Abramoff Ties Could Mean Trouble for Trump DOL Nominee

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By Hassan A. Kanu

The government official tapped for the Labor Department’s number two spot previously worked with notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff to try to shield a tiny cluster of Pacific Islands from federal labor and immigration laws.

Patrick Pizzella, whose nomination for deputy labor secretary was submitted to Congress June 20, cut his teeth working for Abramoff in the 1990s. Abramoff was the subject of one of the largest congressional lobbying scandals in recent history and was sentenced to federal prison after pleading guilty to fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials.

Pizzella was never suspected of or charged with any crimes related to the investigation or to his work with Abramoff. He has since been confirmed twice by the Senate for government positions. He declined through a spokesperson Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment.

Pizzella worked at the law firm Preston Gates on the Abramoff lobbying team. The team worked on behalf of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to oppose the extension of federal labor and immigration laws to the U.S. territory, according to government filings and a former colleague of the two who spoke with Bloomberg BNA on the condition of anonymity.

The CNMI came under congressional scrutiny in 1998, and investigations later revealed that manufacturers there were making goods labeled “Made in the USA” while skirting quotas and labor and minimum wage laws. Human rights groups alleged that foreign laborers were subject to sweatshop conditions, often as indentured servants, and were forced into the sex-tourism industry.

Association Could Complicate Confirmation

Pizzella’s work with Abramoff on the island could raise a cloud over his nomination, which comes some four months after fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder withdrew from consideration for labor secretary over concerns about his personal life and what some critics called an “anti worker” resume. It also contrasts with President Donald Trump’s repeated campaign trail pledges to crack down on immigration abuses.

“Elevating Patrick Pizzella to the number two position at the Department of Labor when he was a member of Team Abramoff during the shameful exploitation of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas with its then sweatshop conditions, forced abortions, sex slaves” is akin to putting disgraced investor Bernard Madoff in charge of enforcing DOL retirement adviser requirements, a former congressional staffer involved in Abramoff’s prosecution told Bloomberg BNA.

A White House spokesman stressed that Pizzella has previously been confirmed by the Senate with bipartisan support. “The President selects the highest caliber of individuals to fill positions in his Administration, and Mr. Pizzella is no exception, having won the support of President Obama and Senate Democrats, when he was nominated to the Federal Labor Relations Authority and confirmed via voice vote by a Democrat Senate,” the spokesman said via email.

Pizzella was a DOL official in the administration of President George W. Bush and is currently acting chairman of the Federal Labor Relations Authority. He was nominated to one of the Republican seats on the independent and bipartisan FLRA by President Barack Obama. A Labor Department spokeswoman directed Bloomberg BNA to the White House for comment.

Pro-business groups and some other former colleagues have praised Pizzella’s nomination.

“I was delighted to learn that our former colleague of 17 years ago, a fine public servant twice nominated” to Senate-confirmed posts, “has been chosen by President Trump to serve in this important position, and I wish him great success,” Bruce Heiman, a member of the renamed K&L Gates law firm’s government relations and lobbying practice, told Bloomberg BNA.

Pizzella and the FLRA declined requests for comment from Bloomberg BNA.

‘Team Abramoff’

Pizzella worked with Abramoff in 1996. He was the third “non-attorney lobbyist” hired to “Team Abramoff,” according to Abramoff’s book, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist. The two are also listed as part of the same lobbying team on a number of lobbying registration and reporting documents.

One of those lobbying registrations is for work on behalf of the governor’s office of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Pizzella and Abramoff lobbied to try to shield the island from federal labor and immigration laws, according to their former colleague.

“That was the position we were advocating, and so Pat, as a member of the team, would’ve been advocating for that,” the former associate said.

Abramoff formed a “corrupt partnership” to stop legislation that would have extended U.S. labor and immigration laws to the CNMI, then-Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said during a 2006 press conference.

Legislation applying federal labor and immigration laws to the Islands was eventually signed into law by Bush.

As a member of Team Abramoff, Pizzella also arranged and attended trips for lawmakers to the CNMI that were intended to develop positive governmental relations, the former associate said. In his book, Abramoff recounts an incident in which he and Pizzella traveled to the Marianas, which Abramoff called their “largest client.” He explicitly describes the team’s efforts as fighting to keep the CNMI “free of a federal takeover.”

At the height of the scandal, the CNMI “was by far the zone that had the largest number” of violations of all the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s jurisdictional districts, John Bowe, a reporter and author of a book on modern-day slavery in the CNMI, told Bloomberg BNA. The EEOC enforces a range of discrimination, sex harassment, and other laws. Manufacturers stationed there subsequently reached multimillion-dollar settlements in lawsuits and complaints to the DOL.

Abramoff ultimately pleaded guilty to crimes stemming from his work for four American Indian tribes, which prosecutors said paid him exorbitant lobbying fees that Abramoff parlayed into bribes and gifts. Some of those gifts were trips overseas with the intent to influence official actions that would benefit Team Abramoff’s clients, prosecutors said.

Business Community Backs Nominee

The deputy secretary job would be Pizzella’s third Senate-confirmed position since he worked with Abramoff. He was nominated by Bush to the post at the DOL in 2001 and by Obama for a seat at the FLRA in 2013.

Pizzella’s former Abramoff associate said Pizzella should not be blamed for working to advance his client’s interests before he went into government service.

“When Pat was nominated for the Labor Department he worked at a law firm and [the CNMI] was a client,” the former associate said. “He was a professional at a law firm. The idea is you don’t impute every client’s interest to the professional or attorney who represents them.”

Paul DeCamp, a principal and management-side labor attorney at Jackson Lewis, worked with Pizzella at DOL and has known him for about 12 years.

Pizzella always struck him as a “very honest, very decent man,” DeCamp said.

“When we have situations here in D.C., there’s a tendency to have guilt by association,” he said. “But the reality is that one person or a handful can do something wrong, and that doesn’t mean the people working at the same company even had knowledge anything improper was going on.”

It’s not uncommon for governments and business communities in non-mainland territories to demand different standards based on local prevailing economic conditions, DeCamp said.

“There’s nothing that’s on its face nefarious about governments or businesses from those territories engaging in some measure of lobbying to obtain relief in circumstances like that, and nothing wrong with representing those kinds of businesses or governments,” he said.

DOL Union Previously Opposed Pizzella

Eleanor Lauderdale, the vice president of a union representing DOL workers, said she was “just flabbergasted” when told about Pizzella’s nomination by Trump for the DOL’s number two position.

Companies operating on the islands at the time Pizzella and Abramoff represented the CNMI government “had what we called ‘virtual slaves,’” Lauderdale told Bloomberg BNA. That’s why the union opposed Pizzella’s first DOL nomination during the Bush administration.

“We know if you could represent these people who had people behind barbed wire—and we had pictures—that you weren’t someone who should be at Labor,” she said.

“It’s wrong that someone who clearly doesn’t believe the department should even exist should be a part of it,” union president Alex Bastani told Bloomberg BNA. “I’m disappointed, obviously, but a Republican won the presidency, so I‘m not really shocked this is the direction they’re taking.”

The union failed to draw attention to its opposition of Pizzella’s 2001 appointment, including from their national affiliate, the American Federation of Government Employees. It eventually abandoned its efforts.

“We never thought he’d come to life during President Obama’s administration, but he definitely did, and now he’s back at the Labor Department, which is astonishing to me,” Lauderdale said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Hassan A. Kanu in Washington at hkanu@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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