Zachares’ Murky Path to the Hill

Posted May 1, 2007 at 6:51pm

This much is clear: Mark Zachares, the latest casualty of the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff scandal, worked for a time as a staffer on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. After that, things get hazy.

Zachares’ corruption plea last week includes the vague admission that he got his job on the committee “with the assistance of Abramoff and others.” But the Justice Department has yet to explain how Zachares got the job, and then-Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) has declined to comment on the matter.

Sources said that Young met Zachares before he was hired, and that Zachares joined the committee about a month after a senior Transportation and Infrastructure staffer named Duane Gibson left to join Abramoff’s lobbying practice at Greenberg Traurig.

The April 24 plea agreement explains that Zachares had several government positions, including secretary of the Department of Labor and Immigration in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a small U.S. territory that paid Abramoff millions of dollars in lobbying fees from 1996 to 2001.

In that capacity, Zachares met Young on at least two occasions, sources said. In February 1999, Young — then serving as chairman of the House Resources Committee with jurisdiction over the territories — led a Congressional delegation to Guam and the Marianas to discuss economic development, labor and immigration issues.

Robert Underwood, a Democrat who at the time was the Congressional delegate from Guam, was on that trip, and told Roll Call this week that the group met with Zachares and other Marianas officials.

“We met in the federal office” in Saipan for briefings, Underwood recalled, “and there were different federal officials from [the Department of] Interior and the U.S. attorney’s office giving these reports. … Mark’s position was labor or immigration for the Northern Marianas — he was sitting in the room along with us.”

Seven months later, during a Resources Committee hearing that Young chaired, Zachares sat at the witness table in the Longworth House Office Building hearing room and answered questions from the chairman about the labor force in the Marianas.

A National Journal profile in 2004 reported that Zachares “knew Young from the gruff Alaskan’s days as chairman of the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over U.S. territories, and he was eager to reconnect when the position with the [Transportation and Infrastructure] Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee opened up.”

Zachares also has a strong Alaska background, having worked in the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay and in several other jobs in the mining and oil industries.

Zachares’ plea explains that beginning in 2000, he and Abramoff began discussing trying to get Zachares a job in Washington, D.C., where he could help Abramoff’s lobbying business. Abramoff pressed administration officials to hire Zachares in the Interior Department, but that job did not pan out.

Instead, a month after Gibson left Young’s staff on the Transportation Committee to join Abramoff’s lobbying practice, Zachares was hired as legal counsel on the committee’s investigations team.

A former legislative assistant to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Gibson had been senior counsel on the subcommittee on highways and transit and had previously worked on investigations and oversight for Young on the Resources Committee. In July 2002, he registered to lobby with Abramoff on behalf of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Gibson is now a consultant with the Livingston Group.

The Justice Department’s filings indicate that Zachares was hired in June 2002 to join the Transportation subcommittee on oversight and investigations, though that subcommittee didn’t really exist at the time. The free-standing oversight, investigations and emergency management subcommittee lasted only for the duration of the 106th Congress, current staffers explain. When Young took over the committee in January 2001, the “subcommittee” was an investigative team operating out of the Ford House Office Building, under the direction of the chairman.

In January 2003, Zachares moved over to become staff director of the subcommittee on the Coast Guard and maritime transportation, where, according to the plea deal, he began planning with Abramoff to develop a “maritime practice” at Greenberg Traurig.

Young’s office declined to comment, and staff members at the Transportation Committee would not discuss Zachares’ employment there. Gibson also declined to comment, as did Zachares’ attorney.