Bob Schaffer and the real CNMI story, Part 2

This is the second in a series of articles responding to three front-page articles in the Denver Post by reporter Michael Riley which attack former Congressman and current Senate candidate Bob Schaffer for a fact-finding trip Schaffer took to the Northern Marianas Islands (“CNMI”) in 1999. The Traditional Values Coalition Much of the fuss about Schaffer’s trip to the Marianas is due to the fact that it was paid for by the Traditional Values Coalition (“TVC”), a religious conservative group which has long been the target of liberals in politics and media. Furthermore, those same liberals got TVC involved in the CNMI issue several years before the trip which included Bob Schaffer. Therefore, a detailed discussion of TVC is in order to help put this whole issue into proper context. The following is based on an hour-long interview with Andrea Lafferty, Executive Director of the Traditional Values Coalition (“TVC”), who, along with her father, Reverend Lou Sheldon, traveled with Bob Schaffer to the CNMI in August, 1999. Mrs. Lafferty had visited the CNMI nearly 3 years earlier to investigate some of the same types of allegations which spurred the 1999 trip. The story of her first trip is worth telling in some detail because of how similar Bob Schaffer’s experience was a few years later. For purposes of context and to address concerns about bias, I would like to make it clear that I am not religious, not Christian, not anti-abortion, and not a supporter of “social conservative” organizations and particularly not of missionaries. I also disagree with TVC’s view on trade with China. That said, my impression of Andrea Lafferty was of someone deeply dedicated to her cause, not just the religious aspects but also in her personal mission to make a positive difference to society, one person at a time, whenever she gets the opportunity. Andrea Lafferty and the TVC had been actively opposed to “Most Favored Nation” trading status for China in the 1990s based on China’s history of religious persecution and encouraging, or even forcing, abortions. In 1996, Mrs. Lafferty received a phone call from the legal counsel to Senator Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) telling her that similar things were happening in the CNMI “on U.S. soil”. Lafferty’s reaction: “My blood was boiling”. She spoke with a member of her church who happened to work for Preston-Gates; he suggested she should hear the other side of the story before simply accepting the allegations as fact. Andrea Lafferty is a person who has lived a life of giving. As she says, “I’ve run a ministry caring for homeless children, had homeless children living with me, never with any compensation. I’ve always looked out for the down trodden, so (when I heard the CNMI accusations) I got very angry.” Rather than take anybody’s word for it, and probably to the surprise of Sen. Akaka’s staff in particular, Mrs. Lafferty decided to travel to the CNMI: “I went to uncover anything evil going on under the US flag.” To make sure she got the most complete and accurate answers possible, she hired her own translator: A Chinese Christian missionary. In my view, such a translator would have been particularly sensitive to answers which claimed or implied the sorts of problems Lafferty went to investigate, such as mistreatment of workers, lack of freedom (especially religious), and particularly forced abortions. Lafferty stressed that she “got no briefings from Preston-Gates” prior to her trip. Mrs. Lafferty visited factories as well as workers’ homes and dormitories. She and her translator “were invited into their rooms and offered tea”. According to Lafferty, she “was amazed at how clean most of the factories were; most had air conditioning, which not all the girls liked since they were used to the warmer climate.” As far as living conditions in the dormitories, “the girls were living in bunk beds, with curtains for privacy, and big shower areas. They told me they had plenty of food. Groups of women were walking around in town, socializing, eating ice cream” and generally acting like free and reasonably happy people. And regarding “forced abortions”, Mrs. Lafferty says “I was not able to find anyone who had an abortion, whether forced or not, and nobody I met knew anybody who had had an abortion.” Lafferty went out of her way to try to ensure honest answers from the workers: “We made it abundantly clear that if anyone was being hurt, raped, or enslaved, I would see to it that the perpetrator would go to jail, and the victim would be taken care of. If anybody needed help, I would help them.” Still, with this sort of “witness protection program” offer (my characterization, not Lafferty’s), and with a Chinese missionary as a translator, none of the allegations which made Lafferty’s blood boil seemed to have any substance. [Not surprisingly, TVC is a permanent target for liberal media and Democratic activists. In one of the worst examples of liberal bias in journalism, an NPR reporter suggested that TVC had something to do with the anthrax-laced letters sent to Senators Daschle and Leahy in 2002. The event so angered some members of Congress that it became the subject of a Congressional hearing. Lafferty’s testimony at the hearing can be found at NPR eventually settled with TVC, but Mrs. Lafferty has never forgotten what I agree was unforgivable behavior by NPR.] According to Lafferty, after learning more of the business issues surrounding the CNMI’s garment industry, “it dawned on me – this is all about minimum wage and unions. It really ticked me off that Akaka’s staff tried to play us like that.” She told Akaka’s legal counsel that “this was a minimum wage issue and he was less than honest.” Lafferty recognized that “they tried to send me on a wild good chase. But I was smart enough to find a translator I could trust.” She also noted, with a bit of social conservative irony, that “you had to stop in Hawaii on the way back from the CNMI. I couldn’t believe how many hookers there were on the streets in Honolulu, right under Akaka’s nose. What a perfect end to the trip.” Regarding the 1999 trip with Bob Schaffer, Lafferty returned to the CNMI because the allegations didn’t stop. She visited more factories while Schaffer was doing his own investigation, and their findings were essentially identical…with each other’s and with Lafferty’s findings from her first visit to the CNMI. As far as who paid for the trip that Schaffer was part of, Lafferty put it directly: “We paid for the trip and as far as I know we were not reimbursed for anything by Preston-Gates.” No evidence of improper or illegal behavior by Preston Gates in CNMI The Post article’s contention that Schaffer “met with clients of Preston Gates” is another misleading statement. Schaffer would have had to meet with “a client of Preston Gates” if he met with any representatives of the CNMI's garment industry as they had retained (through the Western Pacific Economic Council) Preston Gates to lobby for them. Schaffer was meeting with people relevant to his mission, including government officials, regardless of whom (and more than likely without knowledge of whom) they had hired as attorneys or lobbyists. Indeed, consider the alternative: Was Bob Schaffer supposed to investigate an industry without actually meeting with any of the people who run the industry simply because they had hired a lobbyist? Beyond it being unlikely that Schaffer would have known or cared which lobbying firm the Saipan Garment Workers Association ("SGMA") had chosen to hire in the months before Schaffer visited, given the purpose and context of his investigation, there was also no reason that such a relationship between a the organization (or the CNMI government) and its lawyers should somehow have been assumed to be improper. The same is true if there were any lobbying contract between Preston Gates and any other local business association. In other words, even while it is doubtful that Schaffer was made aware of any relationship between a particular organization and Preston Gates, there is no reason that any such relationship would or should have been a concern had it been known by him. Furthermore, there was no conflict of interest in Schaffer’s meeting with anyone on the island because Schaffer was not there at the invitation of a lobbyist or with any intention of doing anything other than getting and reporting the most accurate information possible. While opponents of the CNMI’s garment industry would like to confuse the public by attaching the Abramoff name to the CNMI, the bottom line was that the SGMA was hiring the lobbying firm they thought could best help them navigate the treacherous waters of Congress, just as every other interest group does, and I have found no evidence of corrupt or illegal behavior by Preston Gates in their capacity as counsel to or lobbyist for the CNMI (although there have been questions about whether the CNMI government overpaid for Preston Gates’ services.) It should be noted that while Preston Gates had previously been retained by the government of the CNMI, that contract had expired well before Schaffer's visit. Even in articles which strongly attack the CNMI garment industry and which try to use the Abramoff name (or the name of Tom DeLay) as an instant negative in the minds of readers, an objective reading shows Preston Gates as nothing more than an effective lobbying organization when it comes to the CNMI issue. Unlike some of Abramoff’s true scandals, the lobbying by Preston Gates appears to have been unremarkable (if expensive) other than for its success and the degree to which opponents of the CNMI garment industry were angered by that success. “A palm-studded beach resort” In one of the lowest moments (of many low moments) of the Post’s April 10th article, Michael Riley mentions a “palm-studded beach resort”, and at least one web site shows a picture of Bob Schaffer parasailing. Bob Schaffer notes (and multiple sources have confirmed to me) that he worked with little rest and no play for about 4 days on Saipan, as he planned to do. One of the people who confirmed this is currently employed by the government of the CNMI and was actively involved in visits by Congressmen and other federal officials during the late 1990s. After those several days of nearly non-stop investigation and meetings, Schaffer was scheduled to fly home the next morning when someone asked him how he had enjoyed the island, to which Schaffer responded, according to the source just mentioned, “It’s a shame it’s so beautiful and I never got a chance to see it”. That person then contacted someone he knew at the airline and arranged to get Schaffer’s return flight moved from the following morning to the following evening so that Schaffer and his wife (who had accompanied him to investigate garment factories and interview workers) could have a few hours of relaxation before flying home. Schaffer, his wife, and the staffer who accompanied them on the trip, enjoyed a few hours of recreation without hosts and without being accompanied by representatives of the government or any industry, after Schaffer’s mission on the island had been completed. In my view, it was a few well-earned hours of vacation after days of intense investigation. In the words of the senior staffer quoted earlier, “Bob spends most of a week working hard…he works harder than any member of Congress I’ve ever known…then has to be nearly arm-twisted into a few hours of relaxation and parasailing, and that becomes the story?!?”
  • Parasail Enthusiast
    Comment from: Parasail Enthusiast
    06/15/08 @ 10:45:07 am

    "worked with little rest and no play..." Sorry, got to take issue with this. Then-Rep. Bob Schaffer parasails off the Northern Mariana Islands. Photo credit: CSU Library This really looks like playing to me. But you're right, maybe he was parasailing with his wife off Saipan to catch a bird-eye view of the widely-documented sweatshop conditions in the Marianas Islands he later grilled Congressional witnesses about supposedly having fabricated. What a hard working man. In a few minutes I'll roll my eyes back to a forward-facing position, but for the moment they seem to be stuck.

  • Comment from: Rossputin
    06/15/08 @ 04:44:21 pm

    Why don't you read the story? It's very clear, despite the single picture of Schaffer relaxing after those days of hard work, that the few hours of parasailing was at the tail end of his trip and was not part of his initial itinerary. He had to be talked into it by the locals.

  • Bob Agard
    Comment from: Bob Agard
    06/22/08 @ 01:10:13 pm

    Ross, You are performing a very valuable service. Is the Post carrying your articles?