Politics & Policy

Hillary, Saipan, Sweatshops, Campaign Cash–and Abramoff

The New York senator accepts contributions from a tycoon involved in the lobbying scandal.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has accepted campaign contributions from a Saipan garment-industry tycoon, sometimes described as a sweatshop operator, whose ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff have been part of the lobbying scandal investigation. Newly filed Federal Election Commission records show that the businessman, Willie Tan, last year gave $2,000 to Friends of Hillary, one of the senator’s political action committees. Friends of Hillary also accepted $2,000 contributions from Raymond Tan and Siu Lin Tan, family members who are top executives in Willie Tan’s businesses. All three contributions were received on September 30, 2005, according to FEC records. Another family member, Josie Tan, who listed her occupation as homemaker, made a $2,000 contribution received on October 2, 2005.

Together, the Tans contributed more to Friends of Hillary than the senator’s PAC received, separately, from residents of the states of Hawaii, Mississippi, Nebraska, Vermont, Utah, Kansas, Wyoming, Alaska, Idaho, South Dakota, Montana, or North Dakota, according to the nonpartisan website PoliticalMoneyLine.com

For years, Willie Tan, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, has played a central role in business and politics in the Northern Mariana Islands. His chief interest has been in protecting his garment factories, which pay sub-minimum wages, from U.S. labor laws. In 1992, Tan’s businesses were cited as sweatshops by the Labor Department, and Tan was forced to give $9 million in back wages and damages to workers. As part of his effort to steer clear of further American regulation, Tan hired Jack Abramoff.

Last year, ABC News reported that Abramoff “arranged a lavish overseas trip to the island of Saipan for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay over the New Year’s holiday in 1997.” Correspondent Brian Ross reported that DeLay met with Willie Tan during the trip, and ABC played a surreptitiously recorded tape in which Tan said DeLay had promised to stop moves in Congress to reform the island’s garment factories. National Journal reported that Tan also met with DeLay and Abramoff during DeLay’s 2000 trip to England and Scotland. And the Washington Post reported that “the owners of textile companies in the Mariana Islands”–a group in which Tan was a major player — contributed $500,000 to the U.S. Family Network, a so-called “astroturf” lobbying organization linked to DeLay which received an even larger sum–in secret–from Russian oil interests.

Tan’s name has appeared in the volumes of Abramoff e-mails released by congressional investigators. In a March 28, 2000, note, published on the website of liberal blogger Josh Marshall, Abramoff billed Tan $223,679 for expenses relating to the sports skyboxes that Abramoff used in his lobbying.

Some of Sen. Clinton’s fellow Democrats have long crusaded against Tan’s labor practices. “We have been trying for years to secure hearings to investigate reports of mistreatment of foreign workers in this U.S. territory,” California Rep. George Miller said at a press conference after ABC aired its report on Willie Tan and DeLay. “Now we apparently know why our requests (for hearings) have been denied–a very cozy relationship between the Republican leadership of the House and the major garment industry tycoon in Saipan.”

Last month, Sen. Clinton was one of 36 Democratic senators who called on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to appoint a special prosecutor in the Abramoff case. Among the reasons Clinton and her colleagues cited was the importance of the investigation into Abramoff’s activities in the Northern Marianas.

A spokesman for Friends of Hillary, reached late yesterday, said he had no knowledge of the Tan contributions and would look into it.

The contributions are not Sen. Clinton’s first contact with Tan, or with the Northern Marianas. In 1997, the Washington Post reported that Mrs. Clinton, then First Lady, made a brief visit to the island of Guam in September 1995. During her few hours there, she attended what the Post called “the biggest political fund-raising effort ever on this trade-wind caressed chunk of American territory 6,100 miles west of California.” Among those in attendance, the paper reported, was Willie Tan. The Post said that U.S. officials were “concerned” about some of the donors who met with Mrs. Clinton, including Tan, whose “Saipan-based garment companies donated at least $17,500 to the DNC.”

Three weeks after Mrs. Clinton’s visit, the paper continued, “a Guam Democratic Party official arrived in Washington with more than $250,000 in campaign contributions. Within six months of that, [a group of] Guam businessmen had ponied up more than $132,000 for the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign and $510,000 in ’soft money’ contributions to the Democratic National Committee, making the island, with its 140,000 residents, the biggest donor to the Democratic Party per capita of any territory in the United States.” Later, the Post continued, “the contributions from Guam were followed…by signs of a significant and controversial change in the Clinton administration’s policy toward the island.”

Now, in the highly publicized Abramoff investigation, the attention is on Republicans (Tan contributed to the Bush-Cheney campaigns in 2000 and 2004). But last year’s contributions show that Willie Tan has not forgotten Sen. Clinton.

Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President–and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.

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