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.
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?