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The Contemporary Pacific 16.1 (2004) 132-137

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Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

Samuel F McPhetres
Social Sciences and Fine Arts, Northern Marianas College, Saipan

The present administration of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) was elected in November 2001. The governor took office in January 2002. Between 2002 and July 2003, a great many things happened: there were three attorneys general, several members of the legislature were implicated in legal violations, and two senators were convicted on numerous charges of wire fraud. In addition, the Bank of Saipan went into receivership and four individuals were convicted of fraud involving the bank's funds. The telecommunication system of the commonwealth, presently owned and operated by Verizon, was for sale for over a year. The possibility of casino gambling to deal with a failing economy was raised again. On the other hand, diversified tourism received a boost with some imaginative innovations, including a new visitor center at the American Memorial Park, and a revitalization project for Garapan, the commonwealth's primary tourist attraction.

The resignation of Attorney General Robert Torres signaled some of the difficulties to come. Torres is a highly respected lawyer, and one who offered a lot of hope for the office. Shortly after taking office, however, he noticed that some of the appointments being made by Governor Babauta did not comply with CNMI personnel regulations. He believed that they were being paid above the salary cap for government employees, and had been appointed to fill nonexistent positions. Governor Babauta defended his appointments by saying that every governor before him had made similar appointments. Attorney General Torres felt that he could not permit this to happen under his watch and proposed to hire a special prosecutor, because he was an appointee of the governor and it would have been a conflict of interest for him to prosecute his boss. The problem was that any contract he offered an independent prosecutor would have to be signed by the governor, and thus would not have a very good chance of succeeding. In January 2003, he tendered his resignation, saying only that the governor knew the reason.

Torres was replaced by Ramona Manglona, the first local female attorney. She only served for a few months before being appointed to fill a vacancy in the Superior Court in April. The next attorney general was supposed to be Pam Brown, the governor's personal legal counsel. However, due to a subsequent meltdown in the Senate, and questions raised by certain senators, Ms Brown had still not been confirmed by late July 2003. She has been a private attorney, worked for the legislature as legal counsel, and served for some time as the Department of Interior's ombudsman dealing with labor issues.

In a landmark crisis in the history of the commonwealth, criminal indictments were handed down by the federal grand jury on Saipan against Senator Ricardo Atalig from Rota and Senator Jose DeLaCruz from Tinian. [End Page 132] Senator DeLaCruz's daughter, Marjorie, was also indicted. At issue was the use of CNMI funds (ie, legislative allowances) to provide an educational fund for daughter Marjorie. Senator DeLaCruz asked Senator Atalig to put his daughter on his payroll while she was actually a full-time scholarship student at the University of Guam. DeLaCruz then reimbursed Atalig from his own accounts for payments made toMarjorie.Senator Atalig went to trial inApril in federal district court and was convicted of twenty-six counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. His sentencing was scheduled for 30 July. His legal counsel, Stephen Woodruff, appealed immediately, asking for a new trial on the grounds that the jury did not reach a correct verdict. Judge Munson did not agree. On the advice of his lawyers, Atalig continued to operate as a senator, stating that his resignation would be effective either on the date of the sentencing (30 July) or the first of October, whichever came first. This made it impossible for the Senate leadership to declare the vacancy required to have a special election...