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By Gemma Q. Casas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Feb. 7) - The embattled Marianas Public Lands Authority board has asked the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Office of the Public Auditor to audit and investigate its funds at the Bank of Saipan, saying that Governor Benigno R. Fitial may have deceived and defrauded Marianas Public Lands Authority while he was the bank’s president and chief executive officer.

The governor’s press secretary, Charles P. Reyes Jr., said the administration welcomes the probe.

"We welcome any honest investigation of pertinent policy issues. The administration bears no animosity toward any Marianas Public Lands Authority board member or employee. The governor merely wishes to correct certain systematic problems at Marianas Public Lands Authority through legislation, with the blessing and support of the people," he said in a statement to Variety.

In a single-page letter, Marianas Public Lands Authority Chairwoman Ana Demapan-Castro, Vice Chairman Manuel P. Villagomez, members Nick Nekai and Felix A. Sasamoto accused the governor of lying to Marianas Public Lands Authority and the Retirement Fund about the security of their deposits at the Bank of Saipan.

"This is to respectfully request that you audit and investigate Marianas Public Lands Authority’s Bank of Saipan accounts in order to determine for the record if Gov. Benigno R. Fitial defrauded and deceived the board of Marianas Public Lands Authority, the Marianas Public Lands Authority, and the indigenous people, while he was president and chief executive officer of the Bank of Saipan, by separately promising both the Northern Mariana Islands Retirement Fund and the Marianas Public Lands Authority the same collateral and by lying to both agencies regarding the security of their deposits at the Bank of Saipan, shortly before the receivership," the four said in their joint letter addressed to Public Auditor Michael S. Sablan.

In a separate letter, the Marianas Public Lands Authority officials also asked Rep. Edwin P. Aldan, Covenant-Tinian, to invite the Office of the Public Auditor, the Attorney General’s Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, to send representatives to this Friday’s scheduled public hearing on a bill seeking to abolish Marianas Public Lands Authority’s autonomy.

The public hearing on House Bill 15-57 and Senate Bill 15-33, which both seek to repeal laws establishing the autonomy of Marianas Public Lands Authority while at the same time creating a Department of Public Lands within the executive branch, is scheduled this Friday at the multi-purpose center at 9 a.m. for the parties concerned, and 6 p.m. for the public.

The Bank of Saipan, which is partly owned by garment magnate Willie Tan, was placed under receivership in 2002.

Deposits in the bank are not federally insured.

Some government agencies like Marianas Public Lands Authority, which has deposits in excess of US$8 million, have yet to fully get their money back from the bank.

Using the transition report as a basis, the governor lashed out at the management of Marianas Public Lands Authority and its officials, saying the agency has been marred by abuses.

The transition subcommittee that reviewed Marianas Public Lands Authority’s operation noted that its officials made frequent first class travel and entered into sweetheart deals among other extravagant expenses.

In a press conference, the governor said if Marianas Public Lands Authority were to be graded, the alphabet would run out of letters to rate its performance.

Reyes said the administration is open to a public debate on issues surrounding Marianas Public Lands Authority.

"The administration welcomes a free exchange on ideas regarding the Marianas Public Lands Authority bill submitted to the legislature. We look forward to an open and transparent process that allows for vigorous public debate on the issues surrounding Marianas Public Lands Authority. We expect to hear both sides of the issue during the scheduled public hearings," Reyes said.

February 8, 2006

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