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Houston Texas
February 2007 Issue

The Way I See It

by Lope Lindio

If proof is needed to show how far Filipino-Americans have gained attention in a very public and visible way in the US , it can be found just by watching the news media playing the involvement of some of them in high profile events and controversies gripping this country. Aside from US Brigadier General Antonio M. Taguba who became well-known for his report on detainee abuse at Abu Gharib jail in Iraq, another Filipino-American who made the mark for receiving mass media highlight was Susan Bonzon Ralston.

Just before she blossomed from anonymity, it was just the Filipino Americans who always featured her in their gatherings as our (wo)man in the White House. Nobody really noticed or cared about what she was doing in the White House as an assistant of Karl Rove. But when she resigned on October 6, 2006, her much publicized departure under particularly peculiar circumstances triggered her becoming an instant celebrity. The networks and the newspapers couldn't be more preoccupied covering the story or speculating about the significance or reason for her sudden resignation from the White House. It was taken as a revealing preview of things to come in the Jack Abramoff financial and political scandals rocking the country the last couple of years.

I even found it amusing that Filipino-Americans, in their hunger for success stories, were even tempted to include her in the short list of foreign born Americans trusted enough over the years to be embedded deep in the bowels of power. In the 2004 Chicago NaFFAA convention, for example, a Filipino-American activist was heard unqualifiedly approving of her being invited as candidate George W. Bush's surrogate and disdainfully questioning the presence of her Filipino counterpart from the John Kerry campaign. He proudly confided to me rather naively and foolishly that she had the ear of Karl Rove and Karl Rove could whisper to President Bush. Yet this hyped connection was never able to deliver on the expected promise of help for the cause of Filipino veterans during the Republican years.

As Karl Rove's confidant, Ralston worked right at the center of the universe in the White House. She had to be shown the exit door however when she was discovered updating her patron Abramoff with the president's calendar and also easing his way around the executive department getting his lobbying business done helping his clients. After all, it was Abramoff who recommended her to Karl Rove. Of course, the Filipino American community which was understandably elated to see her in the shadow of the presidency and shown in Filipino-American newspapers with the jovial and chummy Bush exuding familiarity, was displeased by what they described as her "abrupt removal."

Jack Abramoff was a lifetime Republican operative now serving time in the federal penitentiary for his web of criminal and corrupt activities. As you may have read in the papers, he was convicted of defrauding American Indian tribes and for corruption of public officials on January 3, 2006. He later pled to two more criminal felony counts in a separate federal court, in connection with other fraudulent financial transactions. He admitted to bribing public officials, including the also convicted Congressman Bob Ney, a Republican congressman from Ohio , among others.

Ralston started her journey to her White House power station as Abramoff assistant in his lobbying business. When Abramoff was investigated later while she was already working in the White House, the prosecutors asked her about the favors she allegedly dispensed to Republican senators and congressmen supposedly bribed by Jack Abramoff to get US Congress pass legislations favorable to his clients. Important matters of state must have also passed through her desk at the White House because when the unlawful outing of Valerie Palme as a CIA agent was investigated for reasons of national security by the Department of Justice, she was also interviewed by the federal prosecutors. I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff is now being tried in Washington DC for lying to the FBI as to whom and when he disclosed her identity to the newsmen.

How deeply she was embedded in the power structure was illustrated by The Washington Post of 10/07/2006 when she resigned on 10/06:'As right hand to the president's most important adviser, Ralston was closer to the center of the Bush operation. She was a key organizer of presidential events, coordinating with White House political, scheduling, advance and public liaison offices. She seemed never to get out of her system working as Abramoff assistant, this time acting as intermediary between Abramoff and Rove. The congressional report found 66 Abramoff contacts with the White House, more than half of them with Ralston. In addition, Abramoff's lobbying colleagues contacted Ralston 69 times. So when the time came to consider whether she violated gift limits when she received pricey tickets from Abramoff, it was noted that her “preexisting relationship with Abramoff, for whom she worked as his assistant before joining the White House was to be considered "mitigating circumstances.

Incidentally, this man Abramoff and the Filipinos would meet again not only through Ralston. He was hired as a paid lobbyist for the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI) to the tune of at least $6.7 million from 1995 to 2001. He in turn paid for the vacation trips of Texas Congressman Tom Delay ( Sugar Land ) and his staffers to these South Pacific islands to get them on his side to do what he was paid for. And in parading them around as prize trophies to prove his clout with the US Congress, his credibility was further enhanced. The result was just amazing. A US policy was later crafted exempting CNMI from the application of federal immigration and labor laws to the islands' industries, among others, but still allowing or enabling CMNI products to be still labelled Made in USA!

Daily Kos , a blogger, reported on April 6, 2005 an "ABC News investigation about the various trips Texas Republican Congressman Tom DeLay took for Abramoff in 1997. He was shown videotaped speaking at a party dinner in CNMI and another hidden-camera footage showed a factory owner saying that DeLay had promised that anti-sweatshop legislation would go nowhere in Congress. In a recording made by a human rights investigator posing as a potential customer, one of the prominent factory owners said that DeLay had promised to stop any reform laws, their conversation running in the following manner:

"Do you know what Tom [DeLay] told me?" Willie Tan said. "He said, 'Willie, if they elect me Majority Whip, I make the schedule of the Congress, and I'm not going to put it on the schedule.' So Tom told me, 'Forget it, Willie. No chance.' "

CNMI is about 34% Filipino. It is dependent on Filipino labor that is mostly hired on a contract basis. But the most vulnerable victims of Abramoff's success in getting the Republican US Congress exempt CNMI from US labor laws are the Filipino women. Phil Kaplan of the Institute for Global Communications, Labor News, reported on August 6, 1997 that the Filipino women were particularly under special threat of abuse. He said: Almost every family in the Commonwealth employs a Filipina housemaid. They are employed on a contract basis that requires them to work twelve hour days, six days a week. Up at 5:00 or 5:30 AM to wash their employer's car, most are not finished working until after 8:00 PM. Many are denied a day off. But it is not the long hours that burden the workers. It is not even that they don't know if they will be paid the contracted $200 a month wage. It is the atmosphere of threat and terror that is found in many of the homes in the CNMI.

Abramoff's Republican allies not only pushed hard to get this valued US law exemption approved by the US Congress. They also acted as the watchdog of CNMI interests in the US . There's documentation showing that Abramoff's lobbying team helped Republican Congressman Ralph Hall of Texas (R-TX) prepare his attack discrediting the credibility of a escaped Filipino 15-years old sex worker code-named "Katrina," after the night club where she worked, who testified regarding the sex slave industry on the island. She was forced to work for 10 months in a nightly live sex show without getting paid for all her hours worked. The congressional hearing was held after it was investigated by the US Attorney's office upon complaint of the Philippine Consulate in Saipan .

Little did Filipinos suspect that when they read or saw on TV the brewing Abramoff scandals, and the convictions that later ensued, not mentioning the ongoing Valerie Palme CIA identity disclosure and court trials still in full swing, some among them are affected by or fatefully connected or tied to the events passing right before their eyes.

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