WASHINGTON -- The government of a United States territory in the Pacific said Thursday that it had been unable to determine what work was performed for a $1.2 million contract awarded to a close associate of a Washington lobbyist at the center of a growing corruption scandal here.
The no-bid contract to promote "ethics in government" was awarded in 1996 to David Lapin, a rabbi whom the lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, later hired to run a private Jewish school, now defunct, near Washington. The contract was one of several totaling about $9 million given to Mr. Abramoff and his associates that have provoked questions about the lobbyist's activities in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Those activities included a 1998 trip arranged for Representative Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, who is facing ethics questions about his relationship with Mr. Abramoff. Democrats in Congress have also said that two of Mr. DeLay's former staff members improperly influenced island elections in part to assure that Mr. Abramoff continued to win contracts there.
Mr. Lapin's brother, Daniel, a Seattle rabbi who has long promoted conservative causes in Washington, introduced Mr. DeLay and Mr. Abramoff, the lobbyist said, shortly before Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994.
In audits in late 2001, the Marianas government said that it had overpaid for eight years of lobbying contracts with Mr. Abramoff, that he had been paid without a contract in some cases and that it had been difficult to justify his hiring based on his work.
The investigations of Mr. Abramoff in Congress and by a federal grand jury in Washington have looked into accusations of fraud in his dealings with Indian tribes, but two weeks ago, the ranking Democrat on the Congressional committee that oversees the islands demanded that the investigation be expanded to include his work in the Northern Marianas.
The islands, an American commonwealth with a large garment industry that employs mostly Chinese laborers, hired Mr. Abramoff in 1994 to help its government fend off legislation imposing American standards on wages and working conditions. The contract was awarded by Gov. Froilan Tenorio, under fire from the Clinton administration for what it labeled the islands' exploitive labor practices.
The audit, conducted after Mr. Tenorio left office, found that the islands had paid $9.5 million to lobbyists, most of it, $6.7 million, to Preston Gates & Ellis, the lobbying firm where Mr. Abramoff then worked, and $500,000 to the firm Greenberg Traurig for eight months in 2001 after Mr. Abramoff moved there.
In addition, Mr. Abramoff had lobbying contracts with the textile industry trade group there. Supportive columnists with The Saipan Tribune, owned by the owner of the largest garment business in the commonwealth, have said he is a star in Washington because of his prowess in deflecting Congressional efforts to tighten labor laws.
Mr. Abramoff's biggest year, according to the audit, was 1997, when Preston Gates earned $3.1 million from the commonwealth. Around that time, the commonwealth hired David Lapin. The Lapin brothers are from South Africa and met Mr. Abramoff on one of his trips there. Mr. Abramoff later helped Daniel Lapin found Toward Tradition, a Seattle group that describes itself as working "against anti-religion bigotry," and remains a board member.
In a 2002 interview with The New York Times, Mr. Abramoff said he first met Mr. DeLay through Daniel Lapin, who would meet frequently with members of Congress to press conservative causes.
Pam Brown, the attorney general for the Marianas, said Thursday that the government had been unable to determine what work David Lapin had done.
"We haven't been able to figure out what the deliverables were," Ms. Brown said. "He was tasked with providing some sort of ethical parameters for government work. That's all I know at this point. We're more amazed at the cost."
A woman answering the phone at Strategic Business Ethics in California, where Mr. Lapin is chief executive, said Mr. Lapin could not be reached for comment because of the Passover holidays.
Mr. DeLay, whose foreign travel arranged by lobbyists has drawn criticism in Congress for possible ethics violations, visited the Marianas in 1998 with his wife and daughter and three aides. Upon his return, he declared dead a bill that Democrats had hoped to pass raising wages and controlling immigration in the Marianas.
In 1999, Mr. DeLay's former chief of staff, Edwin Buckham, and his former spokesman, Michael Scanlon, both of whom later worked with Mr. Abramoff in his lobbying firm, visited the islands to persuade two local lawmakers to change their votes for speaker of the islands' House of Representatives. The DeLay associates wanted the two legislators to support the candidate of the garment industry, Ben Fitial, who was close to Mr. Abramoff, and promised that federal contracts to the islands would follow if they did.
Mr. Buckham later represented Enron in its bid to build an energy plant in the Northern Marianas, and when Enron lost to a Japanese concern, Mr. DeLay worked to get the bidding reopened.
"For years, Mr. Abramoff lobbied to protect a Marianas industry that exploited tens of thousands of women workers, many of whom were channeled into the island sex trade," said Representative George Miller, the California Democrat who called for the investigation of Mr. Abramoff's work in the Marianas.
He noted the audits and added that newspapers on the islands had reported this week that Mr. Fitial admitted he had won the speakership because of the work by Mr. DeLay's associates. "Given the evidence in the public reports, it's long past time for Congress to investigate allegations of undue influence and corruption," Mr. Miller said.
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