Transparency issues in CNMI and U.S. Legislatures: Sablan, Feeney, Zachares

July 10, 2009

Congratulations to Representative Tina Sablan and supporters for gathering enough signatures to get a popular initiative placed on the ballot, which calls for the Open Government Act to apply to the Legislature.

From her message:
I am very happy to announce that as of July 9, 2009 the popular initiative to apply the Open Government Act to the Legislature has been certified by the Office of the Attorney General for placement on the ballot this November election...

The successful placement of this initiative was the result of over two years of hard work on the part of dozens of volunteer citizens committed to improving transparency in the legislature. Our thanks to all who helped collect signatures and engaged in public education and dialogue about the importance of a clean and honest government that serves us all. We also thank the diligent staff of the Commonwealth Election Commission and the Office of the Attorney General for their role in advising volunteers about initiative regulations and election law, in certifying signatures, and in ensuring that the initiative is duly placed on the ballot for voters to consider.
The certifying letter from Acting Attorney General Greg Baka indicates that the initiative that will be put on the ballot for the November 2009 election will become law if two-thirds of the voters approve it.

Court Opinion Concerning Feeney Case

Meanwhile an issue dealing with transparency in the U.S. House of Representatives was brought to light.

Yesterday the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit unsealed a unanimous decision regarding grand jury subpoenas and statements made before the U.S. House Ethics Committee. It overturned a ruling by U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan of the U.S. District of Columbia Court that ruled in favor of the DOJ in May 2008.

The case concerns former Florida Rep. Tom Feeney's statements before the House Ethics Committee concerning his questionable golfing trip to Scotland with convicted felon Jack Abramoff.

From the Court Opinion (Douglas Ginsberg, Circuit Judge:):
The Ethics Committee of the United States House of Representatives opened an investigation into whether a certain congressman had violated House Rules by accepting private funding for a trip; the congressman maintained the trip was primarily for the purpose of legislative fact-finding. After the Committee had closed the matter, the Government began an investigation into certain statements the congressman made in his responses to the Committee. Grand jury subpoenas were served upon the law firm and upon the individual lawyers who represented the congressman before the Ethics Committee. The congressman moved to quash the subpoenas on the ground, among others, that they called for testimony and documents protected by Article I, Section 6, the Speech or Debate Clause, of the Constitution of the United States, which says of senators and representatives that “for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.” The district court denied the motion to quash, and the congressman sought review in this court. We hold the congressman’s statements to the Ethics Committee are protected by the Speech or Debate Clause. Accordingly, the order of the district court denying the motion to quash is reversed, and the district court is directed to enter an order consistent with this opinion.
Legal Times, the only paper to cover this story, noted that Judge Brett Kavanaugh, one of the judges on the three judge panel that issued the ruling, called for an en blanc hearing to clarify the "scope of protection accorded to statements made during the congressional ethics investigations."

The article relates that Feeney's attorneys argued in "a rare closed door hearing in January that documents and testimony provided to the House Ethics Committee cannot be used against the congressman during a grand jury investigation."

Legal Times stated that Feeney's attorneys, Robert Luskin and Patton Boggs did not comment.

From the article:
According to the D.C. Circuit opinion, lawyers for the congressman argued that the documents the government wants to review are protected by attorney-client privilege and the work product doctrine. They also said the documents are protected congressional speech under the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause. The D.C. Circuit rejected the government’s position that the congressman was acting in his personal capacity—and not in a legislative one—when his lawyers provided statements to the House Ethics Committee.

After a federal grand jury began its own investigation, the congressman refused to meet with prosecutors to talk about his Ethics Committee submissions, according to the appellate court opinion. Prosecutors hit lawyers and a law firm with subpoenas compelling the release of documents and testimony submitted to the Ethics Committee.
I disagree with the Court's opinion. Any statement made during a congressional investigation should be allowed in a criminal investigation. Since truth and justice should be the basis of any investigation, it seems wrong to restrict the use of statements made before any investigatory body.

Background on Feeney
Former Rep. Tom Feeney (R-FL) has been under investigation by federal officials for his involvement in the Abramoff scandal. Feeney is one of three House members who accompanied Abramoff to Scotland on trips that included rounds of golf at the legendary Royal & Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews.

The others are: former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who served prison time for corruption, and former House Republican leader Tom DeLay, indicted in Texas for alleged improper fundraising, is under investigation.

Feeney claimed that his trip was paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research, the Republican think tank that served as a clearinghouse for Abramoff funds. They denied funding the trip. The NCPPR was founded by Abramoff friend, Amy Ridenour, who was one of the first Saipan junket-takers. She pushed the CNMI anti-federalization, pro-Marianas labor agenda as an email exchange between her and Abramoff indicates. Abramoff served on the Board of Directors of NCPPR until October 2004.

After Feeney was exposed, after the FBI came knocking, and after reporters started calling, Feeney decided to consult with the Ethics Committee in 2005. He then wrote a personal check for $5,643, the alleged cost of the 2003 golf trip, and gave it to the U.S. Treasury. No punishment from the Ethics Committee; he just gave some money to the U.S. government. To make matters worse, the money he contributed represented only a fraction of the actual cost of the trip, which included the cost of of a private jet.

The criminal complaint against convicted Abramoff co-conspirator Mark Zachares, former Secretary of the CNMI Department of Labor and Immigration, reads:
16. From on or about August 9, 2003, through on or about August 14, 2003, ZACHARES, Abramoff and six other individuals, including a Member of the United States House of Representatives (Representative #3), traveled to Scotland to play golf on world-famous courses. Abramoff and his clients paid nearly all expenses for the trip for all participants, including ZACHARES and Representative #3, including costs in excess of $160,000 for private jet service between Maryland and Scotland, luxury hotel accommodations in Scotland, twice-daily golf at St. Andrews and other famous courses, meals, drinks, and local transportation.
Feeney is Representative #3. Let's see - 8 people went to Scotland, and the trip cost in excess of $160,000 so that makes each share come out to how much? He needs to donate a lot more than $5,643.

The Scotland junket wasn't the only trip Feeney took from a lobbyist. Since he became a member of the U.S. Congress in 2002, Feeney took 16 trips totaling $61,449 paid for by right wing think tanks, lobbyists, and other organizations.

In February 2003, Feeney took a trip to Asia paid for by Korea -US Exchange Council formed by Ed Buckham, former chief of staff for Tom Delay. The nine day trip included stops in Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and China. The Korean - US Exchange Council was registered as foreign agent with the Department of Justice and is financed by the Korean Hanwha Group chaired by Sueng Youn Kim. Julie Doolittle, wife of Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA), also under investigation by the FBI, worked for the Korea - US Exchange Council.

Feeney traveled to West Palm Beach, Florida in November 2003. The trip was also allegedly paid for by a registered lobbying firm. In February 2007, Feeney accepted a $6,539.39 trip to Hamburg and Munich Germany paid for by the International Management and Development Institute run by APCO Worldwide lobbyist, Don Bonker. They also funded a 2003 trip to Paris, France and Stuttgart, Germany.

Feeney staffer Jason Roe said,
"Any assertion that this office knew Abramoff paid for the Scotland trip is a g--d----- lie," Roe wrote in the email being sought by the FBI. The email was quoted in a newspaper article last year."
It seems staffer Roe also enjoys traveling. Since serving for Feeney, has taken 17 trips paid for by think tanks and other organizations.

The St. Petersberg Times noted that Feeney didn't just like to accept money, he also threw money around:
Feeney paid the tab at Abramoff's Washington restaurant, Signatures, at least three times, twice when the costs were more than $2,000, according to Feeney's campaign finance reports.
Here is some background on Feeney's early political years. Tom Feeney started his political career in 1990 as a member of Florida's House of Representatives. In 1994 he ran as lieutenant governor on a ticket with Jeb Bush and lost. Feeney served as Florida's House Speaker. He played a prominent role in the Florida 2000 presidential election scandal helping to ensure that Bush stole the election from Al Gore. Feeney worked hand-in-hand with Katherine Harris, and the Abramoff's Greenberg Taurig firm hired to secure votes for Bush during the Florida recount. Raw Story reported:
Four of Abramoff’s colleagues—all of whom have left Greenberg in the wake of investigations surrounding Abramoff’s activities—were foot soldiers in the Florida recount. Two of them bragged of their recount work on their official online Greenberg biographies, which have since been removed.

Shawn Vasell noted that he was a “team leader” in Broward and Duval counties in his bio; Duane Gibson was photographed in the acclaimed “Brooks Brothers riot” of Republican operatives outside the Miami-Dade County polling headquarters; Todd Boulanger boasted of being on the Broward and Duval recount team in his profile. Also on the ground was former DeLay deputy chief of staff Tony Rudy.
Perhaps the meetings during the recount days led to Feeney's introduction to his idol, Tom Delay. Feeney was reportedly a loyal Delay follower, voting with him "almost all the time", and donating $5,000 to his legal defense fund.

Feeney was allegedly involved in a voting machine fraud scheme. The scheme involved controlling the vote in West Palm Beach, Florida. Feeney also led the controversial Florida congressional redistricting plan.

In 2001 the ACLU took Feeney to task for his "voting reform legislation". In 2002, he banned a Palm Beach Post reporter from the House floor for writing unflattering stories about Feeney's aide who used her state email account to contact lobbyists and Republican Party workers concerning Feeney campaign events.

Feeney created the Conservative check card, a wallet sized card with six conservative principles that members of Congress could check before they vote. Abramoff buddy Grover Norquist said this about the check card:
“The federal budget keeps ballooning in the face of more discussions about fiscal restraint...Conservative Check Cards make it less convenient for lawmakers to toss aside fiscal sensibility when it’s time to vote or craft legislation.”
Feeney also accepted over $5,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff and his friends Tony Rudy, Edwin Buckham, and his wife Wendy between 2003 and 2006.

In July 2006 Feeney's real estate deals were exposed. In 2003 he bought rental property with a partner and failed to report it, which was a violation of the House rules.

Thankfully, Feeney was defeated by Rep. Suzanne Kosmos (D-FL) in the last election. It is presumed he is still under investigation for his part in the Abramoff scandal. He currently registered as a lobbyist in Florida.

Update on Feeney's Golf Partner, Mark Zachares

On April 5, 2009 I wrote a post entitled, Zachares Talking. It stated that the previously scheduled hearing date for former CNMI Department of Labor and Immigration Director, Mark Zachares was continued until today, July 10, 2009 because of his cooperation with federal investigators. There will be no hearing today.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Government filed a Motion to Continue Status Conference stating that "Mr. Zachares has been cooperating with government agents and prosecutors, including in several ongoing investigations. The government anticipates that Mr. Zachares' cooperation will continue for the foreseeable future. In the view of both parties, no issues have arisen which require the Court's intervention at this time."

The motion requested a continuance for the status conference and sentencing of no less than 90 days. The Court issssued an Order granting the motion and setting the new date of the status conference for October 16, 2009.

Hopefully, Zachares' cooperation with the federal officials will lead to further indictments. He has a lot to talk about. Officials and others in Alaska (Rep. Don Young), Florida ( former Rep. Tom Feeney), Colorado (former Rep. Bob Schaffer), California (former Rep. John Doolittle), Washington, D.C. (convicted former lobbyist Kevin Ring and other lobbyists), and the CNMI (insert your favorite Zachares-Abramoff connected conspirator's name here) should have a lot to worry about.

On July 1, 2009 a Motion to Amend the Conditions and Terms of Release for Zachares was also filed. It states:
1. On April 24, 2007, Mr. Zachares pleaded guilty to a one count information
charging him with a violation of 18 U.S.C. 371.
2. On April 24, 2007, the Court entered an Order allowing Mr. Zachares to be
released on his own recognizance pending sentencing. Mr. Zachares was ordered to and did surrender his passport to a Special Agent of the F.B.I. on that same date.
3. As a result of the continued cooperation, Mr. Zachares has not been sentenced.
4. As the Court knows, it has continued the sentencing on numerous occasions. Indeed, the parties will soon again ask the Court to continue the status conference set for July 10, 2009.
5. Since April 24, 2007, Mr. Zachares has complied with all of the requests made of
him by pre-trial services and has not missed a meeting. He has two children and a wife in the area and a good job.
6. Mr. Zachares’ supervisor has asked Mr. Zachares to travel with him to Korea at
the end of July for a one week business trip. Mr. Zachares therefore requires the return of his passport in order to travel overseas.
7. The defendant submits that he is not a risk of flight and that he will return to the
United States after the business trip to rejoin his family, continue his work, and to honor his solemn obligations to the Court.
8. The United States consents to allowing Mr. Zachares to regain the possession of
his passport. Mr. Zachares will return his Passport to the FBI upon his return from the business trip.
The Court issued an Order granting the motion.

It is intersting that Zachares has a "good job" as stated in the motion. I would have thought it would be difficult to have a good job if one is indicted on felony charges. Who would hire him? Maybe Zachares will take his supervisor on a side trip to the CNMI on his way back from Korea to visit old friends.

For more on Feeney and the court decision please visit my friend at the Anti Corruption Republican blog.