By Jacob Nakamura
(Tumon, Guam) Attorney General Edward Manibusan still has not issued an opinion on the legality of a $5,000 monthly cash advance to some members of the Commonwealth Legislature, even though the Office of the Public Auditor has said that the legislative slush fund is unconstitutional.
Two months ago a citizen requested an opinion from both the AG and the OPA regarding a practice that some legislators avail of that pays members up to $5,000 every month in cash. This is aside from the members's salaries. The House's minority caucus also requested the same investigation.
The policy was designed in the Legislature's rules years ago to help to defray the costs of members performing their duties, especially those who live outside Saipan who would need to conduct official business at greater expense from within and outside their districts. In theory, senators and representatives living in Tinian and Rota needed broad discretion and cash on hand to perform their duties effectively.
It has been reported, though, that senators and representatives in Saipan also take this money, which starts at $2,500 monthly and caps at $5,000. If a legislator receives the max amount every month, then he or she will receive $60,000 annually.
This happened after the current legislature changed the rules. On February 5, 2019, House representatives John Paul Sablan, Joel Camacho, and Lorenzo Deleon Guerrero introduced House Resolution 21-4, which replaced specific legislative allowances and stricter fiscal controls with the current rules that allow broad authority of the use of public funds.
To be fair, Mr. Sablan has told KSPN News that he does not avail of the legislative perk.
What do they use this money for? Hard to tell. Neither the Legislature nor the Department of Finance require the promulgation or disclosure of any reports or receipts. The Commonwealth writes checks payable to the names of the legislators, they cash those checks at their banks, and they use the money. Only two financial controls exist: 1) the law requires the legislators to keep receipts of their purchases; and 2) the Open Government Act requires disclosure of these receipts if demanded.
Kandit will be making an OGA request to every member of the House and Senate.
The OPA has opined that the payments to legislators is illegal and unconstitutional. Despite this opinion, Mr. Manibusan has not said anything about the matter, even though the question of the use of public funds for personal and political activity has been raised.
Subsection 16(f) of the CNMI Constitution states, "No part of the appropriations for the legislature or the legislative bureau, other than a member's salary, may be used for personal or political activities."
Several members of both chambers have made community donations in their name, though there is no way of telling whether these contributions were made out of the member's paycheck and as charity, or from these allowances. If the latter is the case, then not only are those members using public funds for a political purpose, but they are sidestepping the procurement process while they're at it.
Perhaps the most fundamental question having a direct impact on citizens is this: can the Commonwealth afford these slush funds. If all 29 members of the Legislature received the max amount every month from this slush fund, the Commonwealth's taxpayers would be forking out $1,740,000; exponentially more than the amounts of reimbursement for personal expenditures and illegal travel taken by Gov. Ralph Torres.
Perhaps this matter could explain why only one member of the Senate so far has called for an investigation into the governor's spending; and why only a few members of the House have been vocal or willing to say something about it.