Editor’s Note: This is being published in two parts due to its length. Continuation is in tomorrow’s edition.
First of a two-part series
Our Commonwealth is at a crossroads: the economy is in shambles, public coffers have run dry, and trust in government has tanked. With the Nov. 3, 2020, midterm election fast approaching, we will soon have the chance to determine our next set of leaders in the Legislature. As we weigh decisions that will shape our future, it is helpful to look back in our history and learn from our past.
One political party and lately, one company, have dominated our government and economy. Here’s a recap of the Republican legacy of chaos in the Northern Marianas in recent years:
1. All-expense-paid casino “fact-finding” trips to Hong Kong and Macau for key Republican lawmakers in 2013, including now-governor Ralph Torres. The trips were arranged and funded by Esteem Capital, a firm linked to Imperial Pacific International, which was ultimately awarded Saipan’s exclusive casino license. The acceptance of those trips by CNMI officials likely violated the Government Ethics Act.
2. Swift passage of the Saipan Casino Act in 2014, within months of those dubious “fact-finding” trips. Casino gaming on Saipan was legalized without a single public hearing or legislative committee report, on first and final reading in both houses of the Legislature, and despite public protests, petitions, and two previous rejections by Saipan voters of casino gaming on the ballot. The new law, authored by then-speaker of the House and now-casino commissioner Rafael Demapan, made Saipan the only jurisdiction in the nation, and quite possibly the world, to legalize casino gaming without imposing a gaming tax.
3. The removal of the casino commission’s authority to require a completion bond that would have ensured IPI’s timely and satisfactory construction of its casino resort project. This unconscionable deal only benefited IPI to the detriment of the Commonwealth’s interests, and was crafted through a substitute bill introduced on the House floor by then-representative Angel Demapan. The bill sailed through the Republican-led Legislature and was approved by Gov. Torres in 2015, becoming Public Law 19-24. Five years later, despite several deadline extensions, the casino resort project is still not finished.
4. Double-digit salary increases for the CNMI’s top elected officials. With the enactment of Public Law 19-83 in January 2017, hefty salary hikes were awarded to the governor (from $70,000 to $120,000, a 71% increase), the lieutenant governor (from $60,000 to $100,000, a 67% increase), and mayors (from $43,200 to $75,000, a 74% increase). The same law also gave lawmakers an 80% raise, but the Supreme Court struck that down as unconstitutional. Meanwhile, civil servants only got a 5% bump; since then their pay increase has been all but wiped out by austerity cuts and furloughs.
5. Broken promises to retirees, that a Saipan casino would safeguard their pensions. One of these promises was to dedicate the $15 million annual casino license fee to paying the 25% portion of retiree pensions that was not covered by the Settlement Fund agreement with the government. But in 2017, through Public Law 20-10, the government diverted the $15 million casino license fee away from the Settlement Fund. The legislation, authored by then-chairman of the Ways and Means Committee Rep. Angel Demapan, claimed that the casino gross revenue taxes were sufficient to cover these pension payments. In fact, IPI was already falling behind on taxes in 2017.
6. More than $35 million owed by IPI to the people of the Commonwealth in Community Benefit Fund distributions since 2018. An additional $20 million is due in October 2020. The Community Benefit Fund is a requirement in IPI’s casino license agreement, and the money could have been used for health care, education, retirement benefits, and infrastructure. Pursuant to the license agreement, Gov. Torres holds enforcement authority over the Community Benefit Fund, but the records show that he has done very little since 2018 to ensure IPI’s compliance. IPI, too, has done very little to comply.
7. Federal criminal charges filed against senior IPI executives and other co-conspirators. The superseding indictment filed in August 2019 and unsealed in August 2020 lists 71 counts involving RICO conspiracy, harboring of illegal aliens, unlawful employment of aliens, and international money laundering. Meanwhile, an ongoing civil lawsuit alleges IPI’s involvement in a human trafficking and forced labor scheme, and accuses the company of denying medical care and compensation to injured construction workers.
To be continued tomorrow.
Tina Sablan (Special to the Saipan Tribune)
Christina Marie Sablan is a member of the CNMI House of Representatives of the 21st Legislature.