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The art of political distraction

Live from Saipan By Zaldy Dandan

Saipan —  In politics, the opposite of cynicism is delusion. “Idealism” in politics requires high intelligence — or willful ignorance. Ultimately, politics is one of those jobs that requires its practitioners to flatter and insult your intelligence at the same time.

Consider the revived BOOST probe here in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

BOOST stands for “Building Optimism, Opportunities and Stability Together” program. Funded through the American Rescue Plan Act, the program was launched in August 2022, a general election year. Funded with $17 million of Uncle Sam’s money, BOOST’s goal was “to provide financial assistance [i.e., free money] to CNMI businesses and nonprofit organizations.”

Who was eligible? “Duly registered businesses or nonprofit organizations in the CNMI with a valid business license, tax clearance, and certificate of good standing.” An applicant, moreover, “must have less than 250 employees and generate no more than $10 million in average annual receipts.” Businesses deemed ineligible were gaming, casino and other adult entertainment establishments, including “businesses with 50 percent gross income derived from marijuana.”


What was the immediate consequence of this announcement?

Several individuals submitted license applications for their “new businesses” that existed only on paper, which made them eligible for a BOOST grant nonetheless.

Now politicians all over the world and throughout human history are known to say the dumbest things about a lot of subjects (including and especially economics), but what they lack in wisdom they make up for in cunning.

The then-political opposition, which controlled the CNMI House of Representatives, said it would investigate the BOOST program.

Speeches were delivered, subpoenas were issued, hearings were conducted, witnesses were sworn in, and testimonies were heard. All of which proved, once again, that P.J. O’Rourke was right when he said that giving money and power to government is like giving whisky and car keys to teenage boys.

Among the findings of the House probe: the BOOST administrator, which was the Bank of Saipan, also applied for a grant and, wonder of wonders, received $500,000 for its trouble. (This was in addition to the fee it collected for administering the program.)

There’s more. Relatives and friends of the panel members who reviewed BOOST applications were also awarded BOOST funds. Many were “newly registered” businesspersons. Some received not just one, but two or more BOOST grants.

In November 2022, most of the candidates of the GOP, the party that was then in power, were booted out of office.

In January 2023, the new House leadership declared that the “fact-finding hearings resulted in the discovery of unprecedented levels of corruption and fiscal mismanagement relating to federal funds.”

Documents and recordings had been transmitted to “several CNMI investigative agencies, including the Office of Public Auditor and the Office of the Attorney General…. On the federal side, in response to the facts initially brought to light by the joint committee, the Federal Bureau of Investigation recently executed a subpoena at the Bank of Saipan.”


According to the new House leadership, “The BOOST hearings were highly successful in exposing corruption and mismanagement.” And so, in light of “several criminal investigations into the BOOST program,” they agreed to respect the process and avoid conflict with ongoing criminal investigations. They would no longer “conduct additional legislative hearings regarding the BOOST program.” High fives all around.

A year later, however, the House leadership announced the creation of a “Special Committee on Federal Assistance and Disaster Related Funding,” and the resumption of the BOOST investigation. The supposed goal this time is “the recovery of stolen [federal] taxpayer dollars.” But that could only occur after a successful court action initiated by law enforcers. So what happened to the “several criminal investigations” initiated last year?

2024 is another election year, and many elected officials will have to face an angry and/or disappointed electorate. Things are still bad even after the election of educated, virtuous and caring men and women to office. The economy has yet to recover.

The tourism industry is still down. The CNMI government is not meeting its revenue targets. The House and the Senate no longer agree on many budgetary and financial matters. How long until they have to announce more austerity measures? How long can they continue paying the retirees’ 25 percent benefit? And what about funding for medical referrals, the government’s unpaid utility bills, and the overdue payments to government vendors?

If you’re an elected official in a leadership position who is running for reelection or higher office in this election year, what would you rather talk about?

Why, BOOST and the other alleged misdeeds of the previous administration, of course. Today’s incumbent officials have to run against the past and not on their record, considering what it is.

And so hearings were held once again, and this time former BOOST contractors were subpoenaed, and had to appear before the special House panel with lawyers, which shouldn’t be surprising because lawmakers have already accused them of “stealing” taxpayer money. And of course, the former contractors invoked their Fifth Amendment privilege. Why cooperate with their tormentors? See you in court.

Meanwhile, CNMI voters have been reminded once again why they hated the previous administration. Mission accomplished, I guess.

Zaldy Dandan is editor of the CNMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety. His fourth book, “If He Isn’t Insane Then He Should Be: Stories & Poems from Saipan,” is available on


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