Propst invites Kevin Bautista, Robert Hunter to special committee meeting

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HOUSE Minority Leader Edwin K. Propst on Sunday “invited” Press Secretary Kevin Bautista and the governor’s special policy advisor, Robert Hunter, to the first meeting today, July 13, 2020, of the House Special Committee on Fiscal Review of Executive Expenditures.

Press Secretary Bautista has said that the special committee is more of a “witch-hunting expedition than… an actual fact-finding [effort].”

“What I would like for you to do, Kevin, is to come over [to the meeting], and…tell us your concerns, again, that this is a witch-hunting expedition,” Propst said in his hour-long Facebook live video.

“Tell us what we’re doing wrong, please. I welcome you, Kevin Bautista and Robert Hunter, and anyone else who has a problem with this [new special committee],” Propst said.

“Please understand that this [new special committee] was organized by Speaker BJ Attao, and we will do our job. If you have a problem with it, then so be it.”

“Hundreds of people are furloughed. There’s a great deal of suffering right now. There are so many people that are hurting right now. There’s a lot of suffering in our villages [and] our precincts, and we are doing the best [that] we can,” Propst said, referring to the House members.

As for the governor, Propst said, he “just went on a two-week promotional vacation in which they burned…did a huge fire on Pagan…huge, uncontrolled burn, and so many other things that…where do we even begin? Massive things that happened there on that trip.”

This fire was in reference to the July 8 “Deer Meat for Dinner” YouTube channel video in which host Robert Arrington poured fuel from a Homeland Security and Emergency Management fuel container onto the ground on Pagan, to create a ring of fire in order to repel bugs from the  campsite of the team.

According to Arrington, “We didn’t actually burn down the island. We got it all taken care of.”

Propst said although Arrington’s  promotional video about Rota in 2019 was impressive, the island has not received any uptick of visitors since then.

He said the idea of promoting  the Northern Islands is similar to the proposal to open a casino: both are supposed to draw in more visitors.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” Propst said.  

He also noted that two motorboats federally funded for the Department of Public Safety search and rescue operations were utilized in the promotion of the Northern Islands, “taking away the already limited resources that the department has for search and rescue operations.”

Propst likewise mentioned the “double pay” that some administration officials, including cabinet members, have received during the response to Covid-19 and previous disasters.

He said the description of these said officials’ roles in the Commonwealth response to Covid-19 are similar to their regular roles.

In a previous interview, Bautista said he also serves as CNMI Covid-19 communications director.

“I think there’s a misperception about what ‘reassignment’ means within a disaster,” he added. “When we fill out a Category B form, that is considered an authorized reassignment of duties. I am no longer the press secretary for the governor’s office. I am now the CNMI Covid-19 communications director. At that point, that’s considered [authorization] — in line with [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] standards as well — to receive compensation for Covid-19 [response.]”

Bautista added, “I have not received a paycheck of Covid-19 pay… I have not received any overtime. At the end of the day, one of the things that we’re focusing on is honing in on what is actually provided under a federal emergency — exactly why we’ve been able to account for the hours and to properly document them. If the compensation comes, the compensation comes.”

For his part, Secretary of Finance David Atalig said the cabinet members received what is considered as “straight pay,” which, he added, is lawful payment during a disaster.

The payment was for the “extra hours” they performed at a rate of “1.0 x the basic hourly rate of pay,” the Office of Personnel Management has said.

‘Purely political’

Asked for comment, the governor’s special policy advisor, Robert Hunter, said:

“Representative Propst has done one thing over the last several years, and that is to look for every opportunity to criticize, attack, and undermine the administration.  This latest slew of attacks is no different.  It is purely political.  He has gone after folks who were reassigned to Covid-19 duties and received what amounts to miniscule additional pay, for putting their health and the health of their families at risk.  While these folks, some like myself receiving austerity-salaries, were putting their health at greater risk to take on these Covid duties, the Representative was at home for two months, taking care of his health and the health of his family, and receiving his full salary, and an incredibly generous salary by any standard for a part-time job (as he's described the job of representatives numerous times).  So the representative has some nerve.  He plays the politics of divisiveness.  Like the [press secretary] said in the press conference, the administration does not have the luxury of playing politics.  We are in the midst of the Covid response still, we have recovery work still ongoing from Yutu, we have an economy that has been severely affected by this pandemic, we have public services to provide, and significant projects underway and forthcoming, we don't have the time the representative does, to play a daily game of ‘gotcha.’  He does, but we don't.”

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