A senior Labor Department official appointed by President Bush in 2001 has more detailed ties to fallen conservative lobbyist Jack Abramoff than previously believed, according to documents reviewed by RAW STORY.
The official, Patrick Pizzella, was an Abramoff lieutenant who lobbied on behalf of at least five clients that are now the subject of investigations: E-Lottery, Naftasib, the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, the Commonwealth of the Marianas Islands and the Saginaw Chippewas. Pizzella paired with Abramoff at Washington lobby shop Preston Gates Ellis and Rouvelas Meeds, working together on more than $21 million in accounts.
Rediscovered records show that Pizzella lobbied on behalf of a Bahamian company the Washington Post revealed to be a front organization for a Russian oil business. They also show that Pizzella arranged numerous trips for conservative activists with Abramoff and another Preston Gates lobbyist, David Safavian, to a U.S. territory in the Pacific, paid for by the territory.
Abramoff and Safavian have since been arrested on charges stemming from a federal investigation into Abramoff’s lobbying practices. Pizzella, who worked on several of the same accounts, remains a Bush Administration official and has not been accused of any wrongdoing. Abramoff pleaded guilty to various charges in December.
Pizzella could not be reached for comment.
Pizzella lobbied for Bahama front group
A newly discovered Senate lobbying record filed in 1997 (PDF file) lists Pizzella as "Director of Coalitions" for Chelsea Commercial, a purported Bahamas based organization lobbying for Russian trade liberalization. The Washington Post revealed last April that Chelsea Commercial appeared to have been little more than a front group for a Russian oil and gas company, Naftasib.
Chelsea Commercial, according to the Post, underwrote a trip taken by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) and Pizzella colleague Jack Abramoff by funneling money through a Washington nonprofit. The nonprofit paid for a trip taken by DeLay along with Abramoff and former DeLay aide Ed Buckham during which the lobbyists met with DeLay and key Russian officials.
The Post did not say whether other individuals from the lobbying firm –- including Pizzella -- made the trip, though it would seem to have been limited to Abramoff and Buckham.
Pizzella, however, does appear to have played a significant role on the Chelsea account; only Abramoff and one other individual on the account are listed on the 1997 filings as "government affairs counselors," whereas Pizzella is the only individual to carry the title "director." Lobbyists often take on larger titles at lobby shops – with many carrying titles of "director" -- though it appears notable that Abramoff, who obviously had a large role, does not receive a superlative appellation on the filing.
RAW STORY could find no news reports which explain Pizzella’s role on the Chelsea account. Former Abramoff associates who worked at various points with Abramoff said they were not personally familiar with Pizzella’s work.
Document shows Pizzella, Abramoff trips
A second rediscovered document shows that Abramoff and Pizzella had substantial ties while lobbying on behalf of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
The same document used to report that two Democratic congressman had taken improper trips to the Northern Marianas Islands lists various trips Pizzella made to Saipan with conservative activists and opinionmakers. Given the billing statement, it is plausible that Pizzella would have known the congressmen's trips were paid for by the Islands, a U.S. territory in the Pacific –- in violation of House ethics rules.
The memo shows that Pizzella spared no expense during his Marianas trips. Airfare for conservative heavyweights flown at the islands' expense often topped $5,000 a head.
A 2001 report by The New Republic also indicates that Pizzella made a whirlwind number of trips with congressmen, saying he extended personal invitations to at least 11 members of Congress. The Wall Street Journal estimated that 100 representatives visited the islands during Pizzella's tenure. It's unknown who paid for these trips, or even who these congressmembers are.
According to the New Republic, Abramoff handpicked Pizzella for his Marianas lobbying team.
Pizzella's work with the Marianas has attracted the most scrutiny, particularly because the islands are notorious sweatshop havens. The Preston Gates lobbying team collected some $6.7 million from the protectorate, some $3.1 million of which was paid without a lawful contract. Preston Gates helped crush attempts to impose minimum wage laws and accrued $2 million in federal aid for the islands.
Pizzella was appointed to be a deputy labor undersecretary just months after departing Abramoff's retinue.
Abramoff cheered the appointment in a letter to the Commonwealth. Notably, Abramoff seemed to reference Pizzella’s new post in a January 2001 letter even though he wasn’t officially appointed until April 2001.
"Our standing with the new administration promises to be solid as several friends of the CNMI (islands) will soon be taking high-ranking positions in the Administration, including within the Interior Department," Abramoff wrote.
The Marianas have since accused Abramoff and his staff of overcharging the islands for some $2.2 million in unsupported expenses. The charges included travel, telephone, photocopy, computer research and outside-professional fees. Pizzella was not named by auditors, though was among the most traveled members of Abramoff’s group.
RAW STORY, along with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, recently filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking any information about contacts between Pizzella and any members of Abramoff's staff after his appointment to the Labor Department.
"Mr. Pizzella has extensive knowledge about the Abramoff operation, considering he was on their team," Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics spokeswoman Naomi Seligman said. "We do not know, but certainly intend to find out, how his current position at the Labor Department helped Mr. Abramoff and clients."
Saipan's regulatory limbo has helped to fortify the bottom lines of popular U.S. clothing brands. Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Calvin Klein and Liz Claiborne are among the labels that have benefited from the island's dearth of labor laws. The islands' minimum wage -- albeit weakly enforced -- was $3.05 an hour in 1998.
Pizzella worked on other accounts now under investigation
Along with about a dozen other lobbyists, Pizzella also advocated for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. During the three years Pizzella worked the Choctaw, they dished out $5.7 million for the work. Investigators of Abramoff's Choctaw work have since accused him of laundering funds.
Pizella and Abramoff also represented eLottery, a company that sought to sell state lottery tickets online. News reports and investigations have since shown that Abramoff arranged for the firm to quietly fund anti-gambling efforts to derail competing plans. A senior DeLay aide also communicated with Abramoff to help quash an effort to ban online gambling.