BY IVA MAURIN
CAPITOL HILL, Saipan — What should have been just an organizational ‘meet and greet’ at the House Chamber on Jan. 27 turned emotional as former employees of Imperial Pacific International LLC testified before the legislators of the pain they have been enduring for months now, from the still unfinished casino.
Glen Bell led his former fellow workers as each of them aired their grievances before the House Standing Committee on Gaming of the 22nd Commonwealth Legislature, as well as the Commonwealth Casino Commission, and IPI’s new CEO, former senator Ray N. Yumul.
“IPI and its staff, the existing structure of the casino building is testament enough to their incompetence, their ineptness, their deceit and failings. Collectively, their modus operandi is deplorable,” Bell said.
In his testimony, the Australian former project manager lamented how the NMI government failed its people and laid out the “inhumane situation” of workers living without power, water, food, and money for the past eight to ten months.
The workers demanded that they be paid before they leave, and also expressed fear and concern that they are now ‘illegals’ after having been without contracts for months. One former employee was in tears, shaking as he disclosed that he is about to become homeless next month.
In what could be his first official statement as IPI chief executive officer, Yumul said that he accepted the position to help clean up IPI.
In response to the workers, Yumul said that they are in the process of repatriating, that the management is actively ensuring that payments will be made to all those affected, and that repatriation happens as soon as the borders open up.
“I’m here to help clean up IPI, get them back on track… I’m very optimistic… I am concerned. I want to make sure that everybody that needs to be paid is paid, and repatriated.”
The new CEO also said that the housing complexes for the workers were constructed following the guidelines, as set forth within the policies of the NMI’s regulatory bodies — federal standards included — but acknowledged that the power and water concerns are “unfortunate” and are a financial issue, with the courts now actively involved.
He also said that Gov. Ralph DLG. Torres’ order to close all businesses due to COVID crippled IPI’s ability to generate income, and that when IPI requests financial support, it has to come from its parent company in Hong Kong and comes on a case-by-case basis.
Yumul also asked the legislators to do their research, and see how IPI went from a promising industry to a struggling one, at present.
“IPI is not at fault… It takes two to tango. Honestly, it’s my belief that IPI was basically given unrealistic timetables during the bidding process. In the beginning, it should have just been a simple bid — highest bidder takes the license, builds the building.
“But all sorts of add-ons were added — community benefit fund became honestly ridiculous. Millions and millions of dollars were spent on all sorts of non-construction activities that could have had this facility constructed much quicker than what it is now today. It is a struggle.”
Yumul also disclosed that he is trying to come up with a way to structure the operations, saying that there already is a plan in place for the casino to reopen, once funding is ready.
In a separate interview with the Journal, Committee on Gaming chairman Rep. Edwin K. Propst stressed that IPI, along with any other companies that are conducting gaming in the NM must follow all local and federal laws, and must honor all agreements, such as the Community Benefit Fund.
“For years, we have seen that the IPI has been able to dictate policy, and essentially call the shots and pull the strings. That ended as soon as we took the leadership, and I can assure everyone out there that we mean business. We’re here to be fair, and we want IPI to play by the rules.
“We cannot pretend to ignore that IPI was raided, that they have had several problems and have been sued a number of times. They’re still being investigated, to this day, by federal and local authorities.”
The legislator said that IPI needs to be honest about their financial situation, and their ability to pay their vendors and sustain their operations.
“The casino — it can succeed. But it will not succeed if it continues to operate the way it has been for these past years. They need to ensure, again, that they are going to be working with the community, being realistic in their numbers, and ensuring that they complete the hotel.”
Propst also said that the House Gaming Committee will be happy to guide IPI towards proper implementation and stressed that the ‘culture of corruption’ must end, adding that such practices hurt the company — when funds from operations, utilities for the workers, or for investing in the community have to be diverted to benefit a few political cronies.
“If we are to have an honest [and] sit down with IPI, we would want them to know that anyone who approaches IPI for bribery or kickback, or asks for money, they should be reported… That culture of corruption will not happen in this 22nd Legislature, at least not under my watch.”
Coincidentally, also on Jan. 27 the federal court, following a one-week stop order at the IPI’s casino construction site in Garapan, gave IPI 30 days to pay back the remainder of the consent judgement with the U.S. Department of Labor by March 1, for wages owed former employees since 2016, worth over a million, or else its assets will be liquidated. mbj