OPINION | The abuse and misuse of CNMI public funds

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OVER the past year, we have heard stories or read news articles about the abuse, misuse, and allegedly unlawful expenditure of public funds by certain officials in the CNMI government.

Such stories and articles should be extremely disturbing to all the people of the Commonwealth. These allegations and stories about the abuse and misuse of public funds, if indeed true — on the surface — point to acts of corruption by CNMI government officials, and — below the surface — likely involve violations of the CNMI criminal laws.

The recent establishment by CNMI House Speaker Blas Jonathan T. Attao of the House Special Committee on Fiscal Investigations of the Executive Branch is, therefore, not only warranted and necessary. Indeed, it should be applauded. It should be welcomed not just by those who believe that there have been acts of corruption and violations of law committed by certain CNMI public officials. And it should also be supported even by those who believe that these stories and allegations have no basis in fact and are merely unfounded accusations made by individuals who either dislike the leaders of or are not aligned with the CNMI’s governing political party.

So why should both side on these public issues support the formal investigation to be conducted by the House Special Committee on Investigations? The basic answer is this: Because if these serious allegations indeed are found to have no basis in fact, then those who believe that these news stories and allegations are baseless will be proven right: there are no acts of corruption committed and there have been no violation of  the CNMI criminal law. And that should put the matter to rest.

But if it turns out that these allegations and stories of corruption and violations of law are indeed based on facts and are supported by the evidence, then all the people of the Commonwealth, including those who are aligned with the present executive branch officials, should be clearly alarmed at how low the CNMI Government’s state of affairs, including our good name and reputation as a people, have sunk. It will have sunk to a “new low,” as the expression goes.

To his credit, House Speaker BJ Attao has appointed to sit as members on the Special Committee on Executive Investigations, four House members from the majority party and four members from the minority — a committee assignment that is both fair and balanced. The Speaker cannot be accused of favoritism or bias regarding the investigation into the financial affairs of the executive branch that is to be conducted by this ad hoc committee.

A few days ago, the House Special Committee began its formal investigation. Like other investigative committees of a similar magnitude, the work of the Special Committee will take some time, so that it could conduct a thorough, balanced and fair investigation; as well as review the serious allegations and issues raised. Nothing less is warranted, because the very reputation of the Commonwealth is on the line, particularly with respect to our ability and maturity as a people to govern ourselves — competently and in accordance with the laws that govern the Commonwealth.

So what are these allegations of financial improprieties that will be investigated by the Special Committee on Executive Investigations? It appears that, based on the news stories and allegations that we have read or heard during the past year, the basic issues involve the unethical or unlawful expenditure of public funds for the personal use of CNMI public officials, such as the buying of electronic equipment, cameras, and other merchandise.

Other issues involve the expenditure of public funds by public officials for the benefit of their personal friends and cronies. Still other issues appear to involve the unauthorized use of public funds, i.e. for a purpose that is not permitted by existing laws or regulations. All of these issues ultimately involve issues of corruption by CNMI public officials.

Some of the allegations of financial improprieties could be easily verified and proven through documentation and/or the testimony of witnesses, such as the claims for reimbursement made and the actual reimbursement given to certain public officials. The Special Committee could also investigate where a questionable purchase item ended up or with whom. Other allegations of financial improprieties may be more difficult to determine, except through the testimony of the Secretary of Finance, his staff and relevant executive branch officials, or through actual testimony from the Office of the Public Auditor, the office entrusted by law with and whose very function is to monitor the use and abuse of all CNMI public funds.

So the work of the House Special Committee is cut-out, and we should await its findings and conclusions. But as the committee starts its official investigations, there are other new stories now surfacing about recently incurred, questionable expenditures that have been made by certain CNMI public officials that benefit either them personally, and/or their families, friends and cronies.

The most egregious news stories to come out of the Commonwealth during the past several weeks involve the alleged government financing of “the boating excursion to the Northern Islands” by top officials in the CNMI executive branch, based on the quite flimsy excuse “to promote the Northern Islands for the CNMI tourist industry.”

This boating excursion, if indeed funded by public funds, constituted an immature and cruel joke on all the people of the Commonwealth.  If public money — to the tune of $59,000, as was reported — was indeed used to finance the recent boating expedition to the Northern Islands, under the guise of promoting the CNMI tourist industry (at a time when the CNMI treasury is $90 million in the hole), the people of the Commonwealth have clearly been “taken for a ride” by the CNMI executive branch at taxpayer expense. This trip, if indeed funded by taxpayer money, constitutes a “new low” in the abuse and misuse of public funds by CNMI public officials.

Based on what I have read in the local papers a few weeks ago, the idea of advertising the “Northern Islands” for purposes of promoting the CNMI visitor industry first came out publicly (and unexpectedly) during a board meeting of the Marianas Visitors Authority. The CNMI chief executive himself came to the MVA board meeting and, reportedly, brought up the idea of promoting the Northern Islands —out of nowhere it seems. Why he raised this suggestion in person to the MVA board and staff, at a time when the CNMI Treasury is “$90 million in the red,” is beyond a normal person’s comprehension. The idea “to promote the Northern Islands,” as the saying goes, is indeed mind-boggling.

I would venture to say that some members of the MVA board were themselves surprised or caught off-guard by such suggestion. The chief executive apparently urged MVA to follow up on his recommendation. And MVA, soon thereafter, apparently contacted the Secretary of Finance who apparently approved the funding needed for the boating excursion to the Northern Islands The Secretary of Finance, presumably at the request of the CNMI chief executive (who had recommended the trip to promote the Northern Islands) apparently transferred the money needed to fund the boating excursion to the Northern Islands.

Thus, the trip to the Northern Islands took place as the governor had strongly recommended. Indeed, based on news stories that later came out, the chief executive himself and other members of his family went on this trip, together with the people who presumably would promote the Northern Islands on a social media platform. This promotion was apparently the so-called “Deer Meat for Dinner” excursion that the CNMI government apparently funded, presumably on behalf of the Marianas Visitors Authority, which public entity had apparently never thought of doing, before the chief executive made his pitch to the agency board, management and staff.

This was also the trip in which three or four Sambar deer were let loose on the island of Pagan, presumably to propagate on that island without any prior study being made to determine whether the introduction of a new species to that island would be safe to the other wildlife there and to plants and other organisms that are native to the island.

At a time when the CNMI government has been constantly turning to the federal government for financial aid and other financial assistance, the CNMI chief executive unwisely decides that the CNMI government could afford to “blow” $60,000 on a vacation to the Northern Islands. At a time when so many of our people are unemployed, have been furloughed, are homeless, or have to rely on federal nutrition assistance from the Federal Government for their sustenance, the CNMI chief executive decides to have a vacation with his friends at public expense. At a time when CNMI public schools are crying for needed funding because they do not have enough funding to carry out the Public School System’s constitutional mandate to educate our children, the CNMI chief executive appear to be telling the people of the CNMI that the trip to the Northern islands is more important than the education of our children.

Very sadly also, there appear to be many enablers of the chief executive. Apparently because of their employment by the CNMI government and the lucrative salary they are receiving, these enablers do not want to advise the chief executive regarding the unethical, wasteful or apparently unlawful nature of the misuse or abuse of public funds being expended. But as I have been saying in so many of my past opinion pieces, very sadly, the blame for most of the political shenanigans that have been taking place in the CNMI over the past several years ultimately lies with us — the voters of the Commonwealth.

Fortunately, we have another co-equal branch of government — the legislature, one of whose function is to investigate improprieties in the actions made or taken by CNMI public officials. If the legislative branch of the CNMI government faithfully carries out its duties and responsibilities as mandated by the NMI constitution, then we are still in safe hands. But if the legislature forsakes its role as the investigative branch of our government, then democracy in the CNMI, as well as our exercise at self-government, would clearly be at risk. If there is no check by one branch of the CNMI government on the other, then our democracy is in danger of failing. At some point, thereafter, we might begin to see the emergence of a de facto strongman in the clothing of democracy. In other words, our votes at that point would be useless.

For all the reasons stated above, the people of the CNMI should support the work of the House Special Committee on Executive Investigations, so that our exercise in self-government will not fail. Whenever we see our leaders take advantage of our people, for their personal gain, we have an obligation to get rid of them; otherwise, our democratic ship of state will sooner or later capsize and sink. We must never permit this to happen. That is why all of our leaders should be held accountable for the financial transgressions they have committed.

The writer is a resident of As Gonno, Saipan.

 

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