Senator Paul A. Manglona of Rota introduced a resolution in the new Commonwealth Senate to ask the U.S. Department of the Treasury to investigate former Gov. Ralph Torres’s use of more than half a billion dollars in federal pandemic funds.
The U.S. Congress allocated the money to the Commonwealth government, and into the custody of its governor starting in the first half of 2021. The allocation came from the American Rescue Plan Act. Mr. Torres had free rein of the money after the former republican-led Commonwealth Senate defeated an attempt by the House to require legislative oversight of the money.
Both the House and the Senate now are controlled by a coalition of democrats and independents. Mr. Manglona is the most senior member of the majority party in the Senate, amplifying his anti-corruption, fiscal responsibility agenda the republicans previously blocked.
“An approximate total of $512 million in ARPA funding has been allocated to the CNMI, known to be the largest funding assistance that has ever been provided to the CNMI,” the Manglona resolution states.
Mr. Torres and his secretary of finance throughout his second term, David Atalig, Jr., refused to disclose to the legislature and the public the details of the financial transactions of the ARPA funds. According to the resolution, the funds were supposed to be used for an array of public purposes approved by the U.S. Treasury department.
Mr. Manglona and several other former and new legislators have suspected wide and corrupt misuse of the funds. A small fraction of those funds – about $17 million – came under intense scrutiny and investigation by the previous House members. The investigation surrounded the Building Optimism and Opportunities for Stability Together (BOOST) program. The Torres administration used federal pandemic funds to have the Bank of Saipan administer this program, which was supposed to provide grant funding for small businesses that suffered during the pandemic.
The legislative investigation yielded evidence in writing, and witness testimony indicating massive corruption and cronyism by the Torres administration and others associated with it.
Gov. Arnold Palacios, who has been an outspoken critic of both the Torres regime and the corruption of the BOOST program, raised the issue specifically in his inaugural address Monday. And in an exclusive interview with Kandit Monday night, the governor said there are “people who need to go to jail.”
“During the hearing proceedings of the House, it was disclosed by the administrator of the BOOST Program, the Bank of Saipan, that there was no standard operating procedure in place for the review or awarding process of the BOOST Program,” Mr. Manglona’s resolution states.
The U.S. Department of Justice announced last year its prioritization of investigations into state and territorial misuse of federal pandemic funds through the several offices of the inspector general. Mr. Palacios, Mr. Manglona, Rep. Edwin Propst, and now-Senators Celina Roberto Babauta and Donald Manglona have all expressed concern and worry that Mr. Torres’s misuse of the federal funds will result in mandatory payback of funds and future blacklisting of the Commonwealth for funds.