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By John Ravelo

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Feb. 1) – United States government prosecutors have charged Rota's employment services chief for allegedly recruiting several people to apply for federal disaster unemployment assistance and for approving those applications, resulting in the disbursement of federal funds.

An indictment filed in U.S. District Court on Saipan charged Rota Division of Employment Services Director Fermina Atalig with seven counts of false statements and a count of conspiracy to submit false claims and to make false statements.

It stated that the fraudulent applications included a letter purportedly from Rota Mayor Benjamin Manglona, which falsely certified that the applicants concerned had been employed as full-time farmers or fishermen. The indictment did not name the mayor as a defendant in the case.

The case arose after President Bush declared Rota a disaster area after the onslaught of Supertyphoon Pongsona in December 2002. This allowed people to file for Disaster Unemployment Assistance. Approximately 365 individuals on Rota received more than $1.28 million from the federal government under this program.

The charges against Atalig pertain to fraudulent claims made by seven DUA recipients, whose identities are being kept confidential. However, it also stated that Atalig and her co-conspirators overstated the income of DUA applicants, resulting in the award of excessive DUA benefit amounts.

The indictment identified the seven applicants only with their initials: FBH, DMM, SSNR, LASW, NEA, JAR and RIM. Atalig approved the alleged fraudulent DUA claims from April 9 to 21, 2003.

Atalig appeared in court yesterday and pleaded not guilty. Lawyer Perry Inos assisted Atalig during her arraignment.

Designated Judge Juan T. Lizama allowed Atalig's pretrial release on an unsecured $25,000 bond, but the judge also ordered the defendant to surrender to the court her travel documents.

Lizama confined Atalig to Rota, ordering that she not leave the island without permission of the court.

He set Atalig's trial for April 4.

In a seven-page indictment, Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Moran accused Atalig of recruiting and assisting Rota residents whom she knew to be ineligible for DUA benefits to file false DUA claims to enhance her standing within the community and those of other local officials.

"Many applicants were ineligible because they were not full-time workers or did not reside on Rota prior to Typhoon Pongsona. Other applicants were ineligible because they had other sources of income, such as other federal or retirement benefits," Moran said.

The federal government makes available DUA benefits to people who lost jobs as a result of disasters and to self-employed people, such as farmers and fishermen, who were unable to work as a result of disasters. People who were not employed on a full-time basis prior to the disaster are not eligible for DUA benefits, which consist of weekly payments of not more than $250 a week during the disaster assistance period as determined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA delegated the administration of the DUA program to the U.S. Department of Labor, which made funding available to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands government through the then CNMI Department of Labor and Immigration.

Moran said Atalig was in charge of the DUA program on Rota during the Pongsona disaster assistance period. The prosecutor said Atalig prepared and submitted DUA applications that contained false statements.

"Such materially false statements and representations included, among others -- false statements that the applicant had been a full-time fisherman or farmer whose employment had been disrupted as a result of Typhoon Pongsona; and false statements that the applicant had resided on Rota prior to Typhoon Pongsona," Moran said.

Some of the fraudulent DUA claims also failed to state that the applicant had been a full-time student or had been receiving other income in the form of federal and other retirement benefits, he added.

February 2, 2005

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