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House minority bloc releases records of governor’s expenses

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HOUSE Minority Leader Ed Propst, Reps. Tina Sablan, Edmund Villagomez, Sheila Babauta, Richard Lizama, and Donald Manglona on Thursday released thousands of pages of records of Gov. Ralph DLG Torres’ first-class travel, official representation, reimbursement, executive security, housing expenses, and utilities expenses.

The records were obtained through an Open Government Act request to the Department of Finance, Rep. Tina Sablan said.

This request was submitted to Secretary of Finance David DLG Atalig on December 10 of last year.

The House of Representatives convened for a session on Thursday in the House chamber on Capital Hill. Photo by K-Andrea Evarose S. Limol

Secretary Atalig requested for two consecutive extensions due to the “excessive manual labor involved in gathering the records, as well as the reduction of work hours during the holidays.”

The minority bloc submitted a House communication to Speaker Blas Jonathan T. Attao about the request that they made to Secretary Atalig, and requested that the House begin a formal inquiry into the governor’s expenses and to investigate allegations against the governor of public corruption, waste, fraud, and abuse of public funds.

“We appreciate that you subsequently referred these documents to the Committee on Ways and Means and the Committee on Judiciary and Governmental Operations with instructions to report back on their findings as soon as possible,” Sablan said in her letter the speaker. “We are aware that in January, the committee issued a joint letter to the secretary of Finance for essentially the same records that the minority had sought. However, to our knowledge, the committees’ inquiry has not progressed beyond that initial request, and to date, there has been no report.”

Sablan added that on Jan. 22 of this year, members of the minority visited Secretary Atalig’s office “to inspect the records, and made arrangements for transferring these records to the Legislature.”

“With the help of staff, we proceeded with the work of scanning, organizing, and reviewing thousands of pages of documents by category. We note with concern, however, that more than six months after our initial request, the Finance secretary has not fully complied with the Open Government Act. We are aware of certain records in Finance’s possession that have not been released, and certain records that have been redacted, without citation to any specific exemption in the [Open Government Act],” Sablan said.

She added, “Though much of our work has been disrupted by austerity measures and the Covid-19 government shutdown, the Minority has nonetheless followed up with Secretary Atalig on the records we have yet to receive, and we have resumed our examination of the records we have.”

These records have been organized into folders by category, and made available online for public viewing via https://tinyurl.com/yc2rh5kd.

Sablan, on behalf of the House minority bloc, urged Speaker Attao to direct the House clerk to archive the records, and to direct certain House standing committees to begin a formal legislative investigation.

In closing, she said, “The people of the Marianas deserve to know whether and how there have been abuses of public funds or violations of public policies or laws by the governor or by any government official. We in the Legislature have an obligation to provide the accountability and checks and balances that our people demand.”

The House of Representatives will hold a session today, Monday, at 10:30 a.m.

Politics as usual

Asked for comment, Press Secretary Kevin Bautista issued the following statement on Sunday:

“In the midst of this global pandemic, in which difficult work is being done by the Governor, his Task Force, CHCC, and our frontline workers to protect the lives of everyone in the Marianas, the Minority chooses not to legislate any real solutions to assist with the Covid-19 response or our economic downturn, but instead chooses to play divisive politics to score cheap political points.

“Nowadays, this is really all the Minority wants to do. They want to paint the Governor and this administration as not being transparent with public funds, when every request for dialogue and access have been honored. The CNMI has the flattest curve in the United States, and they fail to even acknowledge the hard work being done by first responders and real leaders who have had to put their lives at risk to keep the rate of infection down. They were really quiet during the first few months of the pandemic, while this government (which has been cut by more than half) led the strongest response against Covid-19 in the Pacific.

“The Minority chooses to play politics under a false veil because that's all they can do. They choose to focus not on solutions that would actually help people, but to sow divisiveness for the sake of their political ends and at a time when our community is most in need of coming together.  Rather than work to develop revenue-generating bills that they were favorable to, support the effort to ensure the safety of our people during this Covid-19 pandemic, contribute meaningfully to the conversation on restarting our economy, or address concerns with and improvements in their respective precincts, they have simply used their office as a platform to levy a constant stream of political attacks against the administration.

“Regarding their requests for access, Secretary Atalig and his staff worked tirelessly, oftentimes under unreasonable deadlines to fulfill the Minority's requests. The Department of Finance gave them every document it had in its system pertaining to their request.

“If we are going to go down the line with the Minority about certain expenses, let's be clear that expenses made through official representation are legal under CNMI law.

“In 2018, the Governor led all CNMI efforts on important federal legislation with the White House and Members of Congress. Ultimately, this led to real meaningful federal legislation for the CNMI, saving the CNMI's economy at the time. That year, the Governor was required to go to meetings in Washington, D.C. and Hawaii for important 902 consultations and other federal negotiations on both immigration law and the military. He invited Members of Congress and other federal partners to Saipan for a true glimpse of what this Commonwealth is trying to do to improve the standard of living for the Marianas. Yes, hostings were held by the CNMI Government, but they were done in the same manner that other state and territorial governments host federal partners when economic livelihood is at stake. 

“All the Minority did that year was cry foul and attempted to even hinder all talks pertaining to the progress of federal negotiations for their own interests over the interests of the livelihood of the CNMI economy.

“It is unfortunate that during a global pandemic, when people should come first that the Minority and certain members of the Legislature are playing politics instead of doing real work.

“The Governor and his Covid-19 Task Force, as well as CHCC and our executive departments, worked very hard to protect the lives of everyone in the Marianas. We made sure all stimulus checks are paid out effectively to every tax filer. We made sure public services remained open even as the government has been cut in half. We made sure CNMI government employees were eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, and with the program rolling out this week, they will soon be justly compensated because Governor Torres and Labor Secretary Benavente worked hard to get that done.

“As the Governor stated last week, we remain an open government, and we will continue to work hard to overcome this pandemic, get assistance into the hands of our community, and rebuild our economy. That work will continue, while the Minority choose to play politics for their own benefit."

 

 

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