August 12, 2007
Former RMI finance minister Tony deBrum formed a close personal bond with Jack Abramoff, and got him a contract with the RMI government. But when Jack was disgraced Tony insisted he had nothing to do with Jack, and made false accusations that it was not him but others in the RMI who did business with Abramoff.
The investigations of Jack and Tony reveal that the only RMI-sourced money paid to Abramoff was for services Jack provided under Tony de Brum’s supervision. It was Tony de Brum who enriched his cohort Jack Abramoff at the expense of the Marshallese people and the depleted RMI treasury.
Now Tony calls Jack a racist and uses every desperate political tactic he can to convince the world he was just like the Indian tribe chiefs who were tricked by the now imprisoned lobbyist. But newly released e-mails tell the true story of how Jack and Tony closely collaborated in the use of RMI funds to stage political attacks on their enemies, and to influence RMI elections.
The e-mails confirm that Tony directed Jack to play political dirty tricks and charge it to the RMI under a contract the RMI Attorney General later determined to be illegal. Even though the contract had not been approved by the finance ministry as required by RMI law, as the head of the finance ministry Tony assured Jack by e-mail that he was working on getting Jack paid under that very same contract.
After de Brum and his political party were swept from office by voters, the new RMI finance minister did not pay the nearly $500,000. lobbying bill Tony ran up with Jack’s firm. The firm sued in U.S. court, and there was a high risk the cost could exceed $650,000. So the RMI was forced to settle the lawsuit for $250,000.00, funds that could have been used for health or education needs in the RMI. Tony de Brum has not explained why he authorized lobbying under a contract he knew was not legal.
It is now clear his collusion with Abramoff also cost the RMI good will in its relations with the USA. Indeed, the political dirty tricks Tony and Jack played contributed to a negative atmosphere in negotiations to extend the Compact of Free Association which defines relations between the RMI and the United States.
Since he couldn’t get elected from his home island, a chief over whom Tony has influence gave de Brum land rights at another island, so he could run in a special election to fill a vacancy in the Marshall Islands parliament. Now Tony is back, and running for President of the RMI this November, on a platform attacking the RMI ruling party for not getting better terms under the new Compact.
Yet, it was de Brum’s dirty tricks, exposed in the e-mails, that poisoned RMI-U.S. relations just as negotiations began in which the U.S. offered a less generous Compact. Here is the true story of how de Brum and Abramoff damaged RMI interests.
It is widely reported that Tony accepted boating on the Chesapeake, meals at Signatures and other restaurants, sporting event and theater tickets, travel expenses and other things of value from Jack in 1999. Several people also say Tony told them he was questioned by federal investigators in 2006, but this was beyond the statute of limitations so he could no longer be prosecuted. So it may be the truth is the only punishment Tony will get.
The Abramoff Touch
Jack Abramoff left Washington D.C. politics in ruins. The Abramoff scandals are of historic proportions. Abramoff’s rise and fall will be a legacy in American political culture for decades. He will be remembered long after most of today’s Washington icons are long forgotten. Indeed, in the strange world of Washington the day may come when Jack will make big bucks again as a political talk show host!
One remarkable feature of his juggernaut through American political life was that he didn’t just align himself with traditional elites of the political/corporate establishment. He could have, but he did not want to play by their rules, or live up to their standards. That would have been too restrictive for him, mainly because the establishment elites do not like to risk going to jail, and Jack was all about taking that very risk. Even more, Jack was all about putting others at risk with him.
So Jack had to find causes and clients outside the establishment elites, and ones that would give him both credibility and cachet with those he needed to prosecute his schemes. He found both the causes and clients he needed in the American Indian tribes, and in the U.S. territories. He developed a strategic paradigm for a lobbying practice based on his contacts in Congress with a few kindred anti-establishment types, most notably Tom Delay, and he put those contacts to work for him as the putative champion of socially, economically and politically disadvantaged people.
The alluring aspect of this lobbying practice was that historically marginalized people would get the same kind of big time access as the corporate world, and that was part of Jack’s anti-establishment impulse. The dark side of this strategy of advocacy for traditionally exploited peoples was that he would then also exploit whatever assets his disadvantaged clients had for fees as big as the corporate world pays, through complicated schemes for his own unjust enrichment. The pattern of abuse is now well-documented.
Indian tribes and U.S. affiliated island territories were a favorite target, because he could often tap into federal funding streams intended to help economically disadvantaged populations. The initial step in his exploitation scam was to establish a partnership with a local politician and create a bond of mutual self-interest. The Abramoff touch was based on delivering results that would advance the political and financial fortunes of his local partner, in exchange for big fee contracts the local partner steered to Abramoff and those of his associates who profited from his lobbying juggernaut.
Congressional investigations and press reports suggest Abramoff and his cohorts made over $80 million in less than three years by methodically implementing their modern day carpetbagger tactics.
Jack’s Local Partner in the Marshall Islands
The bond Abramoff formed with local politicians seeking political and financial benefit from casting their lot with him was the lynchpin of his strategy for harnessing the legitimate cause of disadvantaged clients to enrich himself. Abramoff mastered his technique for gouging and sucking the economic life out of his clients, discarding their agenda for greater justice on the roadside once he had satisfied his greed and criminal compulsions.
Some of those ensnared by Abramoff really were duped into believing in the part of Jack that actually appeared to be grounded in legitimate and principled advocacy, others were simply manipulated into doing his bidding through elaborate deceptions and heavy handed tactics. Others entered into his schemes for personal gain, profit and power.
Jack’s strategy in the remote, socially distressed Republic of the Marshall Islands, a tiny nation still suffering from the legacy of U.S. nuclear testing in the Cold War era, was just as bold and unrelentingly manipulative as it was with the Indian tribes and the sweat shop owners of Saipan. The RMI is a former U.S. administered U.N. Trust Territory, a sovereign nation, but still a U.S. affiliated island chain heavily dependent on Washington.
Recently obtained e-mails confirm beyond any doubt that Abramoff’s local political partner in the RMI was former finance minister Tony de Brum.
Like Jack Abramoff, Tony de Brum became influential in his government because he was a very shrewd political operator and persuasive ideological advocate. Ironically, Tony made his career in elective and appointive politics as a poison-tongued critic of RMI leaders, only to be fired from appointed positions and rejected for elective office by voters based on his own lackluster record as a government official, as well as a negative, heavy-handed and somewhat authoritarian leadership style.
In 1982 the first RMI President, Amata Kabua, fired de Brum for his conspicuously left-wing and anti-American ideology. After his episodes of forced departures from government de Brum spent more time at his home in St. Louis and in Honolulu than in the RMI. Now as he contemplates his political future in the RMI, the troubles arising from Tony’s conduct as finance minister, under the second RMI President, Imata Kabua, are coming back to haunt him.
Whether he can sustain his political comeback and even become President, the revelations about his role as Abramoff’s local partner in the RMI will follow him where ever he goes. That is why de Brum has acted with a combination of desperation and cleverness to immunize himself from his past. Clearly, what Tony decided was that the best defense against criticism for past conduct was to go on the offense.
Tony has tried to distance himself from his own record and the Abramoff scandal by feeding self-serving accounts of Jack’s exploits to local papers in Guam and Saipan, as well as a few blogs hungry for anything related to Abramoff. Through a chameleon-like transformation, de Brum has attempted to disown his real role as Jack’s right hand man in the RMI, and morph into Abramoff’s chief accuser.
First as an anonymous source, then identified as a former RMI official, and finally when he was outed as the real source of his own reports, Tony de Brum tried every possible version of events to deny his collaboration with Abramoff and shift the blame to others.
He has attempted to re-cast his role as that of an exploited native leader.
Unfortunately for Tony, e-mails between de Brum and Abramoff reveal that he was not only in cahoots with Abramoff, but that de Brum directed a campaign of political dirty tricks by Abramoff under his contract with the RMI. Indeed, what the e-mails make clear is that Abramoff immediately realized he had a new local partner in de Brum as ruthless as he was, and that they were two of a kind.
The most sinister of their schemes was a plan to discredit the U.S. Ambassador to the RMI through a character assassination operation that de Brum code-named “Project “WWW”. That dirty trick program was launched and fizzled, but not for lack of trying.
The failure of Abramoff to help Tony and his political sponsor, defeated President Imata Kabua, get reelected, leading to Tony’s departure from public office in the RMI, ended Tony’s partnership with Jack. But now de Brum is pretending to have been Jack’s victim. Clearly, with the release of the Abramoff-de Brum e-mails an hour of reckoning has come for de Brum, just as it did for Abramoff.
True Story of Abramoff-deBrum Lobbying Partnership
On January 4, 1999, the Foreign Minister of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Phillip Muller, approved and signed a December 17, 1998, contract prepared by Abramoff, which Tony had helped arrange. It was a deal on lobbying services to be provided to the RMI national government by Jack Abramoff. At that time Abramoff was with the law firm of Preston Gates.
The contract stated that Abramoff would “assist the RMI in obtaining its public policy goals in Washington, including…the US-RMI compact negotiations…economic development…and as liaison to the U.S. Congress and Administration.” The contract called for an initial retainer of $50,000.00 and additional fees projected at $50,000.00 per month.
Although Muller signed the contract, the 1999 e-mails confirm numerous reports from RMI and U.S. officials that RMI finance minister deBrum was the point man directing Abramoff’s work for the RMI. The picture that emerges from the e-mails is that Muller was, as perceived in Washington, merely de Brum’s “sidekick”, and played little if any role in the direction of Abramoff’s activities by deBrum. Indeed, Muller is mentioned only a few times in the e-mails, and only as an afterthought, while Tony unmistakably is in the driver’s seat on the management and supervision of Jack’s activities for the RMI.
Apparently, de Brum learned a few tricks from Jack, like manipulating others, in this case Muller, to provide cover for undisclosed activities, in this case, to hide de Brum’s own role. The official record of investigations suggests Jack was motivated by his compulsion to deceive and manipulate as much as he was by money or power, and the e-mails indicate deBrum had the same “kinky” political tendencies.
Indeed, the exploitative use of other people as “cover” was one of Abramoff’s trademark tactics. The report by the House Government Reform Committee (HGRC) on Abramoff’s various scandals, released in September of 2006, quotes a December 2002 e-mail in which Jack speaks about the need to operate under the “cover” of other people or events to divert attention to his own role, because White House and Congressional leaders don’t like to be seen as doing his bidding. As Jack explained in that 2002 e-mail, “It does not benefit them to be doing stuff…publicly for me.”
The HGRC report also gives an account of White House concern about the appearance of pandering to lobbyists like Abramoff, leading Abramoff and his cohorts to express concern about becoming so high profile that they could be “persona non grata” at the White House. Thus, at the very same time Abramoff was exploiting politically disadvantaged clients, by projecting himself as a political “rock star” joined at the hip with House majority leader Tom DeLay, he was looking for “cover” by using other people to obscure his role and lower his profile.
It surprised no one in the RMI when de Brum emerged as Jack’s local agent and political clone. Tony literally became the Jack Abramoff of the Marshall Islands, smart and at times domineering in local the political scene. Both were willing to manipulate and exploit their friends, and both wanted to be feared by their enemies.
So whether use of Muller as cover for Tony de Brum’s role as Jack’s handler in the Marshall Islands was Jack’s idea or Tony’s, clearly Tony and Jack had comparable talent for shrewd deceit and manipulation of others to serve as their “cover”, and for other purposes.
As described below, eventually Jack and Tony came up with a scheme to use Tony’s boss, RMI President Imata Kabua, as “cover” for the secret code-named campaign of character assassination aimed at Joan Plaisted, President Clinton’s Ambassador to the RMI. Her refusal to submit to the political pressure mounted against her by Tony and Jack apparently was intolerable to them, and under the “cover” of a state visit to Washington by President Kabua they planned to take the gloves off and beat her up.
Typically, Jack and Tony schemed to use others to do the actual dirty work, including “anti-Plaisted” speeches Jack and Tony wrote for members of Congress. But none of those who they attempted to mislead into doing their bidding took the bait, and the WWW project was foiled when the RMI embassy in Washington realized Jack was abusing the control Tony had given Abramoff over President Kabua’s trip.
As described in detail in the e-mails traffic, the RMI embassy intervened and saved President Kabua and the RMI from the reckless mischief of Tony and Jack. But it was after Tony had created RMI obligations to pay for Jack’s brazen tactics aimed at the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Department of State.
The Jack and Tony Show
If one connects the dots in what is known of their collaboration, the story of Tony’s adventures in Jack’s world is a familiar one. It reportedly included free meals at Signatures restaurant, box seats at sporting events, and perks like fishing trips in Annapolis with Republican leaders.
Even more serious, however, are e-mails confirming that de Brum directed Abramoff to carry out a coordinated plan of media and political attacks on the U.S. Ambassador. This was in retaliation for the Ambassador’s adherence to Clinton Administration policy rejecting proposals of the Kabua Administration for increased U.S. funding and benefits for the RMI.
Tony and Jack camouflaged their real agenda by publicly seeking funding for health care, education, or to compensate survivors of U.S. nuclear testing in the RMI. But there was a perception in Congress and the U.S. administration that the real money Jack and Tony were after was increased U.S. payments to lease base rights in the RMI on property for which President Kabua was the primary landowner.
By teaming up with Jack adopting his tactics, it was Tony who failed to protect President Kabua from the perception that the RMI was engaging in dirty tricks against the U.S. at that time. This was in the period leading up to renegotiation of the Compact of Free Association that defines economic and strategic relations between the U.S. and the RMI, including U.S. grants to the RMI and related base rights historically of great importance to the U.S. military.
The perception of RMI provocations directed by de Brum proved to have some basis in fact as reports emerged about irregularities in the Abramoff-de Brum lobbying contract, both before and after exposure of Abramoff’s criminal activities related to his cruise ship and Indian gambling scams. Through the law suit by Jack’s firm and press reports eventually it became public knowledge that minister de Brum ran up a legal tab with Abramoff and his firm totaling $433,369.19. The only source for payment of those fees by the government was the funding the RMI people receive from the U.S. under the Compact of Free Association.
In March of 2000 the RMI Attorney General determined that the contract between the RMI and Abramoff was illegal. In September of 2001 Abramoff and his law firm sued the new RMI government to pay the legal fees accrued during the previous Kabua Administration. Because the suit was brought in the federal courts in Washington there was a real risk of losing, and the cost of defending against the suit was prohibitive. So the RMI settled the suit for $250,000.00, out of funding provided to the RMI by the U.S. under the Compact.
In some initial statements de Brum defended the bills he incurred with Abramoff, claiming the RMI had gotten its money’s worth, and cited a U.S. Congress delegation visit to the RMI in early 2000 as an example of what Abramoff did to earn his pay. Later, when de Brum realized there was not much future in defending Abramoff, he changed his story and pretended to have no role in the RMI’s relationship with Abramoff.
Abramoff-de Brum Collusion
Between June 24 and August 31 of 1999, RMI finance minister Tony de Brum trafficked heavily in e-mails with Jack Abramoff and his associate Shawn Vasell (identified in report of House Government Reform Committee as one of Abramoff’s primary associates). As noted above, the e-mails reveal that de Brum and Abramoff hatched a scheme to use a visit to D.C. by RMI President Kabua to create a political environment in which the U.S. Ambassador to the RMI would be discredited by a withering firestorm of criticism.
The strategy was to have Republican leaders in Congress, as well as several Democrats to which Jack had access, receiving the RMI President with great fanfare in an atmosphere of good will, and use those atmospherics to create a contrasting image of acrimony involving Clinton-appointee Plaisted. In its essence, this was a clumsy and brutish attempt to make Plaisted a partisan issue and bring political pressure for her removal.
In the e-mails, Jack and his surrogates referred to a long list of members of Congress and even Clinton Administration officials who could be recruited to support the strategy to discredit the U.S. Ambassador and make Tony’s boss, President Kabua, look good in an election year. Fortunately, because the RMI Embassy shut it down, the plot failed and there is no indication any of the members of Congress or officials Jack intended to recruit were ever actually recruited, and the plan fizzled.
The list of officials Jack identified in the e-mails as possible allies, and/or props for meetings and photo-ops, included Republican House members Don Young, Ben Gilman, Dana Rohrabacher, Doug Bereuter, and Senate members Murkowski, Helms, and Craig Thomas. Democrats in the House included George Miller, Tom Lantos, Joe Biden, and John Kerry. Clinton Administration officials mentioned in the e-mails as targets to be used in the scheme were DOE Secretary Bill Richardson and DoD Secretary William Cohen.
The underlying problem with this scheme was that Plaisted was a career Ambassador, so she was not perceived as political. She also was representing the policies and views of the U.S. government fairly accurately. Even if those policies were wrong in some ways, and even if Plaisted was a total career diplomat burnout case, attacking her personally was an ill-conceived and ineffective way to try to influence U.S. policy. If anything, it tended to confirm her reports to Washington that the RMI administration was not facing reality and acting responsibly in it relations with the United States.
Although the plans Jack and Tony made to have members of Congress take the floor and attack the Ambassador were foiled when the President’s trip was cancelled, there was awareness that the sloppy attempt to bring the RMI President to Washington without proper protocol was connected to the effort by de Brum to discredit Ambassador Plaisted. Inevitably, this created a backlash in her favor, which strengthened the hand of Plaisted and those in the State Department who were the architects of the policies she was espousing.
In addition to backfiring for the RMI in its relations with Washington, the antics of Tony and Jack brought very bad results for the Kabua Administration back home in the RMI. For example, the e-mail traffic reveals that Abramoff was being paid with RMI funds in 1999 to stage events for the purpose of influencing RMI elections, but the Kabua Administration lost those elections anyway.
Specifically, an August 31, 1999, letter from Abramoff’s law firm to de Brum stated that the objectives of the program Abramoff was staging for President Kabua included:
“…develop power foreign policy image of President Kabua in Washington and the RMI for RMI October elections.” (The elections were in November, not October)
In an August 17, 1999, e-mail the Abramoff firm stated that it would arrange:
“Complete coverage of President Kabua Washington visit in the RMI media on daily basis” to generate radio and television images that could advance the political purposes Tony and Jack clearly had in mind.
As noted already, the Kabua visit planned for September 6-13 in 1999 was scuttled. This was for reasons that included Abramoff’s failure to recognize President Kabua was not prepared for major public speaking events at the highest levels of the U.S. government. In addition, the RMI embassy opposed the visit at the last minute because too many of the meetings with members of Congress were not confirmed, and necessary security and diplomatic arrangements had not been made.
Tony de Brum and Muller were satisfied that Abramoff had the Kabua visit under control, but Abramoff and Vasell clearly were scrambling to find fillers for the schedule. The only sure thing Jack was counting on to make the trip a success was a luncheon event to be hosted by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
That was not enough, however, for the RMI embassy staff. For example, when the embassy staff asked Abramoff and Vasell about speaking engagements for President Imata Kabua, Vasell and Abramoff confided that there was a problem because President Kabua lacked adequate high profile public speaking experience.
There was agreement between Abramoff and Vasell that Tony de Brum could stand in for President Kabua in some events, and de Brum clearly liked the idea of being surrogate President. However, the RMI embassy ended the de Brum-Abramoff collusion in the haphazard trip planning effort, informing the RMI foreign ministry and Abramoff that the trip was not sufficiently organized for President Kabua to come.
E-mails Tell the Real Story:
A stream of e-mails between Jack and Tony in 1999 reveals that de Brum was Jack’s actual client and cohort in the RMI, and that Tony approved lobbying services for the RMI, incurring additional fees even at a time when the RMI was already past due on outstanding bills for earlier lobbying assignments that Tony had given to Jack. The nature of the additional lobbying assignments given to Jack in the e-mail traffic confirms that Tony de Brum was not duped by Jack at all, but was as much a partner with Jack as Saipan sweatshop owner Willie Tan.
Most e-mail chains displayed to readers by clicking on the link appearing in the preceding paragraph run in reverse order, from last to first. The most significant and revealing e-mails are from June 24, 1999, to July 8, 1999. These e-mails appear in reverse order starting at page 43 and ending at bottom of page 38 of the attachment accessible at the link indicated above.
On June 24, 1999, five months after contract between Abramoff and Kabua Administration takes effect, Jack sends a progress report to de Brum beginning with Marshallese traditional greeting:
“Yokwe Tony…I wanted to find out if you were planning on being in the states any time soon. We are continuing to push forward…”, and also reminding Tony in a follow up message, “We are sending out our May bill to you today. The balance is getting quite large and I am starting to get pressure here. Please let me know if you think we can get this paid soon. Thanks so much my friend.”
Tony responds on July 3:
“Yokwe Jack: Getting back to Majuro on Tuesday and will go to work on your bills right away. Regards to all.”
Jack responds with a proposal to meet at a ceremony to install new government leaders in Federated States of Micronesia to be held on Ponape Island:
“Thanks so much! I am returning to Asia…through the week of the FSM inauguration. Any chance we can find some time to meet?”
July 6 Tony replies:
“We should definitely meet if not in Ponape then in Asia or somewhere.”
In Jack’s response of the same date to Tony’s agreement to meet in Ponape, Abramoff refers to the plan they have previously code-named Project WWW, which is the effort to politically attack and discredit U.S. Ambassador Joan Plaisted. Because Tony is friendly with controversial Saipan businessman Willie Tan, Jack invites Tony to join them in Manila, and primes the pump for the meeting with the enticing teaser about Project WWW:
“I think Willie [Tan] and I are going to try to see each other in Manila. Any chance hooking up there? We have put in motion something for the WWW which will bring a smile to your face. I’ll let you know in person!”
Tony responds enthusiastically on July 7, upping the ante for the meeting and Project WWW by informing Jack that President Kabua, foreign minister Muller and de Brum himself, along with their wives, will meet with Jack in Ponape:
“Yokwe Jack: President, Phillip and I and the girls will be at the inauguration. We will see you there.”
Jack’s obvious comfort including Tony in the circle of cohorts that also included Saipan sweatshop owner Willie Tan demonstrates that Tony and Jack had a relationship that was the “moral equivalent” of Jack’s partnership with Willie tan. This was because both Tony and Willie were willing to use the same dirty trick tactics that were Jack’s stock in trade.
The HGRC report notes that Jack and Willie had referred to their dirty tricks efforts by “project” code-names. Now Jack and Tony decided “WWW Project” was a fitting code name for the effort to attack U.S. Ambassador Plaisted.
So with the WWW project gaining momentum, Jack and Tony begin feeding each other’s appetite for dirty tricks, baiting each other with teasers about trashing the U.S. Ambassador. In his July 7 response to Tony’s e-mail of the same date offering a meeting not only with him but also President Kabua to discuss Project WWW, Jack writes back revealing more information about the attack campaign:
“Wonderful…I expect next week we’ll have one of our friends on the House floor attacking WWW. If we get it on tape, can you guys broadcast it locally?”
On July 7 Tony signals that he is chomping at the bit to go after Plaisted with Jack:
“Yokwe Jack: We will broadcast it on the cable system and over the radio. I will even assign someone to hand carry the tape to Majuro…”
Tony then goes on in that July 7 e-mail to express contempt and ridicule the U.S. Ambassador, claiming that the RMI had snubbed her by sending only the foreign secretary to her July 4 celebration at the U.S. Embassy in Majuro, while he and President Kabua had stayed away. Tony describes the foreign secretary’s presence as a token of respect for the USA, while he and the President arranged to have other commitments to show their disdain for the Ambassador and the U.S. policy to which she adhered. This is how Tony describes to Jack this so-called diplomatic snub:
“WWW invited all kinds of people to her July 4th bash and no one, repeat, no one from government attended except the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and that was in honor of the USA not WWW.”
On July 7 Jack e-mails his cohort Shawn Vasell, copying his exchange with Tony de Brum and stating:
“OK, Shawn…I have laid down the gauntlet, you have to get it going!”
On July 9 Vasell writes back with a set of recommendations for implementation of Project WWW. Vasell urges Jack to enlist Members of Congress to support various initiatives for the RMI, starting with having members “…go to the floor to attack her…”, referring to Ambassador Joan Plaistad.
Vasell also suggests that the next phase of Project WWW, in addition to trashing Ambassador Plaisted, will be to arrange a visit to Washington for President Kabua and Tony de Brum so they can go over the head of the U.S. Ambassador and take their case for increased base lease payments by U.S. directly to Jack’s friends in Congress.
Jack likes the plan and even states:
“We should shoot to get him [Kabua] to address the Congress”.
In an August 2 e-mail Jack and Shawn Vasell were implementing the assignments given to them by Tony de Brum, including the planning for President Kabua’s “state visit” to Washington D.C. the first two weeks of September. The e-mail traffic confirms the following central elements of this late-in-the-game plan:
“Goal is to arrange a joint meeting for President Kabua to address the House and Senate”
“Develop power foreign policy image of President Kabua in Washington and the RMI”
“…try to get President Kabua to extend his stay so that he may attend the Redskins-Dallas football game…”
“Congressional fishing trip (Annapolis, Maryland): This is an opportunity for the President and the Ministers to relax with Member of Congress…and…forge relationships.”
“Lunch…hosted by Majority Whip Tom DeLay, and will be attended only by Members of Congress…no invitations are needed as event is already confirmed.”
On August 17 Jack suggest adding a meeting for Kabua with investment firms, observing, “I am sure we can find a number of those types in town who would be willing to meet with the President of a country.” Again, to Jack and Tony the program for President Kabua is just “cover” for Project WWW, and the President and the “investment types” seem to be just props in the staging of the show.
Even though the state visit by Kabua has a positive rationale, the e-mails confirm that the negative motivation to attack Plaisted is at the heart of the Jack and Tony game plan. As noted below, this put President Kabua in the position of being used by Tony and Jack at the expense of the dignity of his office.
In an August 27 e-mail, as planning for the Kabua visit continues, Jack violates the WWW project code and refers to U.S. Ambassador by name:
“…anti-Plaisted speech” is “top priority…4 speeches have been drafted…distribute drafts to team tomorrow for member distribution…”
This clearly confirms that Project WWW was being timed so that discrediting her is the negative theme before and during with the Kabua visit, while the aggrandizement of Kabua is the supposedly upbeat positive theme of the visit.
In an August 31 e-mail from Vasell and Abramoff to de Brum, designated “Importance: High…faxed to Finance Minister de Brum…” emphasis is placed once again on the “image of President Kabua in Washington…for the RMI October [sic] elections.” But the truth comes out later in the e-mail, confirming that President Kabua is being used by Tony and Jack to advance their attack on Plaisted. Vasell and Abramoff write to Tony about tactics to ensure:
“…events like…appointment of a new U.S. Ambassador to the RMI…begin to receive media coverage…”, and about staging an event at which Tony can use the President’s visit “…to discuss the RMI’s relationship with the State Department and Ambassador Plaisted.”
To accomplish this Jack urges an event that “…will allow the President and the Ministers [de Brum and Muller] the opportunity to attend a function for…the Washington D.C. elite.”
Tony loved it because it was about confrontation and a personal attack on his enemies and the State Department as an agency of the U.S. government dealing with the RMI. Unfortunately, under applicable treaty and statutory provisions, as well as Executive Orders of the President, the U.S. State Department had the lead role and delegated authority over negotiation of RMI affairs. A campaign of partisan political dirty tricks against the non-political career ranks U.S. Ambassador and the State Department was about the worst strategy conceivable. It ended up hurting the RMI in the negotiations on extension of free association.
But that is not all the people of the RMI were getting for the fees being incurred by Tony de Brum. With respect to the Congressional fishing trip, in a message that will be all too familiar to anyone who knows how Jack worked, Abramoff also writes on August 27 that he:
“…can get charters out of Annapolis…65 foot fishing boat for 30 people…or 3 fishing boats for 6 and have a tournament…competition may be more fun…Please advise on…making it a fundraiser as well…Minor concern: how is the event going to be the RMI fishing event hosted by Kabua while being a fundraiser for X,Y, Z members of Congress at the same time? It does not have to be hosted by Kabua. He can be a guest. I can make a contribution to a PAC if they want.”
Showing the strains of his high wire act trying to stage a “state visit” as instructed by de Brum on a few weeks advance notice, the proposed itinerary for Kabua ends with the entry:
“Monday, September 13…President Kabua departs DC – AMEN!”
Even as plans for a sunny day of fishing were proceeding, storm clouds were gathering over the Kabua visit. On August 26 Jack received an email to Vasell from the RMI Embassy in Washington stating that it was “…worried…whether this trip will actually materialize since Congress is still in recess” and making the very astute observation that the week of the planned trip “starts off on a Labor Day holiday.”
In his August 26 reply to Vasell an agitated Abramoff describes the RMI Embassy message as a “weird e-mail” and instructs Vasell to talk to the embassy. On August 27 Vasell reports back to Jack that the embassy:
“…is concerned about Kabua public speaking events (probably rightfully so) but I told him that we would draft speeches for him that are easy to deliver and that Tony [de Brum] and Phillip [Muller] will be at all events to help him…I don’t see how we can effectively run a policy campaign in DC for the RMI…I will constantly update Tony…I am just a little concerned sometimes about the RMI guys’ island time mentality.”
There was one island guy who Jack knew he could count on, and so he instructs Vasell:
“You should call Tony and lay this out. Tell him that these signals from the embassy are confusing us and we want a clear direction from Tony.”
The only clear direction from Tony de Brum was that he and Foreign Minster Phillip Muller were willing to go ahead with the Kabua visit as proposed by Abramoff and make the best of it. Apparently, the Redskins game, fishing trip and lunch with DeLay was enough to justify the trip in de Brum’s mind, and everyone knew Muller basically went along with whatever de Brum decided.
As a result, the adult supervision and “clear direction” Jack wanted had to come from the RMI embassy, which sent a message to Abramoff on August 31 stating that “after a long and frank discussion” the embassy had a few questions, including:
“…whether an invitation letter from Congress was being sent…Will he [Kabua] be required to speak or would members of Congress do the talking in honoring him…At these receptions, for instance the one held at Ways and Means Committee, who will host it? What investment groups are we suggesting the President meet…The Ambassador would feel more comfortable given the short period ahead in receiving confirmations from these various offices, that letters be sent from members of Congress saying they will be available to meet with the President…also, a letter from Jack to minister Muller and Tony [de Brum] should be sent…by today if possible…advising them of the current status of things…The Office of the President is awaiting a response from minister Muller on the trip and it has been difficult for him to brief the President without an update from Preston Gates. The letter should mention whether the President should make preparations to visit Washington or recommend that the whole trip be deferred…Given the lateness in finalizing the schedule, the…President’s Office has had difficulty finalizing travel plans and…the embassy has yet to…clear the President’s delegation with the State Department protocol and Secret Service…The embassy expects to receive a letter from Preston Gates as soon as conveniently possible on the above.”
As a result of the entirely appropriate intervention of the RMI Embassy, both elements of Project WWW, the attack on Ambassador Plaisted and the Kabua visit timed to coincide, were scrubbed. Project WWW failed.
What this episode reveals is that Project WWW was a hare-brained scheme of Jack and Tony, two mischievous little boys playing not-so grownup games at the expense of the people of the RMI and their government. Jack and Tony were revealed for what they were, self-absorbed, spoiled little bad boys motivated not by any values or beliefs, but by their own demons and self-destructive compulsions.
Unfortunately, at that time Abramoff was still riding very high in Washington, was still on the ascendancy in the world of power politics, and he viewed the RMI Embassy intervention in Project WWW as interference. Abramoff insisted the visit would have been a success and that Plaisted would have been discredited as he and Tony had planned. Thus, not surprisingly, he demanded payment, and when he was not paid he sued.
By the time the suit had to be answered, Kabua, de Brum and Muller had been turned out of government by the voters, and the new government of the RMI had to play catch up to get a new Compact of Free Association between the RMI and USA approved by Congress. Given the high risk of losing the case and incurring significant additional legal fees, as well as the need to repair relations with the U.S. damaged by de Brum, the RMI could not afford either to fight the lawsuit or risk a legal showdown with Delay’s “closest friend”. So the RMI took the best course open at the time and settled the lawsuit.
The Legacy of Jack and Tony in the RMI
It is worth noting that during the same period de Brum was wheeling and dealing with Abramoff, the RMI and the island groups within the RMI affected by the U.S. nuclear testing program mounted significant legal and political initiatives to ensure that the U.S. meets its obligations to those communities. The lawyers and advisors these RMI citizens relied upon worked for reasonable fees and often got good results without hiring Abramoff, without dirty tricks, and without code-named secret projects to discredit the U.S. or its duly-appointed representatives.
By any assessment, the new Compact of Free Association approved by Congress in 2003 fails to provide continuity in U.S. policy to sustain the success of free association as a political status model, which in part reflects the pressures and forces at play in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and the resulting lack of attention at the higher levels in Congress and the Executive Branch during the Compact negotiations.
However, the Compact negotiations might not have been delayed and progress might have been possible before 9/11 if de Brum had not been playing political dirty tricks with Jack in 1999. Instead, Tony de Brum and Phillip Muller were still prosecuting their personal agenda going back to when the first RMI President, Amata Kabua, who preceded President Imata Kabua, fired de Brum and Muller from the original Compact negotiations in 1982.
Tony de Brum and Phillip Muller were fired by the first President Kabua in 1982 because of their conspicuous anti-U.S. ideology. All Marshallese have good reason to be aggrieved due to the harm done by the nuclear testing program, but the people and their elected leaders have always pursued a course of alliance and friendship with the U.S. even while seeking greater justice through the legal and political process.
In contrast, de Brum and Muller wanted to make the Compact negotiations a confrontation to settle old personal scores, rather than building the free association alliance. They generated one media campaign in which President Imata Kabua was portrayed as threatening to end the alliance if RMI demands were not met in the negotiations. These tactics weakened the RMI position, instead of strengthening the RMI’s hand as de Brum claimed.
That played right into the hands of those who wanted to phase out free association and close the books on the nuclear issues, instead of considering what additional measures to address the effects of nuclear testing are required. Tony created a negative image for the RMI and generated a negative attitude in the Executive Branch and Congress, among those whose good will the RMI needed.
Even after the Kabua Administration ended the new government struggled to restore good will. When 9/11 came about, restoring the good will needed to negotiate a new Compact that would sustain the success of free association became politically impossible.
Given the history of cultural, economic, political and strategic relations between the Marshall Islands and the USA, there is no excuse for the way de Brum and Muller squandered the mutual interests and good will of the two nations on truly foolish and reckless activities such as Project WWW.
The RMI Embassy acted in the best interests of President Kabua and the RMI when it intervened to stop de Brum and Abramoff from bringing President Kabua to Washington without following protocol and ensuring that he would be treated with respect and dignity. However, the attempt made by de Brum and Abramoff to use the President and his visit as part of a clumsy and unprofessional lobbying stunt did not go unnoticed, and it damaged the image of the RMI in Washington.
It was widely recognized then, and reinforced later when Jack’s racist disdain toward his disadvantaged clients was revealed, that the entire Project WWW scheme was so sloppy and careless that it reflected a lack of respect for President Kabua, his office and the people of the RMI. The very people President Kabua was trusting to support his leadership, de Brum and Muller, were willing to let him be used in a badly staged political circus act directed by Abramoff.
The RMI Embassy was criticized by Abramoff and Tony de Brum for stopping this debacle, but, again, in fact it was the RMI Embassy that acted in a manner that was respectful of President Kabua, by shutting down rather than facilitating the fiasco being planned by de Brum and Abramoff.
The plan to implement a negative personal attack on the U.S. Ambassador, at the same time the President was in Washington to be presented as a statesman with an agenda important to the USA, was typical of the reckless and dangerous tendencies of both Abramoff and de Brum. When given power both Abramoff and de Brum wanted to influence U.S. policy to advance their own interests, but both men could not resist the temptation to inflict injury on those who dared to disagree with them or oppose their ideology.
This resulted in an almost schizophrenic approach combining very negative tactics with whatever positive initiative they made. This impaired their judgment to the point that they actually thought the effort of discredit the U.S. Ambassador at the time of a state visit for President Kabua was a good idea. Jack and Tony were so exhilarated by their shared delusion and fantasy of destroying Plaisted that they did not even realize the attack on Plaisted would backfire and strengthen her hand at the U.S. State Department.
It is not clear if the Compact can be repaired to undo the damage they caused. It will be up to the new generation of RMI and U.S. leaders to determine if the imbalances and deficiencies of the new Compact need to be addressed to ensure that free association remains a viable status option for the U.S. and its affiliated island territories. One factor to consider is the impact of the de Brum-Abramoff shenanigans and the RMI’s confrontational tactics during those critical years on the U.S. approach to the Compact negotiations even after de Brum was gone.
Is it fair and does it serve the best interests of the U.S. and RMI to conduct relations on terms influenced by the emotional reaction of staff level negotiators to the antics and tactics of de Brum and his team?
This too is part of the legacy of the adventures of Jack Abramoff and Tony de Brum in the Marshall Islands. For the RMI, damage limitation efforts relating to the last time de Brum was in power are still on-going.