NORTHERN MARIANAS LAND AGENCY UNDER FOUR AUDITS

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By Agnes Donato

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Feb. 1) – The Office of the Public Auditor is now conducting four concurrent audits on the Marianas Public Lands Authority (MPLA).

Public auditor Michael S. Sablan, who has recused himself from the investigation, said he had assigned two analyst managers to probe MPLA-related issues.

"I have given them full authority to use all the OPA resources they need," Sablan said.

He also disclosed that MPLA is now facing four audits in relation to land compensation, travel and board activities, procurement and professional services, and personnel. OPA started with only two audits on MPLA.

"We have decided to break down the issues. So we can put out the results as they get finished, rather than wait for the whole audit to be completed," the public auditor said.

The MPLA audits commenced before Gov. Benigno R. Fitial was installed in office "at the request of community members who are aware of the [agency's] travels, frequency of the meetings, and use of public resources."

Transition reports prepared by the Fitial administration indicated abuse of public funds at the agency and called for the abolition of MPLA.

Fitial said there would be an investigation on the allegations. The administration and the Legislature have also agreed to abolish MPLA by legislation.

Sablan pledged OPA's cooperation in the administration's action against MPLA.

"I recently met with the governor and lieutenant governor, the special assistant for administration, the secretary of Finance and the governor's special legal counsel. I reiterated that [the MPLA] audits are OPA's priority," he said.

The analysts need about 60-90 days more days to complete the audit, he said.

Meantime, OPA is looking into the Marianas Public Land Trust's operations, particularly board activities, professional services, and travel expenses.

For three fiscal years covering 2002 to 2004, MPLT spent more than half a million dollars in travel expenses and incurred administrative expenses that "are higher than they should be," according to a Nov. 15, 2005 interim report by the Office of Public Auditor.

The MPLT is the government agency entrusted with the "prudent" management of funds from public land leases collected by the Marianas Public Lands Authority.

In the report, Sablan said that based on the records provided by MPLT, the Trust board members spent $297,920 for compensation during the three-year period.

This means that each board member, except for one who was appointed in mid-2004, received over $50,000 in compensation during the period.

At the same time, the board and the executive director, Bruce MacMillan, who is actually an independent contractor, spent $500,195 for travel expenses.

OPA also said that during this period, "virtually no interest" was transferred by MPLT to the general revenues of the Commonwealth.

February 1, 2006

Saipan Tribune http://www.saipantribune.com

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