Acting Labor Secretary Pizzella Lobbied For Russian-Connected Front Group, Worked With Jack Abramoff
July 15th 2019
By Reid Champlin and jessica Piper
Patrick Pizzella will take the reins at the Department of Labor as acting secretary next week after Alex Acosta announced his resignation due to criticism for his light prosecution of sex offender Jeffrey Epstein more than a decade ago.
But Pizzella’s record as a lobbyist is likely to come under scrutiny. In the late 1990s, his clients included a Russian front group, the government of the Marshall Islands and a trade association fighting against the minimum wage in a U.S. commonwealth.
For these and other clients, he worked with Jack Abramoff, who was at the forefront of a corruption scandal in the 2000s that ultimately resulted in 21 convictions and major reforms to lobbying laws. Pizzella was never accused of any wrongdoing.
Pizzella, who has been serving as the deputy secretary of labor under Acosta, was appointed to the Federal Labor Relations Board by President Barack Obama in 2013. He previously served as the assistant secretary of labor for administration and management for eight years under President George W. Bush.
Prior to that appointment, Pizzella was as a lobbyist at Preston, Gates & Ellis, which would later combine with another lobbying firm to form K&L Gates. Abramoff also worked at the firm, whose dozens of clients included several foreign entities.
Documents obtained by OpenSecrets show that Pizzella was one of the lobbyists who worked on behalf of a shell corporation connected to the Russian government in the late 1990s. He was listed in a 1997 lobbying disclosure form as the “director of coalitions” for Chelsea Commercial Enterprises Ltd., a Bahamas-based organization working closely with the Russian oil company Naftasib, which was itself a close affiliate of the Russian government.
Working alongside Abramoff and others, Pizzella helped Chelsea Commercial advocate for “various commercial business enterprises, including investments in Russian businesses.”
The Department of Labor did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Pizzella’s lobbying ties to Chelsea Commercial Enterprises.
Another client that paid Preston, Gates & Ellis more than $2.3 million between 1999 and 2000 was the Western Pacific Economic Council, a trade association of companies with manufacturing centers in the Northern Mariana Islands.The archipelago located north of Guam is a U.S. commonwealth.
Low wages and little enforcement of labor laws made the commonwealth an attractive destination for garment factories, who could still tag their merchandise as Made in the USA. In the late 1990s, minimum wage on the islands was $3.05 compared to a federal minimum wage of $5.15, a concern for both humanitarian groups worried about inhumane conditions and labor groups who worried about outsourcing.
Pizzella’s connections to Abramoff and record on the minimum wage came up during his confirmation hearing to become deputy secretary in July 2017. In response to a question from former Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Pizzella said he was not aware of any substandard labor conditions in the Northern Mariana Islands while his firm was lobbying there.
“I was not aware of any such thing,” Pizzella said. “I did not know. I just learned that 21 of Mr. Abramoff’s colleagues were also convicted of wrongdoing. I was not one of them.”
Abramoff and his associates ultimately fell into trouble after they conspired to swindle Native American tribes that had contracted the firm for help in establishing casinos. Abramoff’s tactics included coordinating lobbying against his own clients so he could ask for more money for their services.
Abramoff and his related organizations ultimately reaped $85 million from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the Louisiana Coushatta tribe and other tribal groups.
Pizzella also registered as a foreign agent for the Republic of the Marshall Islands in 2000, working to convince Congress to relocate and compensate the indigenous peoples for damages stemming for atomic weapons testing in 1946.
The new acting secretary is the latest former lobbyist to gain a seat in the presidential cabinet. Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was a lobbyist for the defense giant Raytheon. Andrew Wheeler, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, lobbied for Murray Energy, the coal company owned by magnate Robert Murray. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry.
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