I concur wholeheartedly with the Joint Committee’s recommendation that further legislative investigation into the BOOST program is needed, and should continue in the 23rd legislature. Even with the thousands of pages of records collected, and the hours of testimony received in the final days before the end of our term in the 22nd legislature, the Joint Committee has only begun to scratch the surface of the gross waste, abuse, and fraud that have occurred.
There must be consequences.
Referrals should be made to the Attorney General, the Public Auditor, and federal authorities for further investigation and prosecution. The next legislature should take up measures to ensure greater transparency and accountability in the expenditures of public funds. And the next administration should support these measures.
The BOOST program was a heist. Public money was stolen. Public money was squandered. Public money was exploited for political and personal profit. Only a very few, out of the thousands that applied, were grossly enriched. They were obviously well-connected.
The insiders of the BOOST program want us to believe that award decisions were made based on the merit and uniqueness of the applications – even when large amounts of money and multiple awards flowed to the same individuals, the same families, the same business associates, the same political supporters, the same bank administering the program and all its employees who applied.
“Everyone was privileged to apply,” we were told by one of the review panelists. But clearly, only a few were privileged to get “BOOSTed.”
This big money grab was made possible by the absolute lack of oversight and transparency. There were no rules, no process, no records of evaluations or votes or recusals, no rubrics, no guidelines, no restrictions. Meetings were held in secret – away from public view, without any notice or documentation. And the political motivations driving this program are impossible to ignore. There are signs of that throughout the records.
Here was a government program passing out cash, in the weeks before and during an election. The people reviewing applications and recommending awards were all political appointees of the governor and members of his reelection campaign. And the one person with final approving authority for all BOOST awards was the governor himself.
The BOOST program could have been amazing. It could have really helped a lot of businesses and nonprofits, people who struggled through the pandemic and just needed a lift. And let’s be very clear that our efforts in launching this fact-finding and investigation into the BOOST program were not, and were never about, going after the legitimate small businesses and nonprofits that applied for these funds in good faith and with genuine needs. No one, really, can be blamed for applying for these funds.
But the people who should absolutely be held accountable are the BOOST officials who created a program with no rules, rubrics, or records, and grossly mismanaged and politicized the distribution of public funds. Multiple people had their hands in this fiasco. Ultimately, however, the buck stops with former governor Ralph Torres himself, who had the final say for all the BOOST awards, and was the sole expenditure authority for these funds.
Former Gov. Torres has staunchly maintained that only he should have had a say over all the federal funds that have been awarded to the commonwealth. BOOST was a $17 million debacle. But that’s $17 million out of the more than $2 billion the commonwealth has received in typhoon disaster and pandemic recovery funds. The brazenness and negligence of public officials involved in BOOST should make us all wonder: What other improprieties have been committed that we don’t yet know about? What other money grabs have occurred?
If there is one lesson that has been amply demonstrated by this whole mess, it is what we in the House leadership have been saying the entire (previous) term: one person should not have such unchecked power over the public purse. That’s how precious resources get wasted. That’s how corruption begins.
I urge the new legislature, and the new governor, to take all necessary steps to change the culture of fiscal recklessness that has prevailed in our government, to one of real checks and balances, transparency, accountability, and prudence in the expenditures of public funds.
Tina Sablan is a former member of the CNMI House of Representatives. She waged an unsuccessful bid for governor under the democratic party banner before assisting Gov. Arnold Palacios to win by a landslide in a runoff election in 2022. Ms. Sablan is a former journalist, mother to her beloved poodle Rosie, and a resident of Susupe.