Corruption in the CNMI government: A worsening crisis

During the first 10 years of Commonwealth self-government, one of the earliest government corruption cases in the CNMI took place. Several members and staff of the CNMI Legislature were convicted and sentenced to serve prison terms by the federal court in the so-called “Sumitomo Housing bribery scandal.”

During the second decade of local self-government, the CNMI Finance secretary was indicted and sentenced in federal court for, among other things, unlawfully purchasing with a government-issued credit card a pair of expensive Ferragamo shoes for his personal use.

After that, about 15 years ago, two members of the CNMI Senate were convicted and sentenced in federal court for hiring and paying the salary of “ghost employees.” No work was performed by the ghost employees.

Still later, about eight years ago, the CNMI lieutenant governor and two others were convicted and sentenced in federal court for the unlawful use of federal fund that was awarded the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. This was the embarrassing “Rydlime case” that shook the Commonwealth and put into serious doubt our political maturity as a self-governing commonwealth.

Aside from the foregoing corruption cases involving CNMI government officials, there have also been a number of federal indictments and convictions of private individuals for violating federal anti-corruption laws. They include those charged with the bribery of CNMI government officials, for payment of kickbacks to CNMI government officials, for unduly influencing CNMI government officials and procurement decisions, and so forth. Among these cases, to name a few, were the much-publicized corruption case against a Bank of Saipan chief executive officer, the corruption case for bribery and kickback against a mayor of Tinian, and a bribery case against several executives of a Saipan construction company.

These indictments and convictions of both private individuals and CNMI government officials are examples of the many bribery and unlawful kickback cases that were filed by the U.S. Attorney for the Northern Marianas over the past 38 years of CNMI self-government. Most of these cases involved corrupt acts committed by CNMI government officials, both elected and appointed.

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On a per capita basis, the CNMI probably has one of the highest (if not the highest) rate of federal criminal convictions for local government corruption among all the jurisdictions in the United States—state, territorial, and commonwealth. One would think that after all of these criminal convictions during the past three decades, CNMI government officials would be more careful and more diligent in carrying out their duties and responsibilities as public officials. But for some strange reason that is hard to fathom, government corruption has not subsided to this day. Indeed, instead of declining, it appears that, over the past five or six years, there has actually been a resurgence of government corruption cases in the CNMI. This time, however, the corrupt acts being committed by CNMI government officials appear to be more deliberate and flagrant. It is as if Commonwealth government officials are actually daring the people of the CNMI (and anyone else who question their unlawful or unethical decisions and actions) that they can and will do whatever they please, and that the people might as well just sit back and watch the corruption that are openly being committed in front of them. The most egregious abuse of public office, of course, took place openly and flagrantly during the second term of former governor Benigno R. Fitial.

Fortunately, the 18th CNMI Legislature saw what was going on, got disgusted with Gov. Fitial’s shenanigans, and decided to do something about it. The CNMI House of Representative introduced and passed several articles of impeachment against him, many of which were for the corrupt acts he committed or permitted while in office and for violation of several CNMI laws. Facing conviction and ouster by the CNMI Senate, he resigned from office in disgrace.

Subsequently, as we are painfully aware, Fitial was charged by the Office of the Public Auditor with corruption in public office. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced by the CNMI court. His sentence, however, was commuted by his successor (his former lieutenant governor), so that he would not have to serve his prison term. One of the charges filed against him involved the eyebrow-raising “sweetheart contract” involving federal TARP funds that he quietly awarded (through sole-source contract) to his close friend, the Commerce secretary, without complying with CNMI procurement rules and regulations.

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When the Inos-Hofschneider administration took over the reins of government soon after Fitial’s resignation, the people of the CNMI had high hopes that our nightmare with CNMI government corruption and malfeasance in public office would end. But our hopes were immediately dashed as soon as the present Inos-Torres administration began its term in January 2014. From the very beginning, the Inos-Torres administration started undertaking a series of questionable actions and transactions that were openly contrary to the best interests of the people of the CNMI.

The most egregious of the government actions taken during the first year of the Inos-Torres term was the fly-by-night passage and signing into law of the exclusive casino gaming legislation. Against the express wishes of a very large majority of the people of the CNMI, and in concert with the Inos-Torres administration, the present 19th CNMI Legislature conveniently turned a deaf ear, closed its eyes, and passed the sweetheart exclusive gambling legislation with lightning speed. From the very beginning, this gaming legislation was intended to be awarded to one investor only, but the name of that investor was kept a big secret for a long time by those members of the CNMI Legislature who introduced the exclusive casino legislation. We later learned the name of the investor (Imperial Pacific dba Best Sunshine), but only many months after the exclusive casino gaming license legislation had been signed into law by the governor. Some semblance of competition appeared at the beginning in response to the government’s “request for proposal” for the exclusive casino license. Indeed, two proposals were submitted, but the die was apparently already cast as to which proposal would eventually be awarded the exclusive casino gaming license. Indeed, there was hardly any competition for the exclusive license.

To make matters worse, ever since the exclusive casino license was awarded to Best Sunshine in 2014, the CNMI government, its departments and agencies (in particular the Department Public Lands, Historic Preservation, and others) have been literally bowing to and granting just about every request made to the CNMI government by Best Sunshine. For example, the initial exclusive casino legislation was amended several times since, all at the request of Best Sunshine. All of these amendments to the casino gaming legislation were passed by the majority of each house of the Legislature, with hardly any question or concern raised by CNMI government officials. The purpose of the several legislative amendments, of course, was to fine-tune the exclusive casino license legislation to fit the needs and desires of Best Sunshine. The legislative minority (about five or six of them), not having the votes to make any worthwhile opposition to the amendments requested by Best Sunshine, stood by the sidelines, helpless and unable to do anything. Among the subsequent amendments made by the 19th CNMI Legislature was the one giving permission to Best Sunshine so they could immediately start actual gaming operations at the T Galleria. Best Sunshine did not have to wait for the completion of the actual casino establishment that was proposed for construction. The excuse given by Best Sunshine for this particular amendment was so that it could begin actual training program for its casino dealers and staff.

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Whenever the government uses its awesome powers to favor one particular investor and go against the best interest of the general public, corruption always rears its ugly head; in the process, public officials compromise their duties and obligations under the Constitution. When this happens, the laws are bent or are simply not followed. Whenever our leaders fail to uphold the Constitution and laws of the Commonwealth, they are violating their sacred oath of office. Whenever public officials commit corrupt acts flagrantly, openly, and against the best interest of the public, the people become aware of this fact and we have a duty and obligation to stop the acts of corruption being committed by our own public officials and remove them from office. If the people fail to take appropriate action, then these public officials will continue harming the public interest, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. The public must always remember that we voted our public officials into office and we have every power to remove them from office.

Corrupt leaders have no right to hold public office, for they have violated the public trust. Indeed, corrupt officials are like a disease that endangers and harms the very livelihood and wellbeing of the people. We should also be on guard that whenever our leaders put the best interest of investors, such as Best Sunshine, above the best interest of the people, it is time that we remove these public officials from office. We must be ready to admit whenever we make a serious mistake of voting corrupt people into office, and remove them from office when they commit corrupt acts, and then move on.

Ever since the exclusive casino license was awarded to Best Sunshine in 2014, the CNMI literally became a “Best Sunshine island.” Best Sunshine officials, staff and employees have literally injected themselves into almost every facet of CNMI local government, semi-autonomous government agencies, and non-government organization activities: from the Executive Branch to the legislative branch, and downwards to the various government agencies. The CNMI Department of Public Lands, in particular, appears to grant every public land request that is made by Best Sunshine without batting an eye. It seems that Best Sunshine, as far as DPL is concerned, does not have to go through any competitive process in order to lease public lands.

This is in stark contrast to the case of Mariana Resort and Country Club that has invested millions and millions of dollars in the CNMI during the past 40 years. DPL instead is requiring that company to go through a request for proposal, so that Best Sunshine or one of its subsidiaries could also bid for the Marpi property that Kan Pacific has spent millions of dollars in golf course and hotel improvements. But as with everything involving Best Sunshine, all it needs to do is ask the CNMI government for something and its request will be granted, without any competitive bidding.

Most astonishingly, even if the land in question is ancient burial lands where the ancient Chamorro and Carolinians were buried hundreds of years ago, predating Chamorro contact with European civilization, DPL will close its eyes and allow Best Sunshine to use the property for Best Sunshine’s exclusive casino operations. In dis-interring the remains of our early ancestors, DPL’s arrogant message to the public is this: Our ancestors’ burial grounds won’t be respected because the money to be generated from the exclusive casino operation is more important than our ancestral heritage. Talk about arrogance and contempt for our people and our ancestors! These public officials apparently believe that they can openly commit such sacrilegious acts with impunity and get away with it. Do our public officials really think that the people of the CNMI are that stupid or are so blind so as to not understand the shenanigans that these officials are doing?

Just last week, we became frighteningly aware of how far our public officials would go to frustrate any attempt to have a clean government without corruption. This time the 19th CNMI Legislature passed one of the most dangerous and harmful legislation that we have seen in a long time. This legislation would exempt the Commonwealth Lottery Commission (and Best Sunshine) from the reach and requirements of the Open Government Act. The very introduction of this legislation, in itself, betrays an act of corruption by the Legislature, for the legislation would shield from public scrutiny any and all proceedings, hearings, deliberation, debates and records involving the Commonwealth Lottery Commission. The net effect of this legislation, which I have earlier called on the governor and lieutenant governor to veto, would be to keep secret and confidential any and all hearings, meetings and proceedings involving Best Sunshine. Meanwhile, all other government agencies and instrumentalities are required to conduct their meetings in public and all records of other agencies are subject to public inspection.

What is going on? Do we want to have more corruption in the Commonwealth? What are our present leaders doing? Do some of them want to go to jail, just like so many of our past public officials have ended up during the past 30 years? Do we want to continue the corrupt practices that so many of our public officials have engaged in over the years since we started local self-government? I hope not. But the only remedy we have in order to rectify these official wrongdoings lie in the hands of the people of the CNMI. We are the ones who can decide at the next general election whether we continue with the status quo in the way we run our government, or whether we are going to say “Enough is enough!” by voting for new leaders who are honest, responsible, capable and competent, and who have the best interests of the people at heart. Are we ready to take on this challenge, or are we doomed to continue with more corruption in public office? (Jose S. Dela Cruz, Special to the Saipan Tribune)

Jose S. Dela Cruz is a former justice of the CNMI Supreme Court.

Jose S. Dela Cruz (Special to the Saipan Tribune) Author

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