August of that year.
What he didn’t say was that the trip was partly arranged by the firm of now-jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who represented textile factory owners fighting congressional efforts to reform labor and immigration laws on the islands and who was being handsomely paid to keep the islands’ cherished exemptions…
“At its base it is a union fight that has been taking place there,” Schaffer said in a recent interview about what he found on the islands. “I insisted that it be a real investigation, which it was,” he said, noting that he visited more than 20 factories and found serious problems in only one. [Pols emphasis]
Nine years later, the trip has become a campaign issue: It has left Schaffer defending a guest-worker program criticized in more than a decade of government reports and journalistic exposés; and it links him to what Abramoff later boasted was an incredibly successful lobbying effort to quash reform by cashing in on ties to key House Republicans, including those on the House Resources Committee, on which Schaffer sat…
As the uncomfortable questions were hammered home by Post reporter Michael Riley, Schaffer campaign manager Dick Wadhams notably failed to help his client.
Schaffer spokesman Dick Wadhams said Democrats are trying to score political points out of a tenuous connection.
Opponents “are trying to leave the impression that Bob went gallivanting off to the Mariana Islands with Jack Abramoff, who Bob has never met, never talked to and wasn’t even aware was around back then,” Wadhams said.
“Preston-Gates was just another law firm at that time, like hundreds of others,” Wadhams said. “You have to put this in context of what was going on then.” [Pols emphasis]
A class-action lawsuit filed the year Schaffer toured the islands alleged that many of those workers lived in slum conditions, housed seven to a room in barracks surrounded by barbed wire designed to keep the workers in. Workers in some factories labored 12 hours a day, seven days a week, the suit alleged – without pay if they fell behind set quotas.
A U.S. Interior Department investigation found that pregnant workers were forced to get illegal abortions or lose their jobs. Some were recruited for factories but forced into the sex trade instead.
The islands’ factories were cited by the U.S. Department of Labor more than 1,000 times for safety violations in the late 1990s.
“There were some examples of problems that we found, and we raised those with the equivalent of the attorney general,” Schaffer said of his visit. But in many others, “the workers were smiling; they were happy.” [Pols emphasis]
You have to “put this in context” with what was “going on then,” Wadhams says? What was going on then, as numerous investigations have proven, was a massive effort to derail labor rights and immigration reforms in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands–directed by Jack Abramoff, and by all reasonable analysis of this latest story, willingly abetted by then-Rep. Bob Schaffer. This story places Schaffer at the center of one of the biggest political scandals in Washington since…well, in a really long time. It’s absolutely devastating to his “ethically clean” image. We’re still incredulous that Schaffer brought this scrutiny on himself by praising the CNMI’s immigration policies in an otherwise completely benign story, and now the wolves are circling.
We hear this story is provoking great interest nationally, and that many more corroborating facts remain to be disclosed (hint: avalanche of dubious donors with ties to the CNMI and Abramoff)–but they are coming, and Schaffer is going to have a huge problem refuting them all. A poll follows.