A CNMI lawmaker in Tinian and the director of US-based Bridge Investment Group were quick to defend their positions on the heels of a ‘letter of concern’ penned to the Commonwealth Ports Authority (CPA) by a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Navy lawyer this month. The letter expressed concerns that leases administered by the CPA may be in violation of a 1983 lease agreement that authorizes and guarantees DoD various military uses at the Tinian port and airport.

The Saipan Tribune reports that they have received copies of the letter and that at least one section refers to Bridge Investment Group (BIG). BIG is building the $120-million Tinian Ocean View Casino Resort on the port with a central theme featuring a replica of the legendary Titanic.  Leisure design company YWS Design has been chosen to master-plan the casino hotel resort with an eye toward opening in the spring of 2017. YWS is responsible for such premiere properties as Bellagio Las Vegas among others there and elsewhere.

According to Saipan Tribune, the DoD lawyer stated, “We are concerned that these developments may compromise DoD’s various rights,” he said. “We would like to work with CPA to identify existing conflicts, if any, between the lease to Bridge or other entities and the agreements with United States and how to resolve them.”

Sen. Jude Hofsneider of Tinian told the news outlet that, “In the case of development of Tinian it’s unfortunate that this issue had to come to form at this juncture, knowing that the existing developer is committed and we hope that no further problems will arise as a result of this particularly issue.

“BIG has been around for the longest time. And they are very persistent with their committeeman to develop Tinian as a destination site for tourism,” he said.

Phillip Mendiola-Long is BIG’s executive director and told the Tribune that, “…There are absolutely no conflicts with the U.S. military’s potential use of Tinian’s port,” he added that the project is EB-5 funded and, “our U.S. company is receiving a low interest loan from foreign investors who are vetted by” the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Services and the U.S. State Department,” the director said.

He went on to note that the EB-5 program requires hiring U.S. workers and that 90% of their workers are U.S. citizens. “I am not aware of any other major projects in the CNMI that are anywhere near us with regard to commitment to hiring local or U.S. citizens,” he said.

The EB-5 program was started in 1990 as a way to create and preserve American jobs in exchange for foreign investors having the opportunity to receive conditional permanent residency. The program has supported more than 40,000 U.S. jobs since its creation and has funded well known casino projects in Las Vegas such as SLS, Downtown Grand, and the under-construction Lucky Dragon.

The numbers Mendiola-Long cited are in stark contrast to the way things were in the CNMI in the 1990’s when reviled American lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff worked on behalf of the CNMI government to retain exemptions from U.S. immigration and minimum wage laws. Some reports indicate that, “In testimony before the [U.S.] Senate, it was described that 91 percent of the private-sector workforce were immigrants, and were being paid barely half the U.S. minimum hourly wage,” according to Wikipedia.

Abramoff is likely best remembered as the powerful lobbyist played by actor Kevin Spacey in the movie, Casino Jack. Abramoff’s lobbying scandals earned him federal prison time on the U.S. mainland and contributed to the convictions of two Bush White House officials and Rep. Bob Ney, along with nine other lobbyists and congressional staffers.

Update Feb 15, 2016: Navy spokesman sees ‘no current conflict’ with Tinian port leases, including casino