House panel seeks answers from agency heads

Rep. Tina Sablan, left, on Wednesday reviews Covid-19 spending documents as Rep. Joseph Leepan T. Guerrero, right, voices his concerns during the House Special Committee on Federal Assistance and Disaster Related Funding meeting on Capital Hill. Photo by K-Andrea Evarose S. Limol

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THE House Special Committee on Federal Assistance and Disaster Related Funding reconvened on Wednesday morning to further review documents related to  government spending on Covid-19.

Members of the special committee agreed to set three consecutive dates this month to bring in six agency heads to provide testimony, under oath, on the numerous pages of government expenditures during the Covid-19 disaster.

A lengthy discussion with House legal counsel Joe Taijeron aimed to provide clarity among the special committee members as to what their options are in regards to having agency or department heads provide testimony under oath.

The main concern of the committee is whether they will receive sufficient answers to pertinent questions regarding the Covid-19 spending of the government.

“We don’t want to waste time.… We don’t want to end up having an all-day session and out of 20 or 30 questions [asked], only one [question] is answered,” committee member Rep. Joseph Leepan T. Guerrero said.

Another concern the committee has is the “commingling of accounts” to make payments, an act in which funds from one account is used to fulfill payments that are not directly related to the account from which the funds came.

“Obviously, our main concern here is the general fund,” said committee chair Rep. Ralph N. Yumul. “There were a lot of funds spent under the general fund. That’s where we need to find out which account was used. These are the things we need to clarify because everything is commingled. This is something that is of great concern.”

Committee member Rep. Tina Sablan, for her part, said: “To clarify, [these documents] all say that these [expenses] were charged to the general fund. Some agencies could request overtime or Covid-19 pay through the [governor’s authorized representative] Patrick Guerrero’s office. Some of them were requesting to be charged directly to their own respective agency’s account. I’m not clear on how that’s being accounted for.”

This is where all of the commingling of accounts takes over, Yumul said.

According to Sablan, “Supposedly, according to [Secretary of Finance David] Atalig, they were tracking what they were reimbursing from the CARES Act, and what they were going to be reimbursing.”

“But now it’s a different story, because if it was under the CARES Act, it should say something,” Yumul said.

The special committee has also raised concerns about the selection of vendors, noting that off-island non-specialty vendors were contracted instead of viable local vendors.

Further discussions brought about the need to call in specific agency heads who should be able to justify how funding from their respective agency account has been spent in the Commonwealth response to the Covid-19 disaster.

The committee will also inquire as to the status of contracts, notably the renewal of contracts for a number of vendors, including Kanoa Resort.

Yumul has delegated responsibilities to each of the special committee members in preparation for hearings to be conducted later this month to receive a clear account of how every federal and local dollar has been spent or is being spent during this disaster.

“The big ticket item right now is obviously the payroll. We need to clarify that clearly. The new contracts that were signed by each exempted employee [or cabinet members], those need to be clarified [as well] because these employees are now timing in. Are they on the clock all day long? Who is monitoring the account? That is our main concern,” Yumul said.

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