Sweaty Money 

Saipan sweatshops give to Idaho Republicans

What does the Pacific island of Saipan have to do with the Idaho Republican Party? And why did clothing factory owners and workers there give money directly to the Idaho Republican Party in 1997? These are questions to which there are no easy or obvious answers. Yet.

Saipan is located between Hawaii and the Phillipines. It's part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which is in political union with the United States. Federal funds administered by the Department of the Interior help support the islands, and according to the CIA's Web site, Saipan's economy is significantly improved by U.S. money.

The island has more than a dozen factories which make clothing for the American market, including the Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren brands. It's legal for the clothes to be labeled "Made in the U.S.A.," but they are produced under sweatshop conditions, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Imported Chinese workers in the plants earned less than Saipan's minimum wage and were forced to work up to 90 hours a week without overtime pay. The Labor Department sent inspectors to some of the factories in 1991 and eventually filed lawsuits against six--all of which were owned by the same man: Willie Tan. The Tan family eventually settled with the United States.

The Tans and other factory owners, realizing that relations with American government were important, hired a lobbyist--none other than the now-infamous Jack Abramoff. Abramoff, recently convicted of bribery, tax evasion and fraud, became "friends" with Willie Tan and took Congressional members and their families on boondoggles to the beaches and warm vacation playgrounds on the island. Former Republican leader Tom DeLay was one of them. And what did Tan get in return? DeLay blocked legislation that would change Saipan's status and hold employers to U.S. labor laws, for one. And access to members of Congress was presumably another, since Tan contributed large sums to Republican causes and organizations, including the Idaho Republican Party.

In March 1997, the Idaho Republican Party State Central Committee was the lucky recipient of $5,000 from Onwel Manufacturing, a Saipan factory, and $7,700 from employees of Tan Holdings Corporation. In 1998, the Idaho Republican Party gave out funds--$1,200 to Crapo for U.S. Senate, $10,000 to Simpson for Congress, $500 to State Senator Bart Davis, $1,000 to Rep. Debbie Field, and $1,000 to Julie Ellsworth, among others.

It's may be a stretch to claim that these candidates received dirty Abramoff money, but it isn't farfetched to claim the Idaho Republican Party did, since it's all public record. Executive Director Garry Lough, when asked to explain, e-mailed this statement to BW: "Neither Republicans nor Democrats can always be sure that those from whom we receive contributions are as pure in motive or deed as we are. As recent revelations about Senator Harry Reid's activities attest, none of us are perfect. Nonetheless, if someone really believed there was anything about contributions from eight years and four election cycles ago that violated federal election laws, they would be filing a complaint with the FEC rather than posting it on a blog--where there is no accountability or regulation."

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