U.S. OFFICIAL GETS AN EARFUL FROM THE AMERICAN SAMOA FONO

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By Vaaimamao Poufa

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (February 2, 2000 – Samoa News)---Director of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs Danny Aranza said the legislature’s highest priority is to conduct an independent, accurate audit of the American Samoa government.

Aranza sat down for over an hour with about a dozen legislators and gathered input about the concerns of individual Fono members.

Aranza said his office interacts with the Governor's Office primarily, but he thought it would be helpful to spend some time with the Fono.

Aranza explained to the Fono members that the purpose of his trip to American Samoa was to maximize the benefits that will hopefully flow from President Clinton's Inter Agency Task Force on Insular Areas.

The group, composed of federal agencies, will meet with territorial governors later this month.

Aranza hopes enough advance work will have been completed to allow new and positive ground to be broken at the meeting.

He told the Fono members that President Clinton is in his last year of office and therefore "wants to leave a legacy behind" of having helped the territories develop their private sector economies.

After Aranza spoke, the Fono members present were not shy about bringing up their concerns.

Speaker of the House Aina Nua and Senate President Pro Tem Tuilefano Vaela‘a presided over the informal gathering at the House coffee room.

Towards the end of the 90-minute meeting, Aranza stated, "I'm getting that audits are your priority," and he repeated the conclusion later in the day when he met with the Chamber of Commerce.

The need for an audit that Fono members could rely upon was hammered by Rep. S.E. Sala and Senator Tuilefano.

Senator Tuana‘itau Tuia wanted to know if there were any funds available from Interior to help the local Chamber of Commerce.

Aranza answered that there may be some funds available, especially in that private economic development is one of President Clinton's highest priorities. But he said the Interior Department only provides money to the Executive branch of the American Samoa Government, so the Chamber would have to persuade the Tauese administration to ask for the funds on their behalf.

Tuia also said he wanted American Samoa to have the authority to negotiate with other countries for the utilization of our marine and land resources without going through the Federal Government.

Aranza said that desire, while "making sense," was not presently possible.

"Even though you know your country and economy best, every foreign relation matter – whether from American Samoa or California – has to go through the State Department and they would have to be convinced to change their policy."

The Senator then asked if there was any financial aid available and if the Fono can acquire it through proposed legislation.

"Can our Chief Justice become deputized as a member of the Appeals Court of federal judges?" he asked.

Aranza could not answer the question, but promised to pass the question along to the U.S. Justice Department, which has jurisdiction over such matters.

Senator Tuilefano Vaela‘a said that schools, hospitals and police were his top priorities. He said the large number of immigrants has led to overcrowding in the schools.

He said Interior had built the hospital and was now saying it is substandard, so Interior should see to it that it is brought up to standard.

He said "the island is full of drugs" and help was needed to deal with this problem.

Aranza said the FBI is interested in doing some (more) drug-related training here and funds were being sought to support that effort.

Speaker of the House Aina Nua advised Aranza about the terrible state of the government finances, going over many of the details of the problem.

"We have no idea how much ASG owes to the insurance companies, FICA, ASPA, or ASTCA" from payroll deductions, Aina said.

"We cannot get correct figures from the administration," he said.

Aranza said that all U.S. territories are faced with financial problems. The Virgin Islands is much worse, he said, but our problems are "very serious."

"It is unfair and wrong for ASG not to do payroll deductions and pay vendors," he said.

But American Samoa is now self-governing and Interior does not call the shots, he explained.

"The financial problems remain year after year and are deeply seated and systemic," the lawyer who was born and raised in Guam said.

"ASG has to cut costs, increase money taken in and become more accountable," Aranza stated.

He said Interior is trying to help by providing Technical Assistance funds for accountants, financial management training and the multi-million dollar Financial Information Management System that went into place about 3 years ago.

The Speaker also asked about the $18.6 million Tobacco Settlement loan. "Who has the final decision?" he wanted to know.

Aranza answered that it was a very complicated, but the Governor has to negotiate with the Fono to work out a Memorandum of Understanding with the Secretary of the Interior and that MOU should have the Fono's endorsement.

"What if we don't want the loan?" Aina asked.

"You don't have to take it," Aranza answered.

Senator Tuilefano wanted to verify that companies would have to give the government a big discount (25-40%) to be in the priority pile to be paid, and Aranza confirmed that was true.

The Speaker asked about the Economic Development Commission, and Aranza explained that that federal initiative is in place, but separate from his efforts. The Commission's work was coming along too slowly for the President's Inter Agency Group.

The Speaker requested a $100,000-$150,000 computer system for the Fono that would be tied to the computer network used by the ASG, re-establishment of a Small Business Administration office in American Samoa, re-establishment of an Inspector General's Office, establishment of a military recruitment office here, more money for the Port, and better health services in Manu‘a.

The SBA office was yanked due to too many bad loans, Aina was told, and the Inspector General's presence was also desired by Aranza, but the IG makes up his own mind about where to deploy staff members and the IG is not convinced that it is worth opening an office here.

As for the Port, Aranza said Interior is now providing $1 million a year for five years to upgrade the Port. He also pointed out that Interior had paid for a dispensary in Manu‘a.

Aina said the dispensary was small and lacked a doctor.

Rep. Su‘a Schuster agreed with Tuana‘itau that we should have more authority over our fishing grounds.

He noted that schools are overcrowded by immigrants, but suggested that we build more schools since we cannot turn away our brothers and sisters from independent Samoa.

Su‘a suggested that an inland, mountain road be constructed to open up new areas for development and decrease congestion.

He also appealed for Interior to lift the freeze on some hospital Capital Improvement Project funds. "My understanding is that Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawai‘i) placed that freeze on the funds because he was not happy about some of his constituents not getting paid, but I will look into it," Aranza said with a smile.

Rep. S.E. Sala requested the ASG to be audited.

"This is the biggest financial problem in the history of this country. We need to audit the Executive Branch, the Fono, and the Judiciary Branch because we cannot make any decisions if we do not have accurate financial reports," Sala said, noting that for many years, the independent auditors have refused to endorse the financial books ASG's own employees have prepared.

"Unless Interior gets on the back of ASG, it'll never happen," he concluded.

Aranza answered that there has also been a request from the Governor for funds to pay the accountants who will audit the government's accounts, and the Governor also wants to hire accountants to write financial rules for each agency to follow.

Sala said he is worried that one day Interior will no longer be able to provide $33 million in aid because Congress will balk at spending down funds when there are no audited financial statements.

Sala also requested a Constitutional Convention to be held, since 11 years has gone by since the last one.

The almost final issue was raised by Senator Tuana‘itau Tuia.

"When can we have a representative in the Department of the Interior?" asked the Tualauta Senator, noting that other islands have had a chance for one of their own to be director of Insular Affairs.

Aranza said that there are three American Samoans working for the DOI: Lydia Faleafine-Nomura, Nick Pula and Sandra King (his deputy).

The Senator retorted that there were none in Aranza's position (director).

The final issue was raised by Senator Tuilefano, who noted there was no money to issue an up-to-date version of our local laws.

At the close of the meeting, Aranza singled out the need for reliable, independent audits as what he felt was the Fono's greatest concern. He also announced that a senior White House official, Mickey Ibarra, would represent the White House at our Centennial Flag Day.

Ibarra is the boss of Jeff Farrow, who is the co-chair of the Inter Agency Task Force on Insular Affairs, and serves as the Intergovernmental Affairs Director for Bill Clinton. That makes him the White House's principal liaison for state and local elected officials.

Items from the SAMOA NEWS, American Samoa's daily newspaper, may not be republished without permission. To contact the publisher, send e-mail to

 

"THIS GOVERNMENT IS IN BAD SHAPE"

By Fili Sagapolutele

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (February 3, 2000 – Samoa Observer)---Lawmakers believe that without an official audit of the American Samoa Government transactions, there is no way of knowing the extent of its financial crisis.

This issue was raised by lawmakers during a meeting with Danny Aranza, the Director of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs.

"Don’t kid yourself," Vice Speaker S.E.Sala told Aranza. "This government is in bad shape".

Lawmakers also believe the sad state of the government’s financial condition is caused by "no monitoring" by its Inspector’s General Office.

This office was closed down 15 years ago because of federal budget constraints. Lawmakers urged Aranza to re-establish the office and for the American Samoa’s Chief Justice to be deputized as a federal judge to handle appeal issues in the Territory, on a limited basis.

House Vice Speaker S.E. Sala believes the U.S. Court system should have limited access to American Samoa, prosecuting only criminal actions, as they could help halt local "corruption."

Aranza also met with Governor Tauese Sunia and the American Samoa Chamber of Commerce. Earlier, in the western Pacific, he met with the governors of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Aranza visited the U.S. territories to get "input" and ideas for the upcoming Inter-Agency Group meeting in Washington, D.C. later this month.

For additional reports from the Samoa Observer, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Samoa Observer.

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