Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Political muck. Pombo and Doolittle.

Peter Schrag: The friends of fixers, gamblers and sweatshops

By Peter Schrag -
Published 12:00 am PDT Wednesday, October 18, 2006

What is it about the Central Valley that produces so much political muck?

Thirty years ago, an 11-term congressman from Manteca named John McFall failed to report a $3,000 contribution from wheeler-dealer Tongsun Park in the widespread influence peddling scheme that became known as Koreagate.

McFall, a conservative Democrat who bragged that he'd put a water project on every river in his district, got slapped on the wrist by the House Ethics Committee, but lost the 1978 election to a San Joaquin County supervisor named Norm Shumway. The district has been predominantly Republican ever since. McFall died, more or less forgotten, earlier this year.

Then there was Rep. Tony Coelho of Merced, the hard charging fundraiser who resigned his seat in 1989 following allegations that he got special favors in the purchase of junk bonds. He was replaced by fellow Democrat Gary Condit of Ceres, a married man who, in part because of his evasive answers, was widely suspected of an affair with Washington intern Chandra Levy. She was found murdered 13 months after she disappeared in 2001. Condit was never accused of a crime, but the uproar led to his defeat in the 2002 primary.

And now we have Sacramento's two near-neighbors, members of what unsympathetic bloggers call the Abramoff Seven: Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy, who succeeded Shumway in the 11th District, and Rep. John Doolittle of Roseville in the 4th District, which runs north to the Oregon border. Both are running for re-election; both are in deep doo-doo.

Earlier this year Washington fixer Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion charges. Of the other five, one is already gone and another, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, is on his way. Ney pleaded guilty last week to making false statements and conspiracy to commit fraud. Former Abramoff fellow-traveler and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, facing separate charges in Texas, resigned from the House.

Neither Doolittle nor Pombo has been charged with anything illegal. But the goop trailing behind them makes the transgressions of their Valley predecessors look almost benign. Just tracing their links to Abramoff and the sweatshop-dominated Northern Mariana Islands and the Indian gambling interests that were his biggest clients would take a wall-size diagram.

In a recent debate with Jerry McNerney, his Democratic opponent, Pombo declared that Abramoff "never once lobbied me on anything." He'd barely met the guy. But records of the Northern Marianas government show that Abramoff billed his clients there for contacts with Pombo and his staff. Kevin Ring, who'd gone from Doolittle's staff to join Abramoff's K Street lobbying firm, contributed $3,000 to Pombo; Abramoff and his firms kicked in $8,000, plus another $5,000 to Pombo's PAC.

How did a rancher from Tracy get so interested in those remote Pacific islands? The low-wage garment industry on the islands, which are U.S. territory, can label its products "Made in U.S.A." When the industry fought to block legislation that would have ended its exemptions from U.S. immigration and labor laws, Pombo and Doolittle were happy to help.

But after the phase-in in 2005 of free trade laws that neutralized the islands' advantage, much of the industry migrated to still cheaper labor markets. Thus the islands are now burdened by growing numbers of jobless workers, many of them Asian women who were exploited both in the garment industry and as sex workers for Korean and Japanese tourists. Now only tourism promises growth.

Pombo got some $6,500 in individual contributions from the Marianas, but they pale beside the $250,000 he collected in the last two election cycles from Indian gambling interests, most of them Abramoff clients. Thanks to DeLay, Pombo chairs the House Resources Committee, which oversees Indian casinos. No congressman got more from the tribes in those years than Pombo.

For his part, Doolittle and his PAC collected $60,000-plus from Abramoff, his firm and convicted Abramoff co-conspirator Tony Rudy and his wife. (Ney and Pombo got smaller amounts from the Rudys.)

In addition, there's the $100,000-plus Doolittle got from defense contractor Brent Wilkes, whom Doolittle helped get $37 million in federal contracts. Wilkes has since been named as a co-conspirator in the bribery of former San Diego Rep. Randy Cunningham, who's now in prison. And then there's his wife Julie's consulting business, which rakes in 15 percent of every dollar he raises in contributions, and which, of course, is family income.

Doolittle denies there were any quid pro quos here. But since he's a devout Mormon, what principle moved him to work so hard for Indian casinos? Doolittle, who ran fundraisers in Abramoff's Washington restaurant and used his skybox at sports events, also claims that he saw no sweatshops in the Marianas, or evidence of sex slavery or forced abortions.

Last week, Charlie Brown, his opponent, launched radio ads in which Wendy Doromal, a former government investigator, charges that she told Doolittle about all those things. Like Speaker Denny Hastert on Foleygate, Doolittle says he doesn't remember.

Back in 1994 Doolittle and Pombo both signed the GOP Contract With America, which promised to restore "the faith and trust of the American people in their government" and to root out "waste, fraud and abuse." Is this how they honor it?
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