CNMI legislature eyeing recovery of misspent federal Covid funds
By Bryan Manabat
Saipan--The 23rd Northern Mariana Islands Legislature has launched a new investigation into the previous administration's expenditures involving U.S. funds from the American Rescue Plan Act and other Covid-related federal programs.
Officials said the goal is to recover funds that may be found to have been misused.
Rep. Joel Camacho, the acting House speaker, issued a memorandum this week creating a Special Committee on Federal Assistance and Disaster Related Funding to probe the previous administration's expenditures of ARPA and other federal funds.
"This is a continuation of the investigation conducted by the House Judiciary and Governmental Operations committee last year regarding the Torres administration's expenditure of ARPA funds, including the Building Optimism, Opportunities, and Stability Together or BOOST program," Camacho told Pacific Island Times on Wednesday
Former CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres said he welcomed "any legitimate, fair and unbiased investigation of BOOST program or any other program administered by the Commonwealth government."
Camacho said the committee will further scrutinize the program, as well as the grant recipients and the applicants.
"We will have testimony from those that were involved. Right now, it's under discussion. We are going to have some informal hearings in the coming weeks," he added.
Camacho designated Rep. Ralph N. Yumul, chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, to head a special investigation panel with House Floor Leader Edwin K. Propst as its vice chairman.
"We will be taking a serious inquiry into the BOOST program and its implementation. There was some unfairness that we caught on to, and we will be seeking some clarity into that to give the people, our constituents, peace of mind," Camacho said.
"We have been hearing the sentiment of the public. They demand to continue the hearings and to put closure into that and, hopefully, recoup some of that money," he added.
"The BOOST program is only one component of the probe," Propst said in a phone interview. "It is really more on the entirety of the ARPA expenditures."
The legislature began a preliminary investigation into the BOOST program late last but the oversight hearing committee ran out of time. The legislature adjourned without completing the investigation.
"The investigation or the oversight hearing ended without certain witnesses. We did not get the chance to interview them, and some of the documents that we previously received were flawed or questionable so we would like to do more research. We would like to get updates with regards to the BOOST program," Propst said.
The new investigation will cover wider areas including an audit of the ARPA funds, Propst said.
"This is looking at the fact that we have ARPA money that was budgeted for the remainder of the fiscal year and then it was all spent," he said. "We want to find out where exactly all the money went."
Finance Secretary Tracy Norita and Special Assistant for Management and Budget Vicky Villagomez are currently tracking the ARPA expenditures.
"We want to know if they were able to recover and where exactly all the funds have been spent," Propst said.
He said the investigation panel would require a report to determine "if there was any misspending" of the federal funds. Looking at the current situation, Propst said the fact that the Commonwealth government had to revise its budget indicated the occurrence of overspending.
"We are seeing that in different programs where they overspent, and the question is, how had this happened?" he said.
The special committee is scheduled to meet on May 9, to lay down the rules and scope of the investigations.
Subpoenas will be issued to certain BOOST program recipients, Propst said. At this point, he added, the committee has yet to verify the list of people who will be summoned.
"There are certain businesses that are points of interest that may be examined. That includes their business plans and how they have spent the money thus far, that may be visited in specific companies, that is possible," Propst said.
The BOOST program was initiated by the Torres administration to provide financial assistance to CNMI businesses and nonprofit organizations and support the government’s goal to diversify the economy.
"There are subpoenas that will go out for documents and testimony for certain people to come in and testify," Propst said.
"If there are any taxpayer dollars that were misspent, then we are looking into the possible recovery of this money. We are in difficult times, and obviously, we no longer have all of those ARPA to fall back on," he added.