CALL FOR TOUGHER CORRUPTION LAW IN CNMI

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By Haidee V. Eugenio & Ulysses Torres Sabuco

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, August 13) - Public Auditor Mike Sablan yesterday said mandatory jail time and higher penalties should be imposed on every government official or employee found violating the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Ethics Act.

"Regardless of the severity of the violation," Sablan said the jail time and penalties should be imposed to help deter corruption and abuse of power among public servants.

But a senator is skeptical it is possible to amend existing anti-corruption laws due to "personal interest" among certain lawmakers.

"It is difficult to pass legislation armed with this kind of deterrent factor because once it is brought for the general approval by members of the Legislature.... I feel that those with personal interest won’t pass it," said Senate Minority Leader Pete P. Reyes. He did not elaborate on what he meant by "personal interest."

On Tuesday, Superior Court Associate Judge David Wiseman said the CNMI’s anti-corruption law does not provide enough punishment to the convicted and suggested it be amended.

Wiseman convicted the chief financial officer of the Tinian Mayor’s Office, Remeo Atalig Diaz, of four counts of illegal use of public supplies, services, time and personnel. He was not meted a jail term due to limitations in the existing anti-corruption law.

Amid this news, Sablan disclosed the Office of the Public Auditor is currently investigating "a number" of Ethics Act violations — just like Diaz’s — involving the "three branches of government."

Sablan said the 14th House leadership has sought OPA’s recommendations on giving more teeth to and doing a "major reform" of the Ethics Act Code.

Among OPA’s recommendations, he said, is imposing a mandatory jail time for anyone found guilty of violating the Ethics Act regardless of the severity of the offense, and increasing the current $500 maximum penalty to $5,000.

"The amount depends on the severity of the violation, like if it is a gross abuse of authority to procure goods and services, or to hire employees where there’s conflict of interest," he said.

Sablan agrees on Wiseman’s opinion the local anticorruption law lacks teeth.

Nonetheless, he said Diaz’s conviction is a "victory" for both the Ethics Act and the government employees who called the OPA hotline to report Diaz’s actions.

"Diaz’s conviction is a victory and a reflection of government employees’ commitment to public service. Mr. Diaz’s case is just one example of how calls can help improve the government," he said.

He also lauded the Attorney General’s Office’s public corruption unit for Diaz’s conviction.

Despite doubts on the possibility of amending the local anticorruption law, Reyes instructed Senate legal counsel Michael Ernest yesterday afternoon to draft legislation to "further strengthen and arm" the existing anticorruption law.

Reyes said it is a challenge but can be done just like what others did.

"...It is a challenge for us. If in many (counties and states) it can be done, then we can do it," he said.

"How can we deter corruption in the government, if we do not make our punishment through laws equal to the crime? How can we run after corrupt and abusive individuals if the law can only treat violations like a traffic infraction?" asked Reyes.

Governor Juan N. Babauta, meanwhile, separately said yesterday that there is a need to look and thoroughly study existing statutes with regards to government abuses.

"Whether it is the enforcement, the penalty or violation, we need to reassess it," Babauta briefly said.

The House committee on judiciary, government and laws chaired by Representative Jesus SN. Lizama, Covenant-Saipan, will be tasked to conduct the review of the anti-corruption law, said Charles Reyes Jr., spokesman of the House leadership.

"We do not have reason not to believe Judge Wiseman. He cited a credible report and it is worth looking into," the spokesman told Variety.

In the last two years, OPA has made over 120 presentations of the CNMI Ethics Act to public servants.

"We have never declined an invitation to present the Ethics Act.... It has created awareness among public employees of the do’s and don't’s of being public servants," Public Auditor Sablan said. OPA also currently has over 730 requests on its "audits and investigations" bank.

August 16, 2004

Marianas Variety: www.mvariety.com

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