Stranger Than Paradise
An excerpt from ‘The Hammer: Tom DeLay: God, Money, and the Rise of the Republican Congress
The following article is excerpted from the book The Hammer: Tom DeLay: God, Money, and the Rise of the Republican Congress by Lou Dubose and Jan Reid. Copyright ©2004. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs. All rights reserved.
At first look the island of Saipan is a tropical paradise: white sand beaches, palm trees billowing in the breeze, glimmering turquoise sea, dramatic rock cliffs rising from the mist and foam of crashing waves, reefs teeming with wildly hued fish, snorkelers, and scuba divers. Saipan is also the name of a small city beside the sea that is the capital of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. In the late 1990s this remote out-post of America, 9,000 miles across the Pacific from California, offered a vision of what the nation might look like if Tom DeLay had his deregulatory way. DeLay’s adventure in Saipan illustrates how his agenda had changed: from trying to disable the EPA to imposing his ideology and will on whole territories and economies. And the implementation of his ideas would increase the riches of the loyalists who in turn keep the maw of his political leviathan stuffed with money. Here was a land newly born to American dominion, a place and people that had never been corrupted by federal regulation. Saipan was his grand experiment—a construction of the world as he wished it to be. “It is a perfect Petri dish of capitalism,” DeLay enthused in 1997. “It’s like my Galapagos Island.”
The free-market laboratory experiment and the opportunities of vast profit could be carried out in virtual secrecy. Few Americans born after World War II are aware that Saipan exists. If you surf the Internet for references, you are most often rewarded with obituaries of old Marines. In mid-1944 Saipan, which rises from the Pacific near Guam, became a crucial objective in America’s tortuous strategy of island-hopping toward fortress Japan. When Saipan fell, the U.S. would be positioned to build an airfield on nearby Tinian from which the decisive bombing missions of the war were flown. But the strategic victory did not come easily; Marines speak of Saipan with the same reverence and horror they attach to Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal. The U.S. military committed 70,000 troops to overwhelm a forty-seven-square-mile island. The GIs suffered nearly 17,000 casualties during the twenty-five-day battle, including 3,225 killed in action. The slaughter of the Japanese on Saipan was almost unimaginable. The recorded total of their soldiers killed was 23,811—five hundred per square mile. And, though estimates vary, up to 18,000 civilians jumped to their deaths from the towering cliffs, rather than give up to the advancing Marines. The mass suicide convinced the U.S. military that the Japanese would never surrender to invaders of their homeland: Saipan moved Harry Truman toward his decision to drop the atomic bomb.
After the war, the Marianas became a trust territory of the United Nations, the United States its administering authority. The navy governed the islands until 1962, when their rule was transferred to the Department of the Interior. In 1975, during the administration of Gerald Ford, the islanders voted overwhelmingly in a self-rule plebiscite to continue embracing the sovereignty of the United States as a commonwealth. Eleven years passed before Ronald Reagan formally made that covenant into law. Though the Marianas’ indigenous peoples had won their prized U.S. citizenship, the entire population then amounted to one small town. In an effort to jump-start an economy, federal negotiators granted control of immigration, wage, and workplace standards to the commonwealth government. That’s when the islands grabbed the attention of rich people in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea.
The most affluent and powerful man in the Marianas was a naturalized U.S. citizen named Willie Tan. Tan Holdings Corporation, founded by the tycoon’s father in Hong Kong, included Saipan’s largest garment factories, several hotels, a bank, travel agencies, ice cream parlors; the largest newspaper in the islands, the Saipan Tribune, was the company’s mouthpiece. Tan and other venture capitalists had realized they could create a garment industry that was fully protected by U.S. trade laws and virtually immune to the obstructions of federal regulation. Imports from the U.S. came into the Marianas duty-free and without quotas, and exports from the islands moved past U.S. Customs without stirring so much as a breeze. For the venture capitalists on Saipan, the commonwealth status enabled them to circumvent quotas on Chinese textile exports to the United States. The investment capital behind the factories was largely Chinese. The plants were run like factories in China. Even the fabric was Chinese.
All the capitalists needed was a labor force. The indigenous islanders had no future as executives in this industry, nor did they fit the desired mold of factory workers. The Marianas capitalists instead contracted with recruitment squads that roved the provinces of China, the Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and other Asian countries. The arm’s-length arrangement meant the recruiters’ methods could not be directly connected to corporations chartered in the United States. Typically, the recruits were obligated to pay $5,000 to $7,000 for the privilege of signing one-year labor contracts that enabled them to work and receive housing and health care benefits in the U.S. In the places they came from, $5,000 to $7,000 was a fortune. Large families and communities of peasants raised the money for some of these young workers, whose riches earned in America were supposed to help feed and clothe them. But many recruits could never raise that kind of money. Some were steered to loan sharks in the Asian countries who had working arrangements with the recruitment agencies; more signed agreements in which they would see none of their wages until the “recruitment fees” were paid back. They were indentured workers, at best.
Many of these people had not seen any of the world beyond their villages. Several Bangladeshi men, hired to work in security, were told and believed they could ride the train from Saipan to Los Angeles. Chinese workers who became pregnant were forced to return to China to have an abortion or else have it performed at a clinic on Saipan. Most of the immigrant workers were women, many of them mothers of small children. One could spot their arrivals in Saipan. They came off the plane and were hustled through immigration and aboard buses, their faces staring out in bewilderment and apprehension as the drivers sped through the winding back streets of the capital city. White beaches, emerald water, and resort hotels frequented by Korean and Japanese tourists were not the Saipan they saw. Their new homes were security-fenced compounds set far back in the jungle. With maybe a sheet thrown over a cord for privacy, the women slept on cots, as many as ten jammed in one small room. They had a dripping showerhead with no privacy or hot water, and a single toilet they lined up to share. Rats and cockroaches roamed freely. On the one day each week they were allowed to leave the compound, they were let out through a gate in a security fence by an armed guard. They had an early curfew, and knew better than to miss it.
There were about thirty factories. The young women worked upwards of seventy hours a week with no overtime pay, sometimes around the clock for two or three days to meet impossible quotas. They were paid $3.05 an hour to keep the sewing machines humming (the federal minimum wage was then $5.15 an hour). Three-plus bucks an hour must have sounded like an extravagant wage to poor girls in the backwaters of Asia, but they quickly found out they had no chance of coming out ahead; the employers billed them for their lodging and food, on top of withholding for the thousands of dollars many still owed on their contracts. Squares of raw fabric were piled up around their machines as high as they could reach; a glaring electronic production counter nagged them to work harder, longer, faster. The air was filled with dust and lint. Workers were not afforded the low-cost filter masks commonly worn by people with respiratory difficulties; for relief they wore rags over their noses and mouths like the bandanas of Old West desperadoes. If they fell asleep and ran a needle through a finger, there was no first aid station; all they got was a rebuke from a shouting supervisor who called them stupid. And those were the lucky ones.
On arrival in Saipan some workers found that their contracts were worthless. They were told their employer had gone bankrupt. Day laborers who had thought they were going to be security guards piled on top of each other at night in one-room hovels and explored ideas like selling their kidneys to raise enough money to go home. Saipan became a fixture of the booming global sex trade. Young Chinese women recruited for restaurant jobs were ordered to work in karaoke and topless bars where managers told them they had to drink and have sex with customers. They received no pay for this coerced prostitution. The so-called bar fines for their services went to their employers.
Even officials in the laissez-faire administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush the Elder were alarmed. In 1986 the Interior Department of the Reagan administration voiced concerns that the economy, culture, and legal system of the native islanders were buckling under the strain of the mass influx of foreign workers, and proposed an immigration cap to keep the once-pristine island from turning into an industrial slum. In 1992 Bush administration officials testified to Congress that the garment industry on Saipan had been built on a foundation of cheap alien labor, favorable tariff treatment for goods shipped to U.S. markets from the Marianas, and tax breaks, rebates, and other assistance underwritten by the federal government. Brand-name clothiers favored by American shoppers were having their cake and eating it, too. They could take advantage of third-world wages and labor practices and undercut the domestic textile industry, but because of the Marianas’ commonwealth status they could ship garments bearing the proud label “Made in the U.S.A.” Companies taking advantage of the free rein extended to manufacturers in Saipan included Gap, Sears, Wal-Mart, J.C.Penney, J.Crew, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Anne Taylor, Liz Claiborne, Brooks Brothers, and Abercrombie&Fitch.
Meanwhile the population of the islands increased by 36 percent over five years in the nineties, to 58,000. Now a minority in their country, the indigenous Micronesians struggled to maintain their culture and make a living off scarce government jobs and in the limited service and tourism industries—their unemployment rate shot to fourteen percent, twice the average of other U.S. citizens.
Stories about the Marianas reached George Miller, a congressman who represents the East Bay area near San Francisco. Miller is the ranking Democrat of the House Committee on Resources, which has jurisdiction over U.S. territories and commonwealths. In 1992, when the Democrats still controlled the House, he chaired the committee and convened a hearing on the garment industry in the Marianas (known in U.S. federal-speak as CNMI for Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands). Miller said at the hearing, “I am concerned by the attitude that it is acceptable to underpay and mistreat alien workers who are willing to accept substandard conditions in the CNMI that are better than their homeland. It is unacceptable when U.S. farmers abuse Mexican field workers, and it is unacceptable when CNMI garment manufacturers abuse Chinese workers. It cannot be tolerated anywhere.”
But rhetoric from a California congressman was not the chief concern of Saipan’s capitalists and politicians. In 1992 the U.S. Labor Department sued five garment factories owned by Willie Tan. The Tan companies were fined $9 million as restitution for 1,200 employees who had been locked in worksites and barracks and obliged to work 84 hours a week with no overtime pay. It was the largest fine ever imposed by the Labor Department. Then in 1995, accounts of abuse on Saipan prompted the Philippines to impose a startling moratorium on granting its citizens work visas in the Marianas. Negotiations between the commonwealth and the Philippines ensued at once; ardent promises were made and heard. Soon the Philippines lifted the moratorium and busied itself writing new work visas—3,000 Filipinos arrived at Saipan during the last quarter of 1996 alone.
But in mid-1997 Bill Clinton wrote Marianas governor Froilan Tenorio saying that “certain labor practices in the islands . . . are inconsistent with our country’s values,” and proposed federalizing the Marianas’ labor and immigration laws—in other words, workers on Saipan would have the same legal rights as U.S. workers. The ruling clique on Saipan decided some heavy-duty lobbying and image tending was in order. That was when the Marianas Islands became the fervent ideological cause and favorite beach of right-wing Republicans on Capitol Hill. The Marianas’ GOP boosters included Dick Armey and John Boehner. But Tom DeLay aggressively took the lead.
In 1997 Governor Tenorio had traveled to Washington and called on DeLay, who lionized the commonwealth and its leader in a speech to House colleagues. “Governor Tenorio did not come to Washington looking for taxpayer benefits, welfare, or handouts,” DeLay bragged on the man. “He came to promote his market reforms….During his administration, Governor Tenorio has actively pursued and courted business around the globe to open shop in the CNMI. Like President Reagan in the 1980s, Tenorio has kept taxes low. Low tax rates have actually increased productivity, which in turn increased revenue for the government of the CNMI. Additionally, the Governor has recognized the importance of trade and has demonstrated how trade with Asian markets can bring prosperity. The economic changes that have taken place in the CNMI have been nothing short of miraculous.”
The Marianas Miracle funded a sweet, high-profit, low-maintenance account of the most arch-conservative top-dollar lobbyist in Washington. Jack Abramoff had been a star politico of the GOP when DeLay was still in the Texas Legislature. A high school weightlifting champion and a teetotaler of Orthodox Jewish faith, Abramoff strutted with the far right at Brandeis, a Massachusetts campus usually dominated by left-wingers. In 1981 he moved to Washington, where he got a law degree at Georgetown and chaired the College Republican National Committee. Democrats have nothing that resembles that collegiate proving ground of the GOP. Karl Rove, Lee Atwater, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, and Jack Abramoff all got their starts as College Republicans, and they zoomed to the top strata of American politics. Abramoff hired Reed as his top deputy in the collegiate group, and—his strong Jewish faith no apparent hindrance—later helped Reed found the Christian Coalition. Abramoff is also very close to Norquist. The young star politicos of the GOP convinced themselves they possessed the power to change the world, and their conviction has never wavered. Abramoff was the executive director of Reagan’s grass-roots lobbying organization, Citizens for America. Later he produced a video on Ollie North that included the ex-Marine filibuster’s soon-to-be famous slide show about heroic Nicaraguan Contras. Some senior Republicans grumbled that Abramoff’s indiscretion blew the cover of Iran-Contra. A Reagan administration official eased him out of its lineup with a remark that an overeager young man had gone “off the reservation.”
During the eighties Abramoff lobbied in Washington for the dictatorship of Zaire and founded the International Freedom Foundation, which worked to build support for the apartheid regime in South Africa. He took a turn as a Hollywood movie producer in South Africa. Red Scorpion was a thriller pitting Soviet agents and assassins against U.S.-supported guerrillas in Angola and Namibia. The movie opened in 1989 on 1,268 screens, a healthy showing, but it was picketed in Washington and rebuked by the United Nations over the moviemakers’ use of military equipment loaned by the South Africans—an alleged violation of cultural sanctions against the regime.
Abramoff became a charter member of Tom DeLay’s “kitchen cabinet” of like-minded lobbyists and former aides when DeLay became whip in 1995. Abramoff worked in the D.C. lobbying office of Seattle’s oldest law firm, Preston Gates, and then jumped to a K Street competitor, Greenberg Traurig. In both books the Marianas were a gold mine account. His public relations campaign, financed by the office of Governor Tenorio, turned the Marianas into a Republican playground. In 1997 the Marianas taxpayers picked up the tab for 88 week-long junkets at a reported $5,500 per traveler. Seven members of the House, five wives, one child, and 75 aides crossed nine time zones to find facts while golfing, snorkeling, and deepening their tans. Because the Marianas were U.S. territory, and its government was paying for the vacations, these paragons of government ethics did not have to disclose the junkets on their official travel reports.
Tom DeLay, his wife Christine, his daughter Dani, and three staff members arrived to celebrate the New Year’s holiday in 1998. They stayed in a posh Hyatt Regency and found time for a couple of rounds of golf under the caring watch of the staffs of the governor and Willie Tan. At a dinner in honor of Tan, DeLay recalled enlightening conversations he had enjoyed with various powers in the Marianas and oozed with deference to “the Mogul.” When [the Mogul] came to my office in the Capitol, he told me about the conservative policies that the CNMI has implemented. When I met the Governor, he told me about his proposals to pass a flat tax and school choice for children. When I played golf with [two Marianas officials] in Houston, they told me about the attempts of the Clinton Administration to kill prosperity on the islands. And when one of my closest and dearest friends, Jack Abramoff, your most able representative in Washington, D.C., invited me to the islands, I wanted to see firsthand the free market success in the CNMI and the progress and reform you have made. Even though I have only been here for twenty-four hours, I have witnessed the economic success of the CNMI and I have witnessed the friendship and good will of its people.”
DeLay went on to rail about an administrator in the Office of Insular Affairs—a sub-agency of the Interior Department—whom his hosts found troublesome. “Pardon me, but does this man have a vote in the United States Congress? I don’t think so….You are up against the forces of big labor and the radical left. Dick Armey and I made a promise to defend the islands’ present system. Stand firm. Resist evil. Remember that all truth and blessings emanate from our Creator. God bless you and the people of the Northern Marianas.”
When he returned from the trip and a reporter pressed him about sweatshops in the Marianas, he said, “I saw some of those factories. They were air-conditioned. I didn’t see anyone sweating.” Then he laughed. Inspired by the labor model he saw on Saipan, he threw out a daring and philosophical idea: the United States should establish an identical “guest worker” program “where particular companies can bring Mexican workers in.” The Mexicans would be paid “at whatever wage the market will bear.”
Unfortunately, a few weeks before DeLay’s trip, the Marianas had held a gubernatorial election, and the incumbent had been turned out by his Uncle Pedro. The new Governor Tenorio dropped broad hints he was not entirely on board with DeLay’s vision for the commonwealth. That same January in 1998, as the U.S. Senate prepared to conduct hearings on the Marianas, someone leaked to the press an e-mail written by Jack Abramoff. In it the lobbyist called for a congressional and public relations counter-offensive that would characterize Clinton administration policy as a federal takeover of the islands. Abramoff’s e-mailed memorandum to his clients and the commonwealth’s GOP champions said the junkets to the island had proved most fruitful. The e-mail called for continuing “impeachment” of the Interior Department bureaucrat and “working with the garment industry to get friendly workers (one Chinese, one Filipino, one Bangladeshi) to D.C. for the hearings.” (That spectacle of American condescension never materialized.) The e-mail strongly implied that Willie Tan would bankroll much of the proposed campaign on Capitol Hill. “We don’t have a relationship with Tan and we never will,” Abramoff told one reporter with a straight face. It was a curiously brazen lie—Tan had been one of the three recipients of Abramoff’s e-mail.
Meanwhile, Representative George Miller and his chief of staff accepted the new governor’s invitation to come to Saipan for his inauguration. This, too, was a fact-finding mission, but they were looking for a different kind of fact. The Californians were taken on tours of a garment factory in which women labored placidly and appeared to relax over dinner in a cafeteria. “At the hotel nobody would come near us,” said Miller. “They were terrified. But when we got back people were literally slipping notes under our doors. One of the cleaning ladies handed us a message from a relative who worked in this place where we’d been. It said that as soon as we were gone, they had to drop their food and get back to work—they had been off the clock while we were there. The relative said, “Tell the congressmen they’ve been had.”
“So we sent word that at eight o’clock we’d be at this church way back in the island. At midnight people were still crowding in the church to tell us what their lives were like. It was incredible. The economy and immigration were so skewed that Marianas islanders had houses full of servants and were living on food stamps. Workers were being abused in so many ways. They had no rights, young women were being forced into prostitution, yet here’s Mr. Conservative Morality, Tom DeLay, telling the world that this is a good system.”
Back in Washington Miller was turned aside by the committee chairman, Don Young, an Alaska Republican. “We were told in no uncertain terms that there were not going to be any hearings on Saipan,” said Miller. “I told the chairman, ‘Why not? They’re having hearings in the Senate.’ He said, ‘Well, we’re not going to have them in the House. This is above my pay grade. The Whip has said he’s not going to let that happen.'”
The Senate hearings produced detailed testimony elaborating on what Miller had heard. The resulting legislation focused on the “Made in the U.S.A.” label, proposing that any garment bearing that endorsement should actually be made by American workers. More than 200 members of the House co-sponsored the bill. But on the islands, political leaders and factory owners protested that enactment of the legislation would cost the local economy $85 million a year. The Marianas’ lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, likened the industrialists to innocent people who were victimized at Nuremberg in the punishment of the Nazis. “These are immoral laws designed to destroy the economic laws of a people. [Conservatives ] see in this battle a microcosm of an overall battle….What these guys in the CNMI are trying to do is build a life without being wards of the state.”
Tom DeLay made a similar pitch for the Marianas: “You’ve got a part of the world that was totally dependent on the federal government that now wants to get rid of the federal government. They now want to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient, and anywhere in the world where you have people that want to do that, we ought to be supportive.”
Everyone on DeLay’s team was certainly supportive. When Abramoff was organizing that airlift of congressmen, staffs, and families to the private beach of Republicans, Bill Jarrell, a lobbyist who had been DeLay’s deputy chief of staff, was working on logistics and legalities to keep them out of trouble. Accompanying DeLay on the New Year’s getaway were Ed Buckham, a former chief of staff turned political director of DeLay’s ARMPAC, and Mike Scanlon, the young communications director who would articulate the impeachment jihad against Bill Clinton and with Abramoff later bill four Indian tribes an astounding $45 million for lobbying and PR. Another longtime top aide of DeLay, Tony Rudy, left the congressional staff to join the Abramoff and Scanlon lobbying team. The Saipan Tribune hailed Rudy as “the most helpful staffer for the CNMI in its history” and “a super hero.”
But none of the lobbyists helping Saipan’s clique were quite as venerated as Abramoff. The Tribune called him “our Michael Jordan.” According to the public auditor, Abramoff alone carried off $7,940,000 from the islands between 1995 and 2001. Association with DeLay was a valuable entree for those lobbyists. To clients who feared the terrain of federal regulation, they invoked DeLay’s name as if it were a magic wand—the man could get things fixed. By all accounts, the lobbying campaign conceived by Abramoff and the legislative barricade erected by DeLay carried many days for Saipan’s ruling clique when trouble arose in Washington. The Marianas campaigns instructed the lobbyists in ways to arrange even more extravagant paydays in the future. In idealizing the far-flung archipelago as his Petri dish of capitalism, DeLay demonstrated how deregulation was an absolute in his approach to government—and how far the reach of his power extended beyond a congressional district in Texas. In an emotional column praising the work of Abramoff in November 1998, the publisher of the Saipan Tribune all but tremored in his reverence toward DeLay: “Let’s not lose grace with the Kingmaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.”
They might have all ended their days still enraptured by the wonders they had wrought in their Pacific paradise if not for a dispute that erupted between the Mogul and DeLay—amplified by one of the worst corporate scandals in American history. The garment industry in the Marianas was putting a strain on the islands’ power capacity. There were frequent power outages, and resort hotels relied on generators. Willie Tan lorded over everything on Saipan from sweatshops to ice cream parlors; when proposals for a new $120 million 80-megawatt power plant emerged in the late nineties, the Tan Holdings Corporation naturally assumed that it was entitled to the largest business deal ever seen on the islands. But Tom DeLay kept book on the favors that he granted, and for this payback he signaled that the Marianas contract would be reserved for his old friends at Enron. Hired by the commonwealth’s utilities corporation to analyze the bids, a Kansas City engineering firm concluded that the best proposal came from neither the Tan group nor Enron. But the squall out of both camps was so ferocious that the public auditor hastily called for a new round of bidding.
Enron CEO Ken Lay had participated in early organizational meetings of Tom DeLay’s ARMPAC. Enron had loved Project Relief and channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars into DeLay’s politics and future. In turn, DeLay had been an indefatigable champion of deregulation of the utility industry in Congress in 1996 and 1997. But Enron no longer wanted just to break up monopolies and use existing grids to move the electricity it sold. It had grandiose plans to construct power plants all over the world—from Bolivia to the Marianas Islands. Ed Buckham, DeLay’s former congressional chief of staff who became a political director of ARMPAC, accompanied DeLay and his family on the trek to bring in the New Year, then set up the Alexander Strategies Group, the lobbying firm composed entirely of former DeLay staffers. Enron then contracted Buckham to lobby on “energy deregulation issues in the Marianas Islands.” One can see how Enron officials believed that the fix was in.
When Buckham told DeLay in 1999 that a Japanese-U.S. consortium appeared to be winning the competition, DeLay wrote the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation demanding that the bidding be reopened. The so-called Congressman from Enron was laying claim to being de facto Congressman from Saipan. Equally untroubled by matters of jurisdiction, one of DeLay’s far-right House allies, Helen Chenoweth-Hage of Idaho, wrote a letter threatening a federal investigation of the utilities company if it rejected the Enron bid. Officials on Saipan panicked; the legislature passed a bill that forced the utility to hand the business to Enron. Over the furious protests of Willie Tan’s group, in May 2000 the utility’s board voted 3-2 to award the contract to Enron. It gave the business of finalizing the contract language to Fulbright& Jaworski, a Houston mega-firm. The Mogul had come up against a power that was greater than his own. “There were all kinds of political pushes from the top and the side and every way,” said a manager of the commonwealth’s utilities company. “There were all kinds of political interference.[The government officials] didn’t want to understand it. They said, ‘Just do it! Give Enron the contract.'”
In March 2001, the utilities company and Enron announced they had closed a deal for a scaled-down 60-megawatt plant. Just a month later Enron flabbergasted the islanders by breaking off the talks and announcing it had lost all interest in the Marianas project. Enron had kept its adventure in the Pacific afloat, knowing that it was sailing into those waters aboard the Titanic. In December of that year, Enron filed for the biggest corporate bankruptcy in American history. DeLay, who had frantically been trying to push through a bill that would have given Enron a $250 million tax rebate and some breathing room, told a TV reporter in Houston that he was “heartbroken.” But, unlike Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and other Texas Republicans, DeLay did not return one nickel of Enron contributions as a gesture to shareholders and employees. As long as he contained the political damage, it was no real skin off his back—nor those of his lobbyist pals Jack Abramoff, Mike Scanlon, and Ed Buckham.
The Marianas are, of course, just a footnote in the Enron implosion saga. On Saipan today the lights still flicker. None of the bidders that had been shoved aside in the power play could be persuaded to come back to the table. Construction of the plant has been shelved indefinitely. On Saipan the episode is known as the Enron Fiasco.
In 1998, just four months after DeLay told the Mogul and other factory owners that that their shining example of unfettered capitalism was under attack by big labor and the radical left, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that three garment companies on Saipan had been charged with violating U.S. law. In all, the Department of Labor recovered $2.1 million in unpaid wages for 1,315 workers on Saipan that year. In 1999 the federal government obliged one of the companies to pay $987,000 in unpaid wages to 427 workers who had been compelled to work up to twelve weeks without pay. In 2000 that company and another pled guilty to criminal contempt and, though nobody went to jail, they were ordered to pay fines of $100,000.
“The United States is serious about ending worker exploitation in the CNMI,” said the Clinton administration’s secretary of labor, Alexis M. Herman. “We will not hesitate to pursue criminal action in cases where companies disregard court orders.”
In response to lawsuits seeking up to a billion dollars worth of damages for workers in the sweatshops, a spokesman for Tommy Hilfiger said: “The Company is proud of its monitoring program and has taken all reasonable efforts to ensure a proper work environment….Currently, approximately two percent of Tommy Hilfiger production is allocated to Saipan….If it should develop that any remedial action is required, then Tommy Hilfiger will play a leadership role in effecting any such actions.”
Wal-Mart issued a haughty claim that the company “does not conduct business with factories in Saipan….We are continually working to educate our associates and vendors about our policies and our zero-tolerance position with regard to illegal or unethical working conditions.” At the time of that claim, according to a well-respected investigatory report in the Westchester County Weekly, Wal-Mart had reportedly contracted with a garment factory called, appropriately, Mirage, to act as its agent on Saipan.
Top clothing retailers continue to sell the blouses and tank tops sewn by young Asian women in the Marianas and stamped for competitive advantage: “Made in the U.S.A.” The wage in Saipan’s garment factories is still $3.05 an hour.
One day in the spring of 2004 George Miller, the California congressman, was reflecting on the Marianas. He said that improved conditions in the factories have resulted from the election and policies of Governor Pedro Tenorio, not a change of heart in Washington. “The other folks in the Marianas are doing everything they can to get rid of him and regain the hold they had. There ‘s not going to be permanent change unless there’s a legislative fix, and…. DeLay’s not going to let that happen.”
Like many House Democrats, Miller had an air of grudging admiration when he spoke of the majority leader. “Last week in California he made a speech to some bankers. He told them, ‘We’ve got the House, we’ve got the Senate, and if we get another term in the White House, it ‘s ‘Katy, bar the door.'”
Miller shook his head and chuckled at the implications of that metaphor. “It was hard to miss the echoes of him a few weeks ago when President Bush proposed his guest worker program from Mexico. Now, these workers are going to be committed to a single employer, they have no rights, they can be fired at any time. Where have we heard that before? Why, the Marianas Islands.” Miller reflected on what he had seen on Saipan six years earlier. “Those people were working as hard as they could possibly work. They could be fired at any moment, deported at any moment. Because contracts were bogus some of them had been made into outlaws, living in hiding. They came over there looking for better opportunity, and what they walked into was a cesspool of human misery.”
Another laugh without humor. “We’re engaged in this race to globalization, and we go the last mile, and at the finish line we find Tom DeLay, making a virtue of slavery.”
Lou Dubose is a former editor of the Observer. Jan Reid is the editor of Rio Grande, forthcoming from University of Texas Press. Along with Carl M. Cannon, they also wrote Boy Genius: Karl Rove, the Brains Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W. Bush (PublicAffairs).