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By Fili Sagapolutele

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, Oct. 23) - Acting American Samoa Governor Ipulasi A. Sunia says the US$20,000 given to each Retirement Fund board member and the executive director for their recent London, England trip covered airfare and per diem, including their hotel accommodation.

[PIR editor’s note: Three board members and the fund’s executive director went on the trip, bringing the total cost of the trip to US$80,000.]

Hosting the governor's weekend radio program, Ipulasi said the trip to London was one of the issues that surfaced at the Governor's Office last week, claiming that there has been some misinformation being disseminated by the media that a lot of money was used by the Retirement Fund board on the recent London trip.

Ipulasi explained that under the law that established the Retirement Fund, the board is authorized to use additional money after paying retirement benefits—to be invested in order for the fund to grow and flourish.

He said part of the revenues collected from investment and money collected from employees’ contributions (about 3 percent) and American Samoa Government contributions (about 6 percent) assist in the paying of monthly benefit checks to retirees.

For 2006 alone, Ipulasi said total benefits paid to retirees are US$11.5 million—which is almost a million a month. He said employees' contributions to the fund are US$2.5 million while American Samoa Government's share is around US$9 million, and this is not enough to meet the US$11.5 million and therefore an additional US$2 million-plus is needed. This shortfall is covered by revenues through investments.

Ipulasi said the reason he was explaining this is there was a media report saying that it's the employees' contribution being used to fund the board's trips and operations of the office.

"That is absolutely incorrect," he said.

Ipulasi said the question being asked so many times is why did the board travel to London. He said advisors to the fund had recommended many times for the board to look at investment opportunities in Europe and the international market, where there has been much growth, instead of relying only on U.S. markets.

He said the board had been very reluctant in the past years to go outside the U.S. but the advisors have recommended to do so, because much of the market has turned to Europe, at places such as Great Britain and Germany.

He said the board is required by law to look at every investment opportunity and could be faulted for failing to take into account the Europe market and therefore it was time to take up this opportunity, while the market is doing well.

He said it was necessary for the board to travel to London to meet and discuss with investors any opportunity to ensure that any investment outside of the U.S. is safe and sound and it would not jeopardize the fund.

Since its establishment in 1971 with a US$300,000 seed money from the Fono the fund's portfolio now stands at US$200 million because the board continues to be vigilant to ensure the fund grows and well protected, said Ipulasi.

Ipulasi did not provide much information about the US$20,049.50 that each of the board member and the executive director received in a lump sum check for the trip to London. He also did not explain who actually traveled to London and how the total costs were calculated.

As reported last week the board members that traveled were Ipulasi, Budget Office director Magalei Logovi'i, Retirement Fund board chairman Aleki Sene and the Fund's executive director Filisouaiga Pili Taafua. Samoa News has since learned that board members Brandt Judy and Morris Scanlan were unable to make the trip.

Ipulasi did say that the US$20,000 for each member that traveled, was set by the Retirement Office after researching and setting it and then reported it to the board. He said the board had nothing to do with the cost of the trip. He did not explain who researched and set the amount.

Unlike American Samoa Government travel, where the travel fund goes directly to the travel agency who makes the arrangements and the per diem goes to the traveler, Ipulasi said the Retirement Fund is different.

He said the Retirement Fund is not connected with a travel agency so therefore the lump sum check is given to the board member to cover airfare and per diem for accommodation, food, etc.

There were also public concerns raised about family members or spouses that travel with board members and Ipulasi said the Retirement Fund did not pay the expenses for these individuals as they paid their own way.

Despite Ipulasi's explanation there were at least three callers that voiced their disbelief and disappointment over such a large amount being used for the trip to London.

"I am very disappointed because I'm a tax payer," said veteran educator, Muagututia Michele Eneliko.

She said the fund is something that current American Samoa Government employees, who are heading towards retirement, look at and she is concerned that any impact on the fund will result in smaller benefit checks for future retirees.

She suggested that the large amount of money used for the London trip could have been used for schools in dire need of desks, or to build more classrooms and fix leaking school building roofs. She said the money could also have been used to assist with the American Samoa Government financial shortfall.

Another caller said the Retirement should at least find the least expensive airline to travel to London to save money instead of wasting it.

The Lt. Governor did not respond to either caller.

The Samoa News:

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