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Former lawmaker cites wasteful use of public funds

By Emmanuel T. Erediano SAIPAN, CNMI Islands (Marianas Variety, Dec. 2, 2010) - Former Representative Tina Sablan has filed Open Government Act requests for the disclosure of all government contracts with private lawyers.

[PIR editor’s note: Tina Sablan is a former representative of the 16th Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands Legislature.]

Sablan, in an email, said other concerned citizens and taxpayers joined her in the filing of the requests which were sent to various departments and agencies, including autonomous entities.

In a telephone interview yesterday, she said not all the agencies had acknowledged receiving the Open Government Act request while some asked for more time to comply.

Sablan wants to know the names, positions, grades, and salaries of attorneys employed by agencies either in an excepted service or civil service capacity; the contracts or other agreements for legal services awarded to private attorneys or law firms; documents of the competitive process used to procure the legal services covered by each particular contract with a private attorney or law firm; records of billings or other requests for payments; and records of payment.

The period covered by the request is from January 2008 up to the present.

She said she and other concerned citizens want to get a "broad picture" of the range of legal fees paid to government’s counsels, private attorneys or law firms.

Sablan said the most obvious instance of wasteful and exorbitant public expenditure for legal fees is the contract awarded to Jenner & Block.

For US$50,000 per month, the Fitial administration hired Jenner & and Block to sue the federal government and block the implementation of the federalization law.

This lawsuit, Sablan noted, was strongly opposed by the Legislature.

The lawsuit was dismissed by the federal court in Washington, D.C.

Sablan said there have also been reports about government lawyers going into private practice.

They were awarded contracts to do the same work they used to perform for the government, she added.

Private attorneys and law firms, she said, have likewise secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in sole-sourced contracts.

The Open Government Act requests were sent to the governor’s office, the Department of Finance, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Lands & Natural Resources, the Department of Public Health, the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Public Works, the Department of Labor, the Department of Public Lands, the Commonwealth Utilities Corp., the Commonwealth Ports Authority, the Commonwealth Public Utilities Commission, the Commonwealth Development Authority, the Retirement Fund, the Marianas Public Lands Trust and Northern Marianas College.

Once the information is obtained, Sablan said she will make it available to the public.

If there have been abuses of public funds or procurement processes, she said "additional measures will certainly be considered."

The first step though is to get the information, she added.

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