‘Somebody needs to be held responsible'
Investigation panel to run after delinquent CNMI businesses that received BOOST grants
By Bryan Manabat
Saipan— Former CNMI Gov. Ralph DLG Torres may have retreated from public sight after losing his reelection bid but his questionable actions during his term continue to hound him. The former CNMI leader, who managed to dodge impeachment, now braces for new grilling.
Picking up where they left off, CNMI legislators began flexing their muscles for the resumption of an investigation into the alleged misuse of the Torres administration’s $17 million Building Optimism, Opportunities and Stability Together, or BOOST, program.
On Oct. 24, the Special Committee on Federal Assistance and Disaster Funds of the CNMI Legislature voted to subpoena Torres, former Finance Secretary David Atalig and other former officials involved in the implementation of the federally funded BOOST program.
Other former CNMI officials who stand to face the music are Jesus Taisague, former Commerce and Economic Development director, and William Castro, Torres’ former chief of staff. BOOST program contractors Shayne Villanueva, Rob Travilla and Salina Sapp have also been summoned for the investigation.
Last year, the Ways and Means Committee along with the Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee began their investigation into the CNMI BOOST program following allegations from constituents that Torres was approving grant applications to gain votes in his 2022 reelection bid.
Preliminary inquiries found that most BOOST awards were given to Torres' close supporters, while applications from other Covid-affected businesses fell through the cracks.
Running out of time, the joint committee discontinued the proceedings before they adjourned for the 2022 elections. This year, the House special panel reconvened to continue what it called "the last part investigation" into the BOOST program and other federal expenditures in an effort to recover funds believed to have been misspent by the previous administration.
Rep. Ray Yumul, committee chair, noted that the Department of Commerce has submitted the documents requested by the panel. Bank of Saipan, which was contracted to administer the program, requested an extension of the deadline for submission of documents.
Rep. Edwin Propst, vice chair of the committee, said Finance Secretary Tracy Norita and Assistant Attorney General Dustin Rollins informed him that 30 businesses did not respond to the panel’s request for BOOST-related documents.
"When they signed the notice of award, they were supposed to follow the terms and conditions. BOOST awardees also agreed to return the full amount if they violated any of the conditions, one of which is to spend the federal money on their businesses," Propst said.
"So we are certainly not going to take anything lightly. Those 30 some companies that never submitted anything to Finance, I hope they are watching and listening: We will be coming after you if you do not turn in those documents," he added.
Rep. Marissa Flores, a member of the investigating panel, said the committee “will not rest” until every last penny is accounted for. "Somebody needs to be held responsible," she said.
Flores said she has learned that some program recipients did not use the BOOST funds for the intended purposes. "Knowing that gives us even more reason to proceed and ensure that we also conduct our due diligence for the people of the Commonwealth,” she added. “We need to make sure that all the money that is not spent accordingly is collected, and that nobody is above the law."
Rep. BJ Attao said some recipients of BOOST funds have since closed shop, raising suspicion that they might be "fly-by-night" businesses trying to evade tax. “We should definitely go after these businesses," he said.