A Lobbyist Comes to Call

Why did Jack Abramoff visit Tung Chee-hwa on the eve of Hong Kong’s handover?

The curious and the sentimental rushed to Hong Kong in the spring of 1997 for a last look at the fabled free port before the British lowered the Union Jack and turned over control to China.

But why did hardboiled, former anti-communist action-movie producer Jack Abramoff come?

Abramoff, then just beginning his ascent as a high flying partisan peddler of influence in the US capital, arrived less than six weeks before the handover and didn't stay long.

What's known about the trip is that Abramoff met on May 25 with soon-to-be Chief Executive of the Special Administrate Region, Tung Chee-hwa, for more than an hour.

The trip raises questions about what role Abramoff’s relationship with Tung may have played in his lobbying work in Washington and what services, if any, the recently convicted lobbyist performed for the Hong Kong government.

Tung, who had stepped down from his family shipping business a year earlier, was getting ready to become Beijing's designated chief executive. He made time for the American lobbyist as the US Congress debated proposals to link renewal of trading privileges for China to the preservation of economic and social freedoms in the city.

Preston Gates & Ellis, the US law firm where Abramoff then worked, billed the US-affiliated Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands government for the meeting with Tung. The invoice noted the meeting was "re CNMI relationship."

According to Tung spokeswoman Vivien Tam, however, an extended review of Tung’s files shows "no record of the CNMI being discussed."

Tam declined to say what the records do indicate Tung and Abramoff talked about.

The now-infamous Abramoff is unavailable to give his side of the meeting. He pled guilty in January in Washington, DC to charges of tax evasion, conspiracy to bribe public officials, and fraud related to the over-billing of Native American tribes for lobbying work, but he has yet to be sentenced as he is providing evidence to investigators on those he lobbied.

A judge in Miami, Florida sentenced Abramoff to almost six years in prison in March over fraud and conspiracy charges related to his purchase of a fleet of gambling ships and he is scheduled to begin serving time on those charges in October.

The CNMI government was, alongside various Native American tribes, a top Abramoff client. According to a report by the islands' Office of the Public Auditor, the government paid Preston Gates $6.77 million between 1994 and 2001; the report stated that nearly half that amount was paid for the firm's services during fiscal 1997 even though no valid contract covered the firm's lobbying then.

The auditor recommended in 2001 that then-Governor Pedro Tenorio consider civil or criminal action against his predecessor and nephew, Froilan Tenorio, over the payments. Current governor Benigno Fitial, who played a key role in preserving the lobbying contracts as a legislator, this January demanded that Preston Gates reimburse all money received from the CNMI because of billing irregularities and the blowback from Abramoff's troubles.

The CNMI originally sought Preston Gates' help to preserve the partial exemption the islands enjoy from US labor, immigration and trade laws. The Hong Kong-based Tan family pioneered the development of an apparel industry on Saipan, the main island in the group, which exploited these exemptions by importing young Asian women to sew clothes at wages below the mainland US minimum and then selling the apparel free of quotas and tariffs as "Made in USA."

At the time Abramoff visited Hong Kong, pressure was building in Washington to revoke the CNMI's exemptions because of employer abuses of the foreign workers. Then-US President Bill Clinton wrote to Froilan Tenorio just days after Abramoff's Hong Kong trip, saying he would work to end the islands' special status.

It is unclear what "CNMI relationship" Abramoff and Tung could have discussed since the Hong Kong government had no involvement with the islands. But four days before the meeting and a day after, Abramoff was busy holding meetings in Saipan, according to Preston Gates' billing invoice.

The Seattle -based law firm was involved with Hong Kong. A year before, it opened an office in the city, boasting of the "extensive representation of Chinese governmental entities" by the lawyers hired to run it.

Indeed, the Tung-Abramoff meeting may have been about China. Abramoff's influence network centered on the Republican Party leaders who took control of the US House of Representatives after the 1994 election.

At the beginning of May 1997, House Speaker Newt Gingrich publicly called for China's "Most Favored Nation" trading status to be renewed for just three or six months, instead of the standard one year period, to allow Congress to first observe post-handover conditions in Hong Kong before fully endorsing privileges for Chinese goods.

By mid-May, Gingrich had changed his position to endorse the standard one-year renewal. Support from Gingrich and the Republican leadership proved crucial when Clinton's plan to renew China's status came up for a House vote in June.

Also in mid-May, the Republican National Committee and two related Republican organizations returned $122,400 in campaign donations traced to a Hong Kong company run by Ambrous Tung Young, a real estate investor and agent for jet engine companies. Young, who could not legally donate as a foreign citizen, was linked in news reports at the time to $500,000 in critical financing to a Republican-linked organization called the National Policy Forum.

Chief Executive Tung traveled to Washington and met with Congressional leaders and Clinton in September 1997.

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