16 Jul 2020

Feds rule on Covid-19 funds to American Samoa lawmakers

10:57 am on 16 July 2020

The investigative arm of the US Treasury Department has found that payments from American Samoa's government to lawmakers under the territory's share of federal Covid-19 funds are not related to coronavirus health emergency declaration.

The American Samoa Legislature Fono building in Fagatogo

The American Samoa Legislature Fono building in Fagatogo Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

So declared the US Treasury's deputy inspector general Richard K. Delmar in a July 14th letter to territorial government Treasurer Ueligitone Tonumaipe'a following a meeting last Friday to discuss some matters regarding the US Treasury's Coronavirus Relief Fund payment to American Samoa under the CARES Act.

The matter relates to cheques from a Relief Fund for covid-19 related costs that was awarded to American Samoa from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Act that was passed by the US Congress.

The House Speaker and Senate President received US$20,000 and lawmakers were given US$10,000 to go towards setting up offices while a new Fono Building is under construction.

Delmar pointed out that prior to the Covid-19 public health emergency, the legislative building has been under construction, and the Fono members were using other government facilities to hold hearings and regular sessions.

Additionally, Fono members were already teleworking due to these circumstances prior to Covid-19.

Since lawmakers were already in telework capacity prior to Covid-19 due to the ongoing construction of the legislative building, Delmar said the federal agency believes the stipends are unrelated to the health emergency.

"Accordingly, we request that payments issued to Fono members are returned to the American Samoa Government for future uses related to addressing the Covid-19 pandemic," Delmar explained.

"To the extent that Fono members have already used payments, our office will seek recoupment of those funds in accordance with the CARES Act," he said.

Delmar's letter comes days after a local resident, Steven Hueter, filed a complaint with the US Treasury against the governor for giving this money to Fono members.

Cheques dominate discussion in senate

The Covid-19 cheques for lawmakers' offices dominated discussion in American Samoa's Senate yesterday.

Two senior senators, Tuaolo Manaia Fruean and Nuanuaolefeagaiga Saoluaga Nua, have announced that they are returning their cheques.

Tuaolo said it was not that he wanted to be righteous, or that he has a lot of money.

"I asked the secretary what the cheques were for and he said it's to improve our offices. My home office is good. My office is the telephone."

Senate President Pro Tem Nuanuaolefeagaiga Saoluaga Nua prefaced his comments with a question on the government's preparations to protect the territory from the coronavirus pandemic and whether the territory is ready to handle any confirmed cases.

He was concerned about protections for medical personnel who will tend to the care of coronavirus patients.

Nua said he had also been told that employees directly involved in health services related to he pandemic haven't received overtime pay.

He said it was not right that lawmakers were receiving these cheques when there were pandemic-related costs that haven't been paid.

The two senators are not the first lawmakers to return their cheques, while there were also two protests last week over the spending of Covid-19 federal funds for lawmakers' offices.