Thursday, July 5, 2007

Press Release On The Public Auditor's Findings On Its Audit of the MPLA Files

Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
Public Information and Protocol Office
Office of the Governor
Caller Box 10007
Capitol Hill
Saipan, MP 96950
Tel: (670) 664-2276
Fax: (670) 664-2290



PRESS RELEASE

For Immediate Release Date: July 5, 2007

Administration Pursues MPLA Land Compensation Cases

Governor Benigno R. Fitial has instructed the Office of the Attorney General to thoroughly review a report prepared by the Office of the Public Auditor. The report details serious abuses in land compensation payments made by the Marianas Public Lands Authority, which Governor Fitial abolished and replaced with the Department of Public Land shortly after taking office in 2006.

In its report, OPA found that MPLA did not follow its own stated regulations or the relevant public laws, including the CNMI Land Compensation Act, in processing land compensation claims.

Some of OPA’s findings include the following:

*Evidence of preferential treatment in a number of land compensation cases. Some claims may have been influenced by family relationships, nepotism, or other close personal relationships.

*Evidence of excessive compensation.

*Claims paid contrary to proper procedures. Claims were not resolved in proper order. Land claims were paid out of turn and older claims were ignored.

*MPLA did not award compensation based on the actual time of taking, resulting in significant overpayments for the government.

*Documents were missing to support land claims.

*Substantial land claim payments were made with insufficient documentation.

*Some appraisal reports were ignored.

*Administrative hearings were not properly conducted to determine reasonable valuations of disputed property claims. In some cases, appraisals were not used to determine proper real estate values.

*The government paid for land that was not actually needed.

*Land exchanges were not equitable or proportional to the land seized for public use. A land compensation claimant might forfeit one lot only to gain two or three additional lots in exchange for a lot of considerably lesser value. Five out of seven land exchanges reviewed by OPA exceeded the legal limit of a two to one ratio. In one case, a landowner benefited from a 16 to 1 land exchange ratio in his favor.

*MPLA’s Land Compensation Task Force Review Committee may have “operated without any written rules, regulations, procedures, or guidelines.” No written records of claim meetings were kept.

As a result of these land compensation abuses, more than $28 million in land compensation bonds or trust funds were depleted, leaving many other landowners uncompensated for condemned property.

Governor Fitial instructed the office of the Attorney General to place the highest priority on the investigation of these white collar corruption cases involving the former MPLA.

“I have asked the Attorney General’s office to prosecute these cases without delay,” said Fitial. “We cannot excuse such a gross abuse of public funds,” said the Governor.

Assistant Attorney General Michael Nisperos has been assigned the task of reviewing these possible criminal cases. Anyone with information about MPLA abuses should contact Mr. Nisperos to report or assist with these investigations. Mr. Nisperos may be reached through the Office of the Attorney General.

Previously, OPA reported on a series of MPLA travel abuses. The Fitial administration released this report to the public and has also urged the Office of the Attorney General to investigate the reported travel abuses for possible criminal prosecution.

Ana Demapan Castro was the chairwoman of MPLA’s board of directors until the agency was abolished by the Fitial administration in 2006. The agency operated with high travel costs, excessive employee and consultant compensation, and questionable land compensation transactions.

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Charles P. Reyes Jr.
Press Secretary for Governor Benigno R. Fitial
Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
Caller Box 10007
Saipan, MP 96950
Tel: (670) 664-2276
Fax: (670) 664-2290

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My Comments:

Mike Nesperos, the Assistant Attorney General referred to in this press release, was brought to the CNMI to handle these types of cases. In this instance, Mr. Nesperos is not related to anybody here (other than his wife), which is important on a small island such as ours. Hence, he should proceed with building and prosecuting such cases expeditiously. Good luck, Mr. Nesperos! I urge all of you -- the public -- to watch and follow this very carefully!