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When, in the 1990s, Congress began criticizing the Northern Mariana Islands’ labor policies, few people in Washington were as familiar with the politics of the U.S. territory as Roger Stillwell. But Stillwell’s 1995 assignment to help then-lobbyist Jack Abramoff get up to speed on the South Pacific islands “would prove to be his undoing,” his lawyer wrote in recently disclosed court papers. The documents, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, shed new light on how Stillwell forged a relationship with Abramoff, who in the 1990s helped the Mariana Islands fend off congressional efforts to set minimum wage and immigration laws in the U.S. territory’s free-trade manufacturing zone. The details illustrate the fine line between friendship and impropriety that marked many of Abramoff’s relationships in Washington. Stillwell, 67, was the Interior Department’s Mariana Islands desk officer from 2001 to Aug. 11, 2006, when he pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of falsifying documents about gifts he took from Abramoff. His attorneys have asked Judge Alan Kay to sentence him to no more than six months’ probation-a sentence they say the government does not oppose. He is scheduled to appear in court Jan. 9. His lawyer also noted that Stillwell had been diagnosed with heart failure caused by an excessive buildup of water in the body and that his heart has a leaky mitral valve, “which will likely need replacing in the next year,” his lawyer, Justin Murphy of Crowell & Moring, wrote. Murphy could not be reached for comment. Stillwell’s association with Abramoff goes back more then a decade, to when the Mariana Islands’ then-governor, Froilan Tenorio, asked Stillwell, then a Washington-based consultant for the territory, to teach Abramoff the basic history of the islands before the lobbying campaign. Those efforts proved fruitful for both the island and Stillwell, who developed a “personal friendship” with Abramoff, according to the documents. Stillwell’s family attended Passover dinner at Abramoff’s home and attended Abramoff’s son’s bar mitzvah. The two never worked together on any other issues regarding the Mariana Islands, but Stillwell continued to send Abramoff, among other people, e-mail updates about the region. Even before Stillwell began work at the Interior Department, Abramoff gave Stillwell and his family sporting and concert tickets. Though Stillwell offered to pay for these tickets, Abramoff would tell him “he had unused seats and was pleased to offer them to a friend,” Murphy wrote. The gift-giving continued after Stillwell joined the government. According to the court filing, he accepted four tickets to a Dec. 12, 2003, football game between the Washington Redskins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at FedEx Field and two tickets to a Dec. 15, 2003, Simon and Garfunkel concert, totaling $482. Stillwell then falsely certified in an Oct. 27, 2004, financial disclosure report that he had not received gifts totaling more than $285.Murphy argues in court papers that this certification “contrasts starkly” with Stillwell’s 40-year career for the federal government and the Mariana Islands. “It is difficult to imagine that Mr. Stillwell would have ever elected to make such a misstep if his life had not intersected with Jack Abramoff’s, a person with whom he believed he had developed a legitimate and close friendship over the years,” Murphy wrote. Stillwell began his career in 1964 as a legislative assistant for various congressional delegates from the U.S. territories. In 1984, Tenorio, then the Mariana Islands’ representative in Washington, hired Stillwell as a staff adviser, a position he held until 1994. That year, Stillwell became a paid consultant for Tenorio, who had become governor of the islands. Stillwell joined the Interior Department as a contract employee in 1999; there, he oversaw the Office of Insular Affairs’ $29.5 million Y2K program. In 2000, Stillwell took over as the department’s desk officer for the Marianas. In that position, he monitored daily federal activities surrounding the islands, drafted press releases and staff briefings, and responded to congressional and other inquiries. Stillwell’s lawyer argues that Stillwell’s position gave him little chance to make policy recommendations. Nevertheless, Stillwell has cooperated with federal investigators. The charges against Stillwell are the first connected to the Abramoff scandal to touch the Interior Department, where Abramoff had connections with people such as J. Steven Griles, who was deputy secretary of the Interior Department from 2001 to 2005. So far six people-former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), Abramoff, and his former associates Michael Scanlon, Tony Rudy, Neil Volz, and Adam Kidan-have pleaded guilty. In June, David Safavian, the former top procurement officer at the Office of Management and Budget, was convicted on four charges of making false statements and obstructing justice stemming from his dealings with Abramoff.
Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected].

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