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OPINION | Judicious accounts of federal assistance

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“It is easy for public officials to dodge their responsibilities, but they cannot dodge the consequences of dodging their responsibilities.” — Thomas Paine

AS the U.S. Congress continues to act with urgency in passing Covid-19 pandemic economic recovery legislations, of which the CNMI and the rest of the territories are included, we need to be vigilant and responsible in how these financial assistances are being spent. Responsibility to account financial help from taxpayers of a caring nation ought to be a conscious and unmitigated obligation of our CNMI leaders. The importance of accountability of funds cannot be under stated.

In April 24, 2020 the Democratic controlled House passed H.R. 266, the Paycheck Protection and Health Care Enhancement Act, which continues to pour more money in to CHC for pandemic safety mitigations and increase testing capacity. Similarly, congress added more money for the small business loan program to help small businesses survive the adverse catastrophic financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Daniel O. Quitugua

With millions of dollars in federal assistance continues to fill the CNMI coffers, from the CAreS Act and now the PPHCE Act, there should be a body created by the legislature to scrutinize and carefully monitor the expenditures of these funds. Knowing how badly Governor Torres squandered the finances of the CNMI, and because these financial assistances are coming directly from American taxpayers through U.S. Congress, the CNMI must account for every single penny it receives and spends. The people of the Commonwealth certainly don’t want to see another financial fiasco like how the Torres brothers became the casino kingpin.

The Covid-19 pandemic brings both life-threatening situations as well as critically needed financial help to prevent a total collapse of the CNMI economy. If it wasn’t for the generosity of U.S. Congress, we would be in the middle of a state of disorder which clearly shows our vulnerability.  Our appreciation for Congress’ help should, at a minimum, be in the form of absolute accountability of these funds. If there is ever a time when the work of the Public Auditor is so urgently needed, today is that time.

The millions and millions of dollars earmarked for the CNMI by Congress, likely more to come, must be prudently spent in accordance to its identified purposes, and this is where the Public Auditor can redeem its tarnished reputation. This office has been more of an observer rather than enforcer of our laws and regulations, if one considers all the purported misdeeds of public officials. If the Public Auditor is fearful of his employment/position and is causing him to be timid in conducting thorough investigation of ethical violations and other wrongdoings in government, maybe a public sanction is in order.

With the 10% reductions of all departments and agencies budget allocations and given for the Public Auditor’s operations, and yet corruptions and ethical violations continues, the Legislature should abolish this office. This office even messed up its legal roles in ensuring for a fair and impartial elections in 2018. If it wasn’t for the Democratic Party which initiated its own investigation of the elections conduct, irregularities would not have been exposed. Amongst its findings was an appearance of implied collusion between the Governor and the election board in off-island voter registration. Mike Pai has been sitting on his….collecting his pay checks while the government is financially strapped and fiscally abused.

The Democrat controlled U.S. House of Representatives through Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is already working on another legislation that would provide relief funding for states and local government. So, the least the CNMI can do is to judiciously account for all expenditures.

What is so worrisome about the Torres administration now is its unethical habit of approving contracts, directly or indirectly, involving his family.  With the pandemic climate we are in and Executive Authority is being exercised at will in spending public funds, this is just the kind of condition very prone to abuse, and it appeared it is already happening. It would be interesting to know who the party or parties was that got involved in the purchasing of the Covid-19 testing kits from South Korea. There is something behind the purchased and the public needs to know. For example, who negotiated and executed the purchase and how much they were paid for the service.

Based on past experiences in sourcing out government contracts for services, with millions of money now available for CHC  with discretionary expenditure authority falling into the hands of the Governor and CHC Chief Executive Officer,  these opportunities will likely fall in the hands of family and relatives of Governor Torres, including his cronies, as in the case with the landfill and others. With the Covid-19 pandemic atmosphere where everything is under emergency, statutory and regulatory requirements will surely be waived, and herein lies the opportunity for misuse and abuse of these funds.

I challenge the leaderships of the Legislature to take this matter as a priority and enact legislation prohibiting family members of Governor Torres from bidding or receiving government contract for any kind of service where funding comes from CARES, PPHCE and future U.S. congressional appropriations relating to Covid-19 pandemic recovery.  Based on my source, some of the Governor’s family and cronies are already lining up to exploit the Covid-19 pandemic state of emergency.

It should be clearly noted that while Governor Torres has spent local funds recklessly, including for his personal benefits, federal financial support continues to come from American taxpayers. Through the U.S. Congress’ help, every single resident, who is deemed eligible, should be assisted by this government in making sure their documentations are in order so that they wouldn’t miss out on their stimulus check.

Our CNMI residents will likely be receiving this much needed financial assistance beginning next month. We owed a deep sense of gratitude to the U.S. Congress for their humanity and compassion. I wish I can say the same thing for our Governor, but I cannot. Rather than do everything within his power to establish solid financial foundation for our government, he aided and abetted in destabilizing the economy.

Governor Torres has absolutely nothing to do with these Federal financial assistances coming from Congress. His only role is to make sure that expenditures of these fund are in accordance with congressional mandates and accurately account for every single penny. For vigilantly looking up for the interests of our CNMI citizens, I wish to congratulate Congressman Kilili for his due diligent in following the progressive flow of legislation, the CARES and PPHCE Acts,  in both houses, and assuring that the CNMI is included and receives it share of financial assistance and benefits. 

The writer is a resident of Kanat Tabla, Saipan.

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