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By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Nov. 22) – The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs is extending Federal Labor Ombudsman Jim Benedetto’s contract through 2010, just a few days after Gov. Benigno R. Fitial asked Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to remove him from his job.

"We intend to extend Jim Benedetto’s contract as federal ombudsman through October 2010, the maximum period allowable," OIA Director Nikolao Pula said in a written statement yesterday.

Pula said Benedetto has a "very difficult job to do and has performed it admirably."

"His honesty has caused him a lot of heat but it has also won him a great deal of admiration and the full support of this office. In the event that the federalization bill passes, Jim will play a central role in advising us on the development of regulations," Pula said.

Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, in a phone interview, told Variety that he was "disappointed that Benedetto was reappointed."

"All I can say is that Interior made a big mistake…Interior really doesn’t know Benedetto," he said.

Benedetto, in a separate phone interview, said the countless e-mails, phone calls and other communications sent to his superiors in support of his continued service were "overwhelming" and "humbling."

"It is also going to be an exciting time once the federalization bill is passed, with the guest worker program to be administered by the federal government," he said, adding that his experience with and knowledge of the local guest worker program will be advantageous to the commonwealth.

Benedetto was appointed as federal labor ombudsman in October 2002.

He has been at odds with the Fitial administration over his criticism of the local labor and immigration system, including the recently signed labor "reform" law which he said will have damaging effects on alien workers.

Fitial wrote to Kempthorne, asking him not to reappoint Benedetto, citing three reasons: lack of qualifications, an unsatisfactory level of performance and unacceptable political partisanship.

Fitial also blames Benedetto for the defeat of Rep. Cinta M. Kaipat, Covenant-Saipan, who authored the bill that became the labor "reform" law. Kaipat is Fitial’s niece.

Pula, in a statement, said Benedetto "works very hard for his clients and he cares very much about all of the people of the CNMI."

"He has been the first to defend the CNMI’s reputation against people who have criticized it on the basis of old information, as evidenced by his letter to Ms. Magazine. However, he has also been honest in reminding people that not all criticisms of the CNMI are based upon old information, and that there are very important current problems, including recruitment scams, human trafficking, and workers not getting paid that we must all work together to address," Pula said.

Press Secretary Charles Reyes Jr. said the Fitial administration has only been asking for "fair and reasonable treatment from DOI and this administration will continue to advocate for the CNMI."

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