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Corruption allegations trail Northern Mariana Islands BOOST program

by | Mar 18, 2024 | Northern Mariana Islands | 0 comments

David Atalig, the secretary of the Department of Treasury under the Northern Mariana Islands’ previous gubernatorial administration, appeared in court on March 12 to account for the allocation of the commonwealth’s BOOST program.

BOOST, or Building Optimism, Opportunities, and Stability Together, was a grant allocation program for small businesses and individuals designed to stimulate the Northern Marianas economy first initiated under former Governor Ralph Torres (R). But both the BOOST program, and the administration which implemented it have been followed by accusations of corruption and mismanagement.

In December 2022, the Northern Mariana Islands House of Representatives opened an inquiry into the allocation and administration of the BOOST program. They began by calling on Secretary Atalig, who managed the program, to testify on how BOOST grants were administrated. At the time, Atalig claimed he had “nothing to hide,” yet never did testify, first saying he was out of town and next that he was unable to acquire legal counsel in time. The first wave of House investigations coincided with allegations that the Bank of Saipan, which administered the funds, applied for and received boost programs itself.

In October 2023, citizens sued David Atalig as the administrator of the BOOST program, alleging he had systematically approved grants for his friends and family while denying more legitimate requests. At the same time, due to that lawsuit and broader fears of mismanagement, the House resumed its investigation.

Atalig finally took the stand this March to account for the BOOST program’s management. Yet his testimony was not as illuminating as the House had hoped. He invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination in response to every single question, including basic, procedural inquiries such as the amount of funding BOOST received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The House of Representatives did not appreciate Atalig’s silence, and a special committee composed of six independents and one Democrat voted unanimously to hold Atalig in contempt of the House.

These allegations and investigations are new to neither Atalig nor his former boss, previous Governor Ralph Torres (R). In 2022, Torres faced both criminal charges and impeachment for misusing government funds. At the same time, Atalig faced lawsuits for reassigning and effectively demoting a government employee who had been critical of the Torres administration. The BOOST program, which had been inert for over a year, was canceled as soon as Governor Arnold Palacios took office in January 2023. Yet the widespread anger, House hearings, and criminal charges following both the program and the administration that delivered it suggest that it has left a political wake that will endure beyond its expiry date.



Kabir Buch

Kabir Buch

Kabir Buch is a senior at the Harker School in California. He’s passionate about constitutional law and political science, and worked on a lawsuit protecting free speech rights on social media (Cool World v. Twitter). He's deeply interested in global affairs and is a captain of his school's debate team. In his free time, he loves hiking, strolling through his neighborhood, and reading fantasy novels. At Pasquines, he's the Northern Mariana Islands Affairs Intern Editor.


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