Editor’s Note: This is being published in two parts due to its length.
Second of a two-part series
8. Federal raids, for the first time in CNMI history, on the Office of the Governor in November 2019. Investigators also searched the home and vehicles of the governor and his family, and the offices of Imperial Pacific International and IPI associates. The allegations under investigation involve money laundering, wire fraud, honest services fraud, conspiracy, and illegal campaign contributions by foreign nationals.
9. A failed casino development, after years of lax enforcement by the CNMI government, multiple amendments to the license and casino law, dozens of worker injuries at the construction site and at least one death. Despite its multibillion-dollar promises, IPI is today not paying taxes, license fees, vendors, land leases, workers, court judgments, or the Community Benefit Fund. IPI could also soon face major penalties and enforcement action by U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network for numerous violations of federal anti-money-laundering laws.
10. More amendments for IPI on the horizon. Basically insolvent according to audited financial statements, facing mounting lawsuits, in violation of federal and local laws as well as casino commission orders, IPI still wants to keep its gaming license. The company is seeking more amendments to the license for the ninth time since 2015, along with more changes to the casino law. The governor’s lottery commission is now entertaining IPI’s proposal, and some lawmakers have expressed a willingness to consider legislation to accommodate IPI once again.
11. The hiring of lobbyist Jason Osborne of Turnberry Solutions to represent the governor and the Commonwealth in Washington, D.C., raising questions about conflicts of interest and the use of public money for political purposes. In addition to being funded by CNMI taxpayers, Mr. Osborne is a lobbyist for the Northern Marianas Business Alliance Corp., which consists of the CNMI’s largest business organizations, including IPI. He is also the executive director for the CNMI Republican Party, and was a paid consultant for the Torres-Palacios campaign.
12. The shortchanging and scapegoating of the Public School System. Delayed and inadequate transfers of funds from the central government resulted in pay cuts in 2019 for PSS teachers, bus drivers, administrators, and support staff, and payless paydays in 2020. When the Board of Education finally sought relief through the courts last April, Gov. Torres issued a divisive statement blaming PSS for cuts he was making to retiree pensions.
13. The furloughs of hundreds of employees across the CNMI government. Many of these furloughs were politically driven; people were let go for reasons of “performance and loyalty,” as Public Safety Commissioner Robert Guerrero put it during a legislative hearing in July. The government’s implementation of the reduction in force violated the personnel service system rules and regulations and the due process rights of employees. And, in the midst of a global pandemic, furloughed employees lost their health insurance.
14. Prolonged delays and continuing glitches in the issuance of desperately needed federal unemployment assistance. Thousands of people still wait for their checks, after months of zero income. Thousands of people face eviction, utility disconnection, vehicle repossession, loan defaults, and food insecurity.
15. Illegal overtime and double pay to Cabinet members and other public officials in times of disaster, austerity, and mass furloughs. Millions of dollars have been paid out in unlawful compensation for which the CNMI will never get reimbursed by the federal government. These funds could have been used instead to lift austerity, pay back debts, meet shortfalls affecting critical public services, or provide emergency relief to vulnerable families.
16. The cutting of power to the CNMI’s only public hospital, despite Gov. Torres’ assurances this would not happen. The disconnection placed public health and safety at risk, compromised hospital operations, and jeopardized accreditation. And while the hospital and ordinary citizens struggle to pay the Commonwealth Utilities Corp., taxpayers foot the bill for utilities at the private residences of the governor and lieutenant governor. There is no legal basis for this generous perk being given to the CNMI’s elected chief executives.
17. Millions of dollars in COVID-19 emergency contracts awarded to the politically-connected, including friends and campaign donors of the governor. Not even the executive department heads signing off on contracts could explain how some of these sole-sourced deals were negotiated or how some companies were solicited in the first place for goods or services. Meanwhile, small local businesses lacking political ties have been denied contracting opportunities.
18. The ballooning of Executive Branch travel expenditures by 152%, from $4.6 million in 2015 to $11.6 million in 2018, according to a recent report by the Public Auditor. Gov. Torres alone has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in illegal first-class travel as well as reimbursements for many extravagant and questionable expenses.
19. The governor’s promotional trip/family vacation to the Northern Islands in the summer of 2020, using scarce government resources and government personnel. The costly trip took place during a public health emergency and the worst economic crisis in the Commonwealth’s history. Though billed as an “ecotourism promotion,” Gov. Torres’ Northern Islands expedition featured uncontrolled burning, fuel stored on the beach without containment, poaching in conservation areas, and the illegal introduction of non-native Sambar deer on Pagan.
20. Government spending out of control and four straight years of deficits: $8 million in 2017; $26 million in 2018; $88 million in 2019; $85 million in 2020. Yet, in August 2018, a few months before the general election, and despite clear signs that the government and IPI were already in deep financial trouble, Gov. Torres gave a State of the Commonwealth address, accompanied by colorful and misleading charts, in which he proclaimed a “strong” economy and a fiscal surplus, and mentioned the word “progress” 24 times.
These are just some of the things the GOP and its leadership want us to forget. This government belongs to all of us, and we have the power to change it.
Tina Sablan (Special to the Saipan Tribune)
Christina Marie Sablan is a member of the CNMI House of Representatives of the 21st Legislature.