Friday, June 13, 2008

244. Thinking about corruption.

Last night (Thursday) there was a public hearing at the House Chamber on HB 16-86, the bill proposing 5 year status for non-resident workers.

On Tuesday, June 17, there is an open meeting at 6 PM at the Multi-Purpose Center on CUC problems and how to tackle them, sponsored by Rep. Tina Sablan.

On Wednesday, June 18, there is a public presentation at 6 PM at the AMP auditorium on the projected economic impact of a national marine monument designation around our 3 northern-most islands.

What each of these three events has in common is a public forum, a focus on community problem solving, and not just a hope, but an action plan to make things better.

These seem such laudable goals, so clearly in everyone's interest, so that even if you disagree with the proposals, you couldn't object to having meetings; you couldn't cry too much about the process.

But what defeats us as we face our current challenges is not just our ignorance and fear, our biases and prejudices, our inexperience and short-sightedness; what defeats us is that ugly seed of corruption that has taken root in the CNMI.

And it is to that rampant scourge that has blanketed our Commonwealth like scarlet gourd, choking out our healthy life, that I turn to examine now.

Abramoff & the CNMI connection: We've heard the name. We know that he's in prison for corruption. We know that the CNMI hired him to lobby "on behalf of" the CNMI to prevent federal oversight of the garment industry here and CNMI-control of immigration.

The latest report shows Abramoff with ties right up to the White House, using corruption "on behalf of" the CNMI to get Alan Stayman fired from his job at Interior. This same report shows the corruption reached right into our gubernatorial elections, preventing a White House endorsement for Juan Babauta for governor because of the corrupt support of Abramoff for Benigno Fitial, connected as he is to the Tan Holding Company, another client of Abramoff's.

What is this corruption? How is it any different than the give-and-take of politics?

In the political world, legislators have long wheeled and dealed, bargaining their support for your pet project in exchange for your support for theirs. But the corruption of lobbyists is different than this negotiation.

It seems to be based on the simple idea that personal wealth, personal greed trumps loyalty to public service. Jack Abramoff delivered the high life, in trips, fancy dinners, and sky box seats at sports events, to those with power in D.C., who in turn reciprocated with tactics to stall and defeat legislation and people aimed at fixing problems throughout the U.S. and in the CNMI. These politicians reciprocated also with proposals to provide more loopholes and support for the widening network of corrupt cronies.

How could something as small and insignificant as a trip, or a meal, or a ticket to a sports event have such a powerful effect? It seems mind-boggling. But of course, there were also political campaign donations, with money coming into campaigns to keep the corrupt in office, where they could continue to get paid for "public" service and still take advantage of the personal perks being sent their ways.

And we see corruption here, at the ground level. We have tilled our soil with nepotism, that practice where our elected leaders fill public posts with family members. In the CNMI, people expect this when they vote. Strong family support for uncle so-and-so means that your chances for a government job are increased.

It seems almost logical and appropriate that when elected, a public official will hire those he knows and trusts, those in his family. But the problem with this practice is that the needs of the individual family members become more important than the public service. And voters on the receiving end are happy with their jobs, their paychecks, without thinking too deeply about who is being hurt, how the end result is going to be bad for the CNMI.

This nepotism is propped up with a weak private sector economy. If voters could get decent-paying jobs in the private sector, they would be less dependent on electing uncle so-and-so. So our local politicians have supported a system that oppresses alien workers, denying them rights and decent wages, and promoting a false notion that our local workers deserve better than our alien workers, just because they're local.

The end result has been a twisted mess where employers actually believe locals are too lazy to work, where minimum wage has been indecently low, where we have layers and layers of government with tons of employees all being paid by the public.

And now we are beginning to see how this personal greed and corruption does not serve the public interest.

Immigration and federalization: The CNMI spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for lobbying efforts to prevent federal takeover of our immigration. The espoused reason was usually indigenous rights, self-government, etc. This appeal to ethnic pride is a mask.

The real reasons were much more about helping Tan Holdings continue to reap financial benefits from the CNMI than about any high moral ground. And to some, this would seem to be about the CNMI's economy, that Tan Holdings helped our economy, so it was okay to protect this industry.

Why then would Governor Fitial still be talking about fighting federalization with litigation? Why is the CNMI still paying lobbyists on immigration and labor issues? The garment industry here has lost its special status because of a change in the U.S. trade agreements and opening up of the U.S. to more imports from China and elsewhere. So why would Governor Fitial want to now fight federalization? Could it have anything to do with a deeper corruption here?

I suspect money laundering is going on at a great pace, not only in our gambling industry, but through many Tan Holdings business from bars and restaurants to hidden rackets like prostitution. I have no evidence. This is speculation. But it is speculation that fits with what is happening and what has happened.

I suspect that the CNMI has been the home of money laundering from the 1980's forward. The bubble of growth that we experienced in the late 1980's with land prices sky-rocketing beyond reasonable explanation for the actual economic situation is consistent with money laundering. The burst in the bubble is also typical, when the launderers pull out some/most of their cleaned money. I'm guessing that the economic slump here had a little to do with the Asian economic slump, but more to do with the money laundering cycle.

I suspect that efforts by our current administration to clean up prostitution in Garapan, to stop illegal taxi drivers, and other similar "vice" operations have more to do with protecting illicit ventures (and again I'm guessing, but I'd put then in the Tan Holdings group).

Fighting federalization will take years, and give a little more float time to the money laundering operations, keep out investment from others who will wait for clarity and stability, and provide time for corruption to re-seed in D.C., for the glare of public attention from the Abramoff scandal to fade.

Prostitution, gambling--these are industries tied to corruption. And these are industries the CNMI has embraced, one openly with legalized casinos in Tinian and soon to be in Rota and poker machines everywhere; the other indirectly by the CNMI's insistent denial of trafficking and the continued operation of clubs offering "ladies drinks" and floor shows.

Nepotism, anti-federalization, gambling, prostitution--we are deeply stuck in the corruption quagmire.

The problem with CUC: Our generators are failing. We have almost daily blackouts. We have no "cushion" in the event of catastrophe like a typhoon, which could deprive us of power for months.

Was corruption at work at CUC? Could this have anything to do with our current problems?

I'm guessing here, but my guess is yes. For decades, we have seen challenges to procurement decisions. We've seen some procurement decisions made after bidding, and we've seen some made on an "emergency" basis. There's been money thrown at CUC and it all seems to have evaporated.

The procurement process has benefited from legal challenges and a strong auditor's office. But it could easily slide into a secret kick-back, political favors situation. Mike Sablan has left as public auditor and no replacement has been announced. And with so much pressure building up with the problems at CUC, "emergency" procurement (or emergency privatization) seems certain.

National Marine Monument: The idea of a national marine monument to protect the waters around the three northern-most CNMI islands is wonderful. A national park, environmental protection, world-wide attention that is favorable, a marine sanctuary that helps the oceans and our globe, beauty recognized, and possible financial benefits.

But designating the waters a national marine monument would mean changing control of the area from NOAA's WESPAC to NOAA's marine sanctuaries division. And WESPAC is opposed, or so it seems.

I've heard that WESPAC came out against the designation of the national marine monument in Hawaii, and it seems to be behind the opposition here.

WESPAC justifies its budget, as do all governmental agencies, by pointing out their jurisdictions, their jobs, their accomplishments. And if it loses 115,000 square miles of jurisdiction, it will likely lose some of its budget as well.

Is WESPAC's opposition to the designation of a national marine monument here just political agency in-fighting? Or is there a corruption underneath it all? Is there corruption behind the forces opposing the designation? (I doubt there's corruption behind those in favor, since the NOAA marine sanctuaries division does not seem to be actively involved at this point, and the Pew Charitable Trust gains nothing except a national marine monument.)

Kitty Simonds, head of WESPAC, earns a whopping salary in her job, higher even than the VP of the United States. I'm not sure how that works or whether her salary is a relevant issue; it's just troubling to me that any government agency head receives so much money and wields so much power. I'm troubled by her connections to former Senators Fong and to Senator Inouye. I'm troubled by special legislation for WESPAC made by the U.S. Congress with the help of Fong and Inouye.

WESPAC is under investigation for illegal lobbying, also, but in connection with the Hawaii monument; not ours, not yet.

There's not enough, in my opinion, to say that there's corruption either at WESPAC as a whole or in the national marine monument debate here.

But Tan Holdings has fishing ventures in the area under WESPAC jurisdiction, and Tan Holdings has been tied to money to Abramoff who took corrupt lobbying to new heights. And that makes me nervous. And makes me think there must be a deeper probe into what is happening here with the debate on the national marine monument.

Now what?
I think we need to be watchful about corruption. We need to personally stop and consider what we are being offered, what we are taking, and what may be expected of us when we accept.

We need to be wary of opportunities taken to buy our opinion, our vote, at the expense of what is right and good for the public as a whole.

The Abramoff hallmarks have been free meals, free trips, sky-box seats. But there is also a history in government corruption by the grant of do-nothing jobs, easy loans, and other perks.

We've gone so far down the road in the CNMI that even our children think corruption sounds good--not when it's called that, but when it's proffered as a "free trip" or a "free" water park pass.

And corruption is also marked by dirty deeds, like sabotage. As for the CNMI, there is evidence that corruption was behind the sabotage on the credibility of a witness (Katrina) on her life here as a trafficked sex worker. As for the CNMI, there is evidence that corruption was behind the sabotage of Al Stayman's job at DOI. How much other sabotage is corrupt and closer to home? What about the persona-non-grata designation against Ron Hodges, who did nothing more than speak up on behalf of the oppressed?

We sell ourselves and our future short with corruption. In the long run, it gains us nothing but an opportunity for remorse.

But how do we counter it? Is critical thinking enough? Education? Moral discussion? I think we need stronger laws, enforced ardently, on nepotism, on accepting gifts while in office or in government employ, on transparency in all government departments, boards, and agencies.

We're making progress, I think. We have broken through the wall of silence and have started asking for answers. We need to step up the demand.

Please comment. What do you think? Are we facing unprecedented corruption in the CNMI? What does corruption really look like? How should it be exposed? Stopped? Am I wrong -again?


cactus said...

Frankly, I think you are making two serious mistakes.

First, you are reducing your own effectiveness as an advocate by assuming that your opponents on various issues (e.g., federalization, marine monument) are corruptly motivated. Why should anyone take your position on these issues seriously when you so plainly do not take the merits of your opponents' positions seriously, reducing them instead to "corrupt" straw men to knock over?

Second, you are diluting the meaning of the term "corruption" to the point of meaninglessness by applying it to basically any kind of conduct that you don't like. Face it, most of Abramoff's activities were not even illegal, much less corrupt; they were just the kind of hardball lobbying that he was supposed to be doing. There really is corruption here, but I think you actually hinder the hunt for the real thing by seeing it everywhere.

Lil' Hammerhead said...

As usual Jane.. you spell everything out so eloquently.

Corruption here, has become almost cultural.. and not limited to Chamorros or Carolinians, but many who've simply lived and worked within the system here for decades. Until recently.. we almost grew to accept it. To have our little chuckles about it every once in awhile and go on with our day to day business.

As is usually the case in a depression, we as a community begin to look inward. Those things we once chuckled about, that we knew were wrong.. become infinitely more serious. Of course, this does not happen collectively at once. A few here, a few there.. things get a bit worse, and a few more see the light, and so forth and so on.

It is unfortunate, but we haven't hit rock bottom yet. When we do, you will hear even fewer voices supporting cheap labor, and uncompetitive workplaces. And you will hear many more supporting progressive projects like the marine monument.

It is unfortunate that we have to hit rock bottom, before those that support the crooked, or the crooked themselves.. begin to straighten out.

--anyways.. beautiful piece Saipan Writer. Thank you.

Violent Femmes Fan said...

Jane, you hit the nail on the head. The corruption on this island is sickening.

Nobody talks about Arnold Palacios' land deals, where he takes tax payer money to enrich himself.

Nobody is concerned that Palacios and Ray Tebuteb, two vocal opponents to the marine monument, are convicted poachers.

Well said.

I'm glad someone finally had the guts to say it.

Wendy said...

This is a great post.

I have been told that corruption also pulled the plug on CUC, as millions of tax payer dollars were thrown away in an Abramoff-Delay-Fitial-Enron deal years ago. Dengre has touched on this in his Daily Kos posts and has promised to dig deeper.

I think after January we will see more indictments connected with the Abramaoff scandal. I predict that some of the CNMI officials who were involved will find themselves behind bars too.

KAP said...

Eskimos supposedly have dozens of words for ice. Corruption needs the same treatment.

Thousands of patronage jobs are up for grabs in this Presidential Election. That's the real prize for a lot of the players, no matter who wins. Many of those people are not very nice.

All we can do is snuff the weeds when we see them sprout, we'll never eliminate the problem.

And, yes Cactus, lobbying isn't illegal, I'd even reluctantly admit it's necessary in such a large and unwieldy government. Abramoff crossed the line into payoffs and favor-peddling regularly. That is corruption.

tim watcher, retching said...

wendy, do you ever know what you are talking about?

millions of tax payer dollars were thrown away in an Abramoff-Delay-Fitial-Enron deal years ago

how so? the cnmi never did a deal with enron, and the money spent trying to negotiate a new power plant did not come remotely close to "millions"

abramoff, delay, and fitial had nothing to do with it

tim villagomez, however, had everything to do with it

he wanted to give it to his buddies at mitsubishi, who he could count on to kick back a goodly sum to him. so he rigged the selection to give it to mitsubishi, even though enron actually had the best proposal.

how do we know? public auditor mike sablan told us so (actually, the experts he required be hired to properly evaluate the proposals said so -- but that's the same thing)

then the legislature, led by sen. pete reyes, passed a law requiring CUC to proceed with the firm that submitted the best proposal, i.e. enron

after that, there was a long period of negotiations that never concluded, as tim and his lackeys did everything they could think of to prevent a deal from ever closing. after that, enron went belly up, tim got what he wanted (no deal with anyone he did not personally pick), and the foundation for the present power crisis was laid (unmaintained dying generators and corrupt outsourcing contracts)

that's real corruption, wendy, but it has nothing to do with your pet axis of evil: abramoff-delay-fitial

Saipan Writer said...

Thanks for all the great comments.

Cactus, you've hit on what I was worried about--am I seeing ghots and shadows where there are none?

I'm not looking for corrupt straw men to knock over. It's not the "corrupt motivation" that bothers me--everyone to some extent or another is motivated by their own personal needs and wants.

It's the way things are done that bothers me, and the end results that mean choices are made unfairly. There is no doubt there was corruption involved in the fight against federalization, that Abramoff distorted legitimate lobbying into a dirty, illegal affair. And the CNMI continues to see its image linked to that corruption (to our continuing humiliation, shame, and damaged reputation).

And as for WESPAC, there are allegations that they also violated lobbying rules and are the subject of an investigation, connected to the national marine monument in Hawaii. There are articles from investigative journalists detailing tactics and activities of WESPAC that look like corruption, look like harm to the public good for the benefit of a few private concerns.

Recognizing that certain people and agencies have used or allegedly used corrupt practices in their dealings seems important to me. We do need to be on our guard. That doesn't mean not looking at real objections and the merits (or lack of merits) of differing opinions; it just means doing so while trying to keep the playing field level.

But I also see what you mean by diluting the term corruption. I like Ken's suggestion that we need lots of words for the various shadings.

Because I think corruption is not an on-off switch, black and white concept. I think it's a continuum, where some aspects (like buying someone lunch) are at the relatively innocent end, and then practices (like giving gifts with a strong expectation of certain return "public" action, and that certain return action being done) gradually move toward the more decadent, bad end of the continuum.

And I think both violent-femmes-fan and Tim-watching have great points-that corruption isn't limited to the "axis of evil," that local politicians and government administrators have expected or participated in kick-back schemes, or gotten favors for their friends and family, or used their influence to slow down or prevent law enforcement.

It's all very sticky.

cactus said...

The trickiest thing of all in rooting out corruption may be disentangling it from the politics of those who practice it, and those who root it out.

Abramoff is a great example of that. It is pretty clear that he engaged in corrupt activities with respect to at least some of his clients (Indeed, with the Indian tribes, he seems to have been cheating the tribes themselves, which strikes me as more truly "corrupt" than paying off bureaucrats to advance the tribes' interests). At the same time, however, part of his own tactics was to expose corruption among his opponents, such as David North at OIA.

His own corruption became as big a deal as it did not so much because it was corrupt as because he had made so many political enemies who were eager to attack at the first sign of blood in the water. In such circumstances, the attack on corruption becomes a political attack wearing a mask of righteous public-spiritedness. The message is attacked and defeated because the messenger was a bad guy -- which, when you think about it, is not especially relevant.

None of this is to say that there is not any real corruption in the first place. That's the problem -- there is. But I think it can only be credibly exposed by someone who has no political stake in either side of the controversy.

What we need around here are a few smart, honest and impartial investigative reporters.

dengre said...

This post hits on a number of important points.

Corruption has flourished on the CNMI because it found a willing partner in corruption flourishing in Washington DC.

Take, as an example, the failure, years age, to build a power plant to meet the basic needs of the people of the CNMI was a direct result.

The money was there, but some wanted a Tan Family connected firm to build it. Tom DeLay wanted the contract to go to his longtime patrons at Enron.

After bribing to CNMI House members to switch their vote and elect Fitial as Speaker, Abramoff and DeLay got the action from Ben that they wanted. He passed a law mandating that the CNMI re-hire Jack and another law (PL 12-1) mandating that Enron be awarded the contract.

Then Enron imploded due to the weight of their corruption.

And the money to build the plant had been wasted on litigation, travel and "shrinkage". You can read more at the OPA's audit:

There is a chance to push back the corruption in DC and on the CNMI. There is a chance for a new day.

It will take work.

The old failed ways have to be discarded.

It can be done. It will be done.

The CNMI has many allies on the mainland willing to fight to end the decades of neglect that allowed the corruption to flourish in the first place.


carlos the mackerel said...

The preceding post gives the impression that the 1998-99 power plant procurement debacle was influenced by a corrupt conspiracy of Tan-Fitial-Abramoff-DeLay-Enron.

While there may have been one or more corrupt conspiracies at work in that procurement, that particular one seems highly unlikely. Tan Holdings was seeking the power plant contract itself as part of a consortium with Alsons, Tomen and Singapore Power. It was thus in direct competition with Enron, and it opposed CUC’s attempts to steer the contract first to Marubeni, and then to Enron.

Wendy said...

Tim Watcher - I actually don't have a "pet axis of evil", I resent corruption anywhere by anyone especially when it causes harm to innocent people. Dengre answered your points explaining how money was wasted...

Ron Hodges said...

Eloquently put SW. As one would expect, the dissenting commentators did so anonymously so not to shame their name supporting such ridicules and logic twisted positions.