Abramoff's Go-To Earmarker

Another casualty in l'affaire Abramoff emerged last week when a little-known former congressional staffer, Mark Zachares, pleaded guilty to conspiring to obtain government favors in exchange for a golfing trip to Scotland, a ride on a Gulfstream jet, other entertainment, and prospective employment by the lobbyist. The favors Jack Abramoff sought in return included, among other things, "federal support for a multi-million dollar highway development project benefiting a businessman." At the time Abramoff sought that particular favor, Zachares worked for the House Transportation Committee, whose chair, Republican Don Young of Alaska, notoriously lavished his own state with $450 million worth of earmarks for two "bridges to nowhere." The Zachares guilty plea, which a spokesperson for Young said the congressman would have no comment on, sheds new light on the connections between the king of pork and the fallen king of K Street.

Zachares, "the go-to guy on Alaska issues for the transportation committee," met Abramoff in the 1990s when he served in the government of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI), where Abramoff represented sweatshop interests. At the time, Young chaired the House Resources Committee, which oversaw matters relating to U.S. territories like the CNMI, and was Abramoff's willing accomplice in preventing any labor and immigration reforms from becoming law. Under the supervision of the Committee's then-counsel and chief investigator, Duane Gibson -- who in 2002 went to work for Abramoff -- Young's committee blocked legislation that would have regulated Abramoff's sweatshop clients in the Western Pacific.

Throughout 1997, Abramoff's subordinates regularly met with or spoke to Gibson. Gibson traveled to the CNMI capital, Saipan, in late 1997, one of many junkets that Abramoff bragged would ensure that CNMI has "many friends on the Appropriations Committees in the Congress." Island government officials were assured by Tom DeLay that he had convinced Young to "back off" of reform legislation for the CNMI. Young also supported the DeLay/Abramoff-backed candidate to be speaker of the CNMI House in 1999. In an open-letter advertisement in the Saipan Tribune, paid for by his campaign, Young wrote that CNMI Governor Benigno R. Fitial's "efforts to cut taxes across the board for businesses and individuals are right in line with the national Republican Party's goals." Fitial later recalled an Abramoff-arranged meeting with Young during an official CNMI delegation visit to Washington in April 2000, during which Young promised that he could block a Senate measure to raise the minimum wage in the Resources Committee.

In addition to blocking the reform legislation, according to several congressional sources, Young's committee interfered in federal government lawsuits against Republican allies under the guise of the Committee's oversight responsibilities and conducted DeLay-ordered political witchhunts of Clinton Administration officials, including Interior Department official Allen Stayman, who was targeted by Abramoff for his support of sweatshop reform.

After the 2000 election, Abramoff lamented in a letter to his CNMI client how term limits "have forced longtime CNMI friend Chairman Don Young to give up his chairmanship of the Resources Committee. The loss of Chairman Young's authority cannot be easily measured -- or replaced. Chairman Young had outstanding knowledge of the CNMI and was able to prevent movement of anti-CNMI legislation from his Committee … We have lost major institutional memory and friendship."

To ensure allies in the new administration, Abramoff was also hard at work advocating for Zachares to take over Stayman's old post at the Interior Department, even enlisting the help of Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition and Abramoff's partner in two-timing his tribal clients. Tony Rudy, the former DeLay aide who also has pleaded guilty in the Abramoff scandal, contacted "numerous congressional offices to help M. Zachares" and had numerous contacts with White House staff regarding presidential appointments to positions critical to the CNMI, according to Abramoff's billing records. Kevin Ring, a former aide to another Republican tied to Abramoff, John Doolittle of California, had discussed Zachares' candidacy and prepared a memo for the White House on "OIA job and candidates." Abramoff did "work related to OIA candidate" and met with Interior Department officials, including Interior Secretary Gale Norton, according to an Abramoff e-mail.

When Abramoff's efforts to install Zachares at Interior failed, Abramoff put him on his own payroll. According to Congressional records and the Zachares indictment, in early 2002 Abramoff paid Zachares $10,000 for two months of work as a "consultant" to Abramoff's Capital Athletic Foundation -- now known to be a non-profit front through which Abramoff funneled money for his own gain. In the spring of 2002, around the same time Gibson left Young's Transportation Committee to work for Abramoff, the Committee hired Zachares, who had no apparent transportation experience. Zachares and Young subsequently helped secure transportation funding for the CNMI.

During this period, Young tapped into the DeLay-Abramoff fundraising apparatus. A Republican fundraiser with ties to DeLay, Rob Jennings, told the Washington Post in 2004 that he had used Abramoff's MCI Center skyboxes to host events for Young's donors. Young's campaign manager, Steven Dougherty, told the Prospect last year that "[w]e have accepted money from Jack Abramoff's clients, but please do not report that those contributions were due to Jack Abramoff." Dougherty did not deny that the campaign used Abramoff's skyboxes, saying that "[w]e have had events at skyboxes at the MCI Center, and I'm going on record as saying that there have been boxes that have hosted events for Congressman Young in these locations and have costs that are incurred with these events and the FEC has found nothing wrong with our reporting efforts and that's where I'd leave it. We've accepted no money from Jack Abramoff."

Young also accepted tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from a Puerto Rican businessman who had previously hired Abramoff to lobby on behalf of Puerto Rican statehood, as well as from a PAC affiliated with the businessman. In 1998, the businessman, along with several other Abramoff's clients, including representatives of the CNMI, participated in a golf tournament that was a fundraiser for DeLay's charity, the DeLay Foundation for Kids, at a luxury golf resort near Houston. Knowledgeable favor-seekers, including Abramoff, were well-aware that contributing to DeLay's pet projects would provide them access to the powerful lawmaker, resulting in a quid pro quo of hundreds of thousands of dollars to DeLay's organizations, and untold legislative favors in return. The Houston fundraiser took place just a few months after Abramoff had feted DeLay and company in the CNMI, after which DeLay and Young backed Abramoff's position on labor and immigration reform on the island.

Young courted and welcomed the financial support of companies and individuals who benefit from his transportation earmarks across the country, and local newspapers in Alaska, Arkansas and Florida have documented the proximity of campaign contributions by individuals and companies who would stand to benefit from earmarks that ended up in the bill, including, in Alaska, Young's own son-in-law. In Texas, a DeLay political ally, Houston-based Williams Brothers Construction, one of the largest highway construction firms in the country, would stand to gain from the $669 million in earmarks awarded to Texas. Doug Pitcock, the company's CEO, is one of the biggest political contributors in Texas state politics, donating $5,000 to DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority in 2003. Pitcock has also given about $6,000 to Young, and over the past five years, $125,000 to the Republican Party. Pitcock is also a big contributor to the Associated General Contractors PAC, which has contributed generously to Young and funded trips for him and his staff.

The identity of the businessman identified in the Zachares indictment who sought to benefit from a transportation earmark, however, remains a mystery, as there were thousands of earmarks in the pork-laden transportation bill. But it can at least be said that the funding Young secured for Abramoff's friends in the CNMI was earmarked for two bridges to somewhere, just as the funding he secured for a highway was to something favored by both the lobbyist and the Hammer: a golf course.

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