It was 3:45 p.m. Friday afternoon, when Gov. Arnold Palacios’s advisor Frankie Eliptico – borrowed from Northern Marianas College – ushered us into the governor’s chambers on Capitol Hill, 15 minutes past the appointed time. It has been one meeting after the next; one crisis after another since he inherited the nearly bankrupt Commonwealth government from his predecessor, Ralph Torres.
On our way into the office we noticed among the smiles and enthusiasm of a handful of staff something austere. There weren’t many employees; not as many as you’d expect for a governor’s office. It is that way precisely for the reason Mr. Palacios is borrowing Mr. Eliptico: there’s no money. Mr. Torres exhausted the governor’s office budget in the first quarter of the fiscal year.
Even the furniture is on loan after the former governor stripped the people’s office of it right before leaving office in disgrace.
Everywhere we have been on Saipan during this trip, people have commented, ‘We haven’t seen Torres.’ As the former governor collects his pension from the public purse after running it $400 million in debt to the General Fund and in federal grant obligations, and as the Torres era cronies feast on the spoils of their gluttony and arrogant misconduct, Mr. Palacios, his lieutenant governor – David Apatang – and their cabinet and staff are trying to save the Commonwealth.
And it shows in his eyes. The governor clearly was tired. Exhausted. “It’s every day,” he said. “We don’t leave here before 6 p.m. Many times we don’t eat lunch.”
“The party is over,” Mr. Palacios exclaimed. The reality is setting in after Ralph Torres ran the Commonwealth to the ground, literally partying on the public’s dime. Nero played his fiddle for a couple bags of Cheetos and an all-you-can-eat buffet of foie gras.
The damage to the Commonwealth is legendary. And, according to the new governor, it won’t escape consequence and accountability.
“This is criminal,” he said, of what his fiscal team has found so far. From in-your-face cronyism resulting in hundreds of millions of questionable and corrupt expenditures to the autopsy of the corpse of the public treasury and trust killed by Torres’s ravenous appetite for power and glory. Make no mistake, the Commonwealth government will be in crisis mode for at least a few months as Palacios and Apatang try to resuscitate the system.
And for those of you wondering whether you ever will see all that ill-gotten wealth returned, take heart: “We’re looking at that,” Mr. Palacios said, when we asked him whether the government can take back money from officials and contractors who received payments illegally. Not only does the governor intend to pursue criminal charges against the corrupt – because it wasn’t just Ralph Torres who was in on the game – the governor wants the Torres cronies to pay, as well… and to face the criminal justice system.
And he hinted at whom some of the aiders and abetters have been. Many of them are former members of the legislature; some of them still are there. The reference was to laws and the easing of regulations throughout the Torres era that allowed Mr. Torres to do what he did. We raised our investigative findings that hundreds of procurements were awarded without any competition, or so much as the gathering of three price quotes, through sole source purchase orders and contracts. “Oh, believe me, it’s more,” Mr. Palacios confirmed, explaining that the rules changed during Torres’s administration, and people who had the power to keep him in line instead gave him more power.
But the crisis, the unbelievable corruption of Torres and his cronies that led to it, and the austerity measures to manage it all didn’t consume the interview. Less than halfway through, Mr. Palacios – clearly in command of the issues – began to pep up.
There was a glimmer in his eye, when he talked about the “tools we have in our Covenant,” that his predecessors never did succeeded in using, or even tried to use. It was as though this was really the reason why he wanted to be the governor.
The crisis, he said, is difficult, but it doesn’t consume him. He has his eye on the future. He sees the potential unique to the Commonwealth. And even from Ground Zero of Nero’s fire that burned down Rome, through the black smoke he sees the vision of a Commonwealth within reach. One whose economic development – if executed correctly and with integrity – will surpass the region.
“Within two years,” he said. That’s when he predicts the CNMI’s next economic boom will begin.
Yes; it is a curious thing to read, indeed. I was there when he said it. He wasn’t tired anymore as those words left his mouth. There was excitement in the room. And purpose.
Watch and see. He wants you to join this journey.