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Monday, April 21, 2014

‘Return Abramoff money’
Fitial threatens lawsuit if money is not returned

The CNMI government is demanding full restitution from the lobby firms of Jack Abramoff following the latter’s widely publicized federal felony conviction, threatening the companies with lawsuits if they don’t reimburse the CNMI several millions of dollars.

Gov. Benigno Fitial asked lobby firms Greenberg Traurig L.L.P. and Preston Gates, Ellis & Rouvelas, Meeds to reimburse all monies the Commonwealth government paid for their services, saying that the positive benefits of those services have been undone by the wide scandal brought on by the criminal charges against Abramoff.

Besides, it appears that Abramoff illegally overbilled the Commonwealth, sometimes through double or triple billing for work properly attributable to other clients, according to Fitial. He said Abramoff invoiced the Commonwealth for more money than what was supported in the billing statements.

The governor also accused Abramoff of billing and collecting monies from the CNMI for “questionable expenses” unrelated to the lobby contracts of the Commonwealth government. He said Abramoff “concealed unauthorized charges amid legitimate charges and billed for questionable or phony services.”

From 1994 to 2001, the Commonwealth government paid at least $11 million to Abramoff-associated lobbying firms, in an attempt to keep the local government’s control over wage rates and immigration.

“Mr. Abramoff’s criminal convictions appear to be negatively refocusing attention upon the Commonwealth. For years, the Commonwealth has diligently focused on reforming its labor system by cracking down on abuses and corruption,” the governor said.

“The scandal caused by Abramoff’s actions has erased this progress by prompting some in U.S. Congress to declare that the Commonwealth maintains its unique status within the federal system as a result of Mr. Abramoff’s acts of bribery and corruption,” he added.

Fitial said the lobby firms’ association with Abramoff has put the CNMI in a bad position. The CNMI Attorney General’s Office will also subpoena both lobby firms for records related to its dealings with the CNMI government, the governor said.

Fitial said the CNMI government might use those documents to sue the lobby firms for common law fraud, unfair and deceptive business practices, unjust enrichment and breach of contract, if the companies do not make full restitution.

Abramoff had lobbied for the CNMI in the past to fend off the threat of federal takeover and to maintain the Commonwealth’s control of its labor policies, including minimum wage.

In his demand letter to both Washington D.C.-based lobby firms, Fitial said, though, that Abramoff illegally billed the CNMI “without having first obtained permission from the Commonwealth in the form of validly executed contracts.”

Abramoff had pleaded guilty on Jan. 3 in Washington to three federal felonies: conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion.

He might spend up to 30 years in prison and $750,000 in fines, but prosecutors and Abramoff’s attorneys agreed to recommend 9 1/2 to 11 years in prison and a fine of $15,000 to $150,000. If he cooperates fully in prosecution of others, the government might recommend an unspecified reduction.

Abramoff also agreed to pay an estimated $25 million in restitution to his victims and $1.7 million to the Internal Revenue Service for evading taxes during 2001-03.

Abramoff admitted he conspired to defraud Indian tribes in Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas. They paid Abramoff and companies he controlled roughly $55 million, from which he secretly took more than $21 million for himself. At one point, he took money from a Texas tribe to lobby for Indian gambling in that state while also taking money from a Louisiana tribe to oppose such gambling in Texas.

Abramoff and his former partner Michael Scanlon, who has already pleaded guilty, gave campaign contributions, trips, meals and entertainment to public officials and their relatives in return for favorable treatment of his clients.

The Tigua tribe of El Paso also wants campaign contributions it gave while employing Abramoff returned to the tribe, not given to charity.

Arturo Senclair, governor of the tribe officially known as the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo, said that the tribe isn’t demanding its donations back but that anyone returning money should check with the Tiguas first.

The tribe, based in El Paso, Texas, operated the Speaking Rock casino for nearly nine years before it was shut down in 2002. The Tiguas paid Abramoff and his former business partner Michael Scanlon $4.2 million to lobby lawmakers and allow them to reopen the casino. The tribe contributed between $250,000 and $300,000 to congressional campaigns between 2002 and 2004 based on Abramoff’s direction. (With AP)

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