Northern Marianas Cooperating With Feds in Lobbying Probe

The governor of a tiny U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific said Thursday he is cooperating with the U.S. Justice Department's corruption investigation around jailed Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands also is still trying to retrieve some of the millions it paid Abramoff's firms, said Gov. Benigno R. Fitial.

Fitial referred questions about the Justice Department's inquiry to his Los Angeles attorney, Tom Pollack, who didn't immediately return calls for comment.

But Fitial, a one-time Abramoff ally who in past years pushed to extend Abramoff's contract to represent the Marianas, refused to distance himself from the disgraced lobbyist.

"When I have a friend, that friend always remains a friend," said Fitial, who became House speaker of the Marianas in 2000 after intervention from two former aides to former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. After becoming speaker, Fitial pushed for Abramoff's contract to continue.

Abramoff, once a powerful behind the scenes figure in Washington, is cooperating with the government's wide-ranging influence-peddling investigation after pleading guilty last year to conspiracy and other charges and admitting to bilking his clients. The investigation already has netted guilty pleas from a dozen Bush administration and congressional aides and others and one former congressman, ex-Republican Rep. Bob Ney.

The scandals were a factor in helping Democrats win control of Congress from the Republicans in last November's elections.

One current member of Congress, Republican John Doolittle is a focus of the investigation. He was another Fitial ally, endorsing him for governor and pushing federal funding on his behalf.

"Doolittle, he's also a friend," said Fitial.

Fitial spoke to reporters after testifying against a Senate bill that would impose U.S. immigration laws on the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a chain of 14 islands just north of Guam in the Pacific. A similar bill passed the Senate in 2000 but Abramoff helped block it from advancing in the House.

"He did what he is paid to do and that is to prevent federal takeover of immigration in the CNMI," said Fitial.

With Abramoff behind bars, the bill looks like it has a chance of becoming law. A House version was introduced Thursday.