‘Piece was politically motivated’
Both Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC have belied the allegations raised in a Bloomberg article about the casino industry in the CNMI, with the governor describing them as blatantly false. The casino operator assured that it obeys all laws and regulations of the CNMI and the United States.
In a statement on Friday, Torres denied any illegal activity with IPI and that allegations contained in the story are from the perspective of an “off-island writer from London with limited exposure to our people, culture, history, and beauty of the CNMI.”
In a separate statement on Sunday, IPI said it repudiates all allegations of wrongdoing cited in the article.
According to the Bloomberg Businessweek piece published on Feb. 15, 2018, titled, “A Chinese Casino Has Conquered a Piece of America,” it said, among other things, that “in the first eight months of 2017, according to the regulators’ records, Imperial Pacific paid Torres Brothers $126,000.” One transaction, according to the article, said a relative of the governor received a payoff of $4 million at one time.
Torres Brothers refers to the law office of the governor’s brothers, composed of Vincent, Victorino, and Joaquin. Torres also used to work there as office manager before going into politics.
In his statement, Torres said: “Any allegations contained within this story are blatantly false and are apparently perpetuated by individuals who hold a minority opinion, aiming to score cheap political points at the expense of our islands’ image in the world stage,” he said.
In a separate interview Friday, Torres belied the allegation that all of IPI’s requests were granted by his administration.
According to Torres, he used his power to line-item veto part of the bill that was supposed to exempt IPI from a particular tax, allowing him to veto just a part of the bill instead of the whole bill.
“There was a bill that I line-item vetoed and that was the $3-million tax waiver for Best Sunshine. They say 100 percent. Then why did I line item vetoed a $3-million tax exempt? Why is Best Sunshine not exempt from excise tax?” he pointed out.
Torres expects more allegations against him to pop up in the months to come as it is election year. “It’s easy to say they [the government] are all corrupt. …Yes, I am running for governor and the target is me, of course.”
The governor also denied going on trips to Hong Kong for IPI and that he is on IPI’s payroll.
“That’s ridiculous. …I would like to see a contract where I am on [the IPI] payroll… trips to Hong Kong for IPI did not happen,” he said.
“There’s nothing to hide. Everything they want to find out is there. Whatever they need to ask or question it’s obviously there.”
Notably, the author of the Bloomberg article made minimum mention of Torres’ side in the article. According to Torres, he met with Matthew Campbell, the writer of the piece, back in September 2016 to answer questions “several weeks leading up to the story’s publication”
“We submitted an [eight]-page response to the writer’s questions, clarifying the numerous allegations made against me, my administration, and my family. However, our responses were not fully included into the overall story,” Torres said.
“The story pays no attention to the pain our families felt during the economic downturn, or the sacrifices our retirees, our elderly, and our families had to make, and it does not speak to the many jobs we have created or how the lives in our community are better now than they were during the dark days of our economy. The one-sided sources and selective interviews in this story just showcase that this is truly an election year, and some would rather tarnish our islands for their own self-promotions. It is unfortunate, but we will continue pushing forward for progress in our islands and for a better future for every single person who calls these islands home,” he added.
The administration did not respond to a question if it plans to pursue legal action against Bloomberg.
The Governor’s Office did provide Saipan Tribune with responses to questions brought up in the article, such as the string of transactions related to Torres’ family members.
The governor said that implying land purchases from relatives of CNMI public officials “lacks an understanding of the size of the CNMI and that many public officials have extended families.”
According to the administration response, the governor has 70 first cousins and that his mother was one of 13 children.
“By looking at select transactions, this question overlooks that nearly all landowners on Saipan have had transactions with [IPI], primarily because land ownership remains with those of Northern Mariana descent and that land is limited.”
Torres said generally the same thing in a separate interview on Friday. He pointed out that the CNMI is small “IPI] came to purchase one of my sister-in-law’s properties, just like I’m sure a lot of folks sell or lease their properties,” he said. “…All of the questions were focused on myself and my whole family. Why don’t we look at others, on how much they make and how many properties they have sold in the CNMI? Now you single out one property that was purchased by Best Sunshine versus the hundred properties that have been purchased by other companies.”
IPI, in a statement, assured that it strives for “nothing less than full compliance with all laws and regulations of the CNMI and the United States.”
It also pointed out that Bloomberg has a beef with IPI.
“Imperial Pacific believes that the article is just another enumeration of false claims similar to other similar Bloomberg articles involving Imperial Pacific. It is apparent that the article was written to negatively attack Imperial Pacific, its owners and agents, the Commonwealth Casino Commission, the CNMI government and its leaders, and individual members of the CNMI community,” said the statement, adding that they have “remain steadfast” in meeting its obligations to the development of the gaming and resort industries in the CNMI.
It accused Bloomberg of merely undermining confidence in the CNMI’s casino gaming industry and, although it did not rule out any legal action, IPI did not say anything about going to court over the article.
Kilili: Investigation needed
Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) described the article’s allegations as “extremely serious.” Sablan believes federal law enforcerst, the Attorney General, and the Office of the Public Auditor should investigate because “the people of the Mariana Islands deserve to know the truth.”
“…the governor, his family, and other public officials named in this article deserve an opportunity to clear their names,” he added.
Rep. Edwin K. Propst (Ind-Saipan), who was also quoted in the story, said he stands by what he told the reporter a few months back.
The story quoted Propst as saying, “‘I believe that Imperial Pacific runs this government. …Any legislation they’ve ever wanted goes their way 100 percent of the time. Not 99 percent of the time. One hundred.’”
In an interview with Saipan Tribune, Propst said that he still believes the situation to be so.
“Look to every legislation that has benefitted the casino. We’ve had opportunities to either tax them or to assess new fees, but we never do it,” he said, adding that taxes and fees must have been in place from the start.
“It’s our failure to plan that consistently gets us into these problems that we’re dealing with and it’s frustrating to see that,” he said.
According to Propst, anytime discussions are brought up on taxing the casino, “it’s thrown out the window; we can’t touch it.”
“We need to look at getting a better deal for our people,” Propst added.
When asked who he thinks is behind the bad press, Torres said, “I definitely don’t want to accuse people. I, for one, have been accused of so many things that I didn’t do so I don’t want to accuse anybody. Whoever is doing it and whatever it is, it’s freedom of press,” said Torres.
“There will be more allegations this year. It’s political year and whatever it is that they want to find out, everything is open book,” he added. (With Bea Cabrera)