The short and easy answer is: If you see corruption happening, report it to the Office of the Public Auditor.
That is the message of OPA legal counsel and director of investigation Ashley Kost, who assures the community that they take corruption matters seriously.
“The Office of the Public Auditor has a duty to detect fraud, waste, and abuse of government funds, and we cover the Government Ethics Act,” said Kost. “We take our job very seriously, so any corruption that falls under that, we take it seriously and look into it.”
This comes soon as social media is dominated by allegations about Cabinet members getting overtime work for COVID-19 operation authorized, despite the thousands of government employees having been furloughed. Many cite the CNMI’s experience after Super Typhoon Yutu in 2018, when rumors were rife about Cabinet members getting paid for overtime work.
Gov. Ralph DLG Torres has made it clear that the documents are just authorizations, and have not actually been paid. Cabinet members are also not eligible for overtime. Lt. Gov. Arnold I. Palacios said it himself, “In my full understanding of overtime regulations or laws, Cabinet members, being exempt employees, are not allowed to be paid overtime pay.”
This, however, has not stopped people from talking. Minority leader Rep. Edwin K. Propst (Ind-SIpan) was one of those who compared the same experience during Super Typhoon Yutu and now, under COVID-19, “we are seeing double pay for Cabinet members, which is even worse than overtime pay.”
“Those connected are making huge sums of money, while those who are furloughed are still waiting for their unemployment assistance. How sad,” Propst stated.
In January, OPA received a letter from the Office of the Attorney General about overtime payments during Yutu. An audit on the case is ongoing; the investigations and findings have yet to be finalized.
‘Nobody wants corruption’
“Nobody wants to have corruption on the island or anywhere,” Torres said in Monday’s radio news briefing.
Regarding the House of Representatives’ Oversight Committee on Federal Assistance requesting access to payroll records, the governor asserted that everything is public record. “We never hide anything and we’re not planning to hide anything. If anyone’s concerned, it is public record. …Any individual [who] wants to find any documents that the government has can go ahead and make the request and we will provide those documents,” he said.
Patrick Guerrero, the governor’s authorized representative, is working with other agencies to put together information—on overtime and contracts, among others—to provide to the committee within the week.
According to Guerrero, he received three letters, one on May 28 asking for about 12 contracts the committee wanted to look into. The second letter, received on June 2, asked for a list of newly hired employees funded wholly or partially using funding from the CARES Act, FEMA, or other federal sources.
Guerrero said there has been no hiring under any FEMA program, and that he will reaching out to the Department of Finance who watches over CARES Act, as well as the Governor’s Office, for concerns on other federal programs, to compile the list..
The third letter, received last June 4, is in relation to overtime costs, and a complete list of all government employees, and he will be working with the Homeland Security, to get the needed documents.
“We are transparent and we’ll open the books and everything for them to view,” Guerrero added.
Report what you know
Investigation on corruption starts with a “tip” from either the OPA’s tip line or the public, or through information OPA gathers from the news. All investigations from the tips that come in, until the dispositions of the cases, are confidential.
If it is in the OPA’s purview—fraud, waste, and abuse of government funds, and the Government Ethics Act—they look into it to see if there is enough information, or if they have resources to look into it. Then OPA goes through its normal process, and take whatever steps are necessary for the investigation.
From there, Kost said, the case either gets closed because there is not enough information; gets handled administratively, which happens often when working with the government; or gets handled criminally.
“At that point, we refer it over to the Attorney General’s Office for prosecution. If there’s a federal nexus, we’ll refer it over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” she added.
Kost stressed that OPA and all of its 17 employees are there to serve the public, and asked for everyone to help them do their jobs through tips and information. “If people are seeing something and they don’t know whether it’s an OPA’s purview, we still would appreciate the tip coming in and if it doesn’t fall in our purview, I’ll make sure it gets to the right agency. Whether it be the AG’s Office, Customs, or the FBI, I’ll make sure it gets to the right place. “
To give the OPA a “tip,” fill the form on their website, www.opacnmi.com. This means typing in your complaint anonymously, and getting the information straight to OPA.
“We cannot do our jobs, unless we get tips from the public so keep them coming. We’re here for you, and if you want to talk, come up, and talk to us face to face, absolutely, you can come up here, we will meet with you,” she added.