Its a Wonderful Life

Illustration by Smell of Steve Inc.Although it's unlikely editors even knew what they had on their hands, a tiny local paper in Laguna Beach helped break one of the biggest political scandals to embroil the Republican Party since George W. Bush became president. The paper's scoop: a March 11 Laguna Beach Coastline Piloteditorial penned by Laguna Beach resident Howard Hills.

Under the headline “Admitting Faults Shows Integrity,” Hills criticized local officials for failing to admit their mistakes. He said he spoke from personal experience, having been ensnared in a scandal involving his work as a consultant and a lobbyist he hired whose “controversial” behavior caused trouble.

Hills didn't name the controversial lobbyist, but he confirmed in an Aug. 12 interview with the Weeklythat he was talking about Jack Abramoff, the recently indicted Republican lobbyist who bilked Native American tribes out of millions of dollars and arranged secret foreign trips for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Coastline Pilot readers already knew Hills as an outspoken critic of the Laguna Beach Unified School District. Last year, he played a leading role in scuttling MTV's plan to film a reality show at Laguna Beach High School, a scheme he said involved an “integrity problem on [the] school board.” What readers didn't know was that, without naming names, Hills had just exposed his own role in the Abramoff/DeLay imbroglio five months before it hit the press.

In an Aug. 7 article, the Los Angeles Timesreported that Guam's Superior Court hired Abramoff in 2002 to lobby Congress against a judicial reform bill then pending on Capitol Hill. The court paid Abramoff in a series of checks totaling $324,000 that it funneled through Hills. A U.S. grand jury investigated Abramoff's lobbying work two years ago, but in the midst of that investigation, the Times said, President Bush demoted “the supervising federal attorney and the inquiry ended soon after.”

How Hills became ensnared in the Abramoff controversy is a story he says involves good intentions, hidden motives, public embarrassment and, ultimately, personal redemption. It begins in 1977, when Hills, who grew up in Laguna Beach, became a Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia. Already a lawyer, he helped the Micronesians develop their legal constitution. Hills also fell in love with a Micronesian woman, whom he married; together the couple raised five children. “In the course of my career, I moved with my family to Guam, was admitted to the legal bar in Guam and worked for the legislature in Guam,” he said.

After leaving Guam, Hills moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the State Department on territorial issues involving Guam, the Marshall Islands and the U.S. Trust Territories in the Pacific Ocean. He became an expert on U.S. policy in the South Pacific and represented the federal government in negotiations over reparations for Bikini Atoll islanders who had been irradiated by U.S. nuclear testing. Hills was a tough negotiator. He told TheNew York Times on April 10, 1988, that it “was time the Bikinians became self-reliant and stopped being the perpetual victims.”

But after leaving government, Hills switched sides, representing residents of the Rongelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands—70 miles away from the Bikini Atoll—in those same negotiations. “I worked to set up a trust fund to clean up their islands and resettle them when it's safe to return,” he said. “They paid a higher price in the Cold War than anybody in the U.S., and I feel we have an obligation to them. That's the kind of stuff I do. In the midst of all this, I get a call from a judge in Guam asking to help him.”

The judge, a high-ranking official with Guam's Superior Court, asked Hills to write a report on the judicial reform bill then being debated on Capitol Hill. But when the judge asked him to do lobbying work, he refused. “I told him I'm not really a lobbyist,” Hills said. The judge then said he wanted to hire Jack Abramoff. “I said that's fine with me, and they went to see him and hired him and paid him a hell of a lot more money than they paid me.”

Hills said the judge dealt directly with Abramoff and that his only role was passing checks to Abramoff's law firm. “Hiring a subcontractor is a very routine thing,” he said. “There were no red flags at that point. This was about Howard Hills receiving payments from a court of law and sending them to the billing department of one of the biggest law firms in Washington, D.C. I wasn't paying a hell of a lot of attention to housekeeping details. . . . That was where I had a problem.”

Hills said he eventually suspected the judge wanted to avoid taking political heat for directly hiring Abramoff, who was well-known as a high-priced lobbyist. After passing more than 20 checks at $9,000 apiece, Hills had second thoughts. “They had an agenda,” Hills said. “They thought, 'We have Howard, he has a great reputation, and if we subcontract Jack, we don't have to take any political heat for hiring a big lobbyist.' I thought it was a courtesy to the judge to hire him as a subcontractor. If I had known then what I know now, I obviously would not have done that.”

After backing out, Hills called the Justice Department and told investigators everything he knew. “I welcome any investigation that gets out the facts on Jack's involvement with Guam,” he said. “The saving grace for me is that I didn't do it for money and didn't know there was an improper purpose, and when I did know there was an improper purpose, I took the steps I could to extract myself from it,” he said.

Hills said that after he came forward about his role in the scandal, he received telephone calls from both Democrats and Republicans who worked with him during his government career. “It appeared to a lot of people that I was in cahoots with these guys,” he said. “Looking back, I wish I had done it differently. But when I came out and made it clear I had been involved, people supported me. It was like the end of It's a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart.”

Hills says the scandal hasn't affected his consulting business—or his willingness to criticize local officials for what he perceives as their lapses. “I am carrying on in my professional career and am still involved in local politics—and I will keep stirring the pot becuase that's something I've done ever since I was student body president of Laguna Beach High School.”

Ultimately, Hills said, he learned a valuable lesson from the experience—one he tried to communicate in his Coastline Pilot editorial on integrity. “You couldn't have gotten involved in a more negative situation than this Abramoff thing,” he said. There are a lot of people who did business with [Abramoff],” he said. “I have a lot less explaining to do than a lot of people. And it has given me skills I think people can use—not to practice the politics of denial. That way, you end up getting more support from people, not less.”


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