A senior congressional aide traveled to the Northern Mariana Islands in January 2000 to help Seattle-based Preston Gates in "obtaining and...

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WASHINGTON — A senior congressional aide traveled to the Northern Mariana Islands in January 2000 to help Seattle-based Preston Gates in “obtaining and maintaining” clients as part of the public-corruption scheme orchestrated by Jack Abramoff, according to the lobbyist’s recent guilty plea.

The plea agreement lists the aide’s trip to the Pacific islands as among the “official acts and influence” in exchange for donations, free meals, concert tickets and other things of value the lobbyist provided.

The aide worked for Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who has become part of the widening investigation into Abramoff’s fraud and influence-peddling scandal.

As recently as last week, a spokesman for Preston Gates, a law and lobbying firm, said Abramoff’s illegal acts occurred after he left the Seattle firm’s Washington, D.C., office.

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The firm acknowledged Tuesday that Abramoff was employed at Preston Gates at the time of the Marianas trip. But a statement issued by the firm said it was unaware at the time that any congressional staff members had traveled to the Marianas to push on its behalf.

Abramoff worked at Preston Gates from 1994-2000.

In late 1998, the firm lost its lobbying contract with the Marianas’ government aimed at helping keep the U.S. from imposing minimum-wage increases on the islands’ garment factories. The Marianas paid Preston Gates $6.7 million over several years.

The contract was reinstated in August 2000 — after the trip by the Ney aide and a separate trip a month earlier by two former top aides to congressional leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

The Los Angeles Times has reported that former DeLay aides Michael Scanlon and Ed Buckham traveled to Saipan and other cities in the Marianas in December 1999. Just days later, two key politicians in the U.S. territory switched their votes to support a candidate for the Marianas speaker of the House who was backed by DeLay and the garment makers.

In 2000, the Marianas politicians’ home districts both got federal appropriations for infrastructure projects. And the new Marianas House speaker urged the government to rehire Preston Gates, under a contract with Abramoff worth $100,000 a month, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Ney staffer’s role in assisting Abramoff and Preston Gates is included in the plea agreements for both Abramoff and Scanlon. Abramoff pleaded guilty Jan. 3 to fraud and conspiracy charges. Scanlon, who worked for Preston Gates in 2000 after a stint as DeLay’s spokesman, pleaded guilty to conspiracy in November.

Neither Ney nor the staffer is named in the court documents. But Ney’s identity as “Representative #1” in the plea agreements has been widely reported.

The Preston Gates statement said the firm didn’t know about any Abramoff wrongdoing at the time of the Marianas trips.

“Neither the firm nor anyone currently at the firm was aware of an illegality or impropriety associated with the renewal of the firm’s contract with the government of [the Marianas] in 2000,” the statement said.

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., has asked the government to review Scanlon and Buckham’s trip.

“The Justice Department and Congress must fully investigate … whether members of Congress and their staffs used federal appropriations to buy the votes of local [Mariana Islands] legislators to ensure that the local government would continue its multimillion-dollar contract with Abramoff,” Miller wrote in a letter to the Justice Department in July.

Preston Gates has had difficulty reconstructing some of its Abramoff history. Abramoff took the Marianas files with him when he left to join another lobbying firm, Greenberg Traurig, at the end of 2000.

The Marianas ended their contract with Preston Gates in late 1998. In March 1999, the firm began representing the Western Pacific Economic Council, an association of garment makers. Their opposition to raising the minimum wage matched the government’s position. Abramoff continued working on the minimum-wage issue, and also traveled to the Marianas to attempt to renew the government contract.

In June 2000, Marianas politicians pressed hard for the commonwealth to renew its work with Preston Gates, according to the Los Angeles Times. In an e-mail that month to another government official, the new House speaker wrote: “Please urge [the governor] to execute the agreement, as we will continue to encounter problems … if the contract is not executed. We need P & G [Preston Gates] to help save our economy … Please help!”

The contract was renewed in August 2000.

Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or amundy@seattletimes.com

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