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Opinion: Audit and investigate the expenditure of CNMI public funds

By Jose Dela Cruz

In a democracy, such as that of the United States and the CNMI where the people elect their own leaders, the constitution is the supreme law of the land. The constitution delineates the respective powers of the elected and appointed officials in each of the three branches of government. The executive branch (i.e., the governor) executes, implements and enforces the law. The legislative branch (the legislature) enacts the statutory laws that apply to the people. And the judicial branch (the courts) decides disputes and cases arising under the law, as well as interprets the provisions of the constitution.

Within this constitutional framework, the government in theory at least would hopefully function as intended by the framers. But in real life, as we know, what happens can be quite different from the lofty aspirations of a democracy and the idealistic framework of the constitution. If men were perfect and follow the law all the time, there would be no crime and there would be no cases in court. But human beings, including our leaders in government, are not perfect. Sometimes they do things that violate the law or that are ethically questionable. And when that happens, they should be held accountable or prosecuted when appropriate. As many of us have heard all too often: No person is above the law.

In a small jurisdiction, such as the Northern Mariana Islands where almost everyone knows each other, it is sometimes difficult to hold people (including public officials) accountable for their misdeeds or their transgressions. For example, how can you prosecute your own relatives, friends and neighbors? Relationships do create conflicts, making it difficult for the law enforcer to enforce the law. That is the reason why the CNMI has a conflict-of-interest law for government officials. When you have a conflict and you are called upon to decide on an issue, the decision you make would be suspect, if not invalid.

Such is the reason why, for example, the people of the CNMI decided several years ago to amend the NMI constitution and make the CNMI attorney general an elected official, who is answerable to the people. The people of the CNMI decided that an appointed attorney general sometimes act as if he is beholden only to the governor because he could be fired by the governor, on a whim and without cause. When that is the case, an appointed attorney general would sometimes prefer to obey the governor and not enforce the law.

The CNMI has now had an elected attorney general for almost eight years. The people decided, by constitutional amendment, to make this important office accountable to the people, and not to the governor, so that he would be independent of politics and be free from political pressure and influence. This way, the law would be enforced impartially on everyone, including all government officials—the executive, the legislature and the court.

Similarly, the CNMI’s official watchdog—the Office of the Public Auditor--is entrusted with overseeing all auditing aspects of the CNMI government. Unlike the heads of other government agencies and departments, however, the CNMI Public Auditor, like judges, cannot be fired by the chief executive. The primary function of the Public Auditor is, of course, auditing the expenditures of public funds by all government agencies and all government officials. It has the power, for example, to audit the expenditure of public funds incurred by, say, an accounts clerk at the Department of Finance or the CNMI Judiciary, or to audit the inventory of tools and equipment kept by, say, a ground maintenance worker at the Division of Parks and Recreation. Indeed, within any agency or department of the CNMI government, all employees and officials have a duty to be vigilant and make sure that the expenditure of government resources, time and public funds are not abused, misused, expropriated or stolen by employees or others.

Lately, and indeed for the past year or so, the NMI chief executive has been under scrutiny by the NMI legislature for the reimbursements that he allegedly requested and apparently received from the Department of Finance for purchases he allegedly made that appear to be questionable. Such questionable public expenditure allegations have been hanging over the entire CNMI for some time now--like an albatross on the neck of the CNMI. It is an embarrassing issue that should be disposed of quickly, one way or the other; and should be laid to rest once and for all. It should not become an endless political battle between the governor and the legislature.

That is why I believe it is mandatory that our key law enforcement and watchdog agencies—the Attorney General’s Office and the Office of the Public Auditor--should be requested by the legislature to assist it in reviewing this matter, so that the issue involving the expenditure of public funds could be decided and disposed of, once and for all. This should be done so that the CNMI could move on to the more pressing economic, financial, public health and other governmental issues confronting the CNMI.

It should not be difficult for these two investigative agencies to quickly investigate and find out just exactly what happened, i.e., whether the reimbursements made to the governor were justified or not. And if the reimbursements made were improper, then they should be repaid back to the government; and thereafter the attorney general should decide whether to file criminal charges or not. If the attorney general has a conflict in the matter, then he should recuse himself from the matter, and let his deputy decide what should be done.

However, if after a thorough investigation, the facts gathered show that there was no violation of law, then that should be the end of the matter; and the report should so state. Why is this so difficult to accomplish?

Jose Dela Cruz is a resident of As Gonno Saipan, and the first chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

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