U.S. Interior Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs Anthony “Tony” M. Babauta handed in his resignation to President Barack Obama on Jan. 24, thanking him for the opportunity and confidence to hold the post for the past four years. Babauta, a native of Guam, also told Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar on the same day that he believes his work “improved the Office of Insular Affairs.”
Babauta's resignation is effective Feb. 1, 2013.
“I am honored to be the first native islander to hold this position and hopeful that the values and experience from which I led had helped to provide a better future for all who call the islands home,” Babauta told Obama in his one-page resignation letter.
His resignation comes some two months after being placed on administrative leave in November when federal investigators started reviewing his travel and a still unspecified grant that his office awarded.
Babauta's letters to Obama and Salazar didn't cite a specific reason for his resignation.
His message to Salazar, however, was that he's leaving behind an “improved” OIA.
“I believe that my work, shaped by island values as well as congressional experience, improved the Office of Insular Affairs and, more importantly, benefited my fellow island brothers and sisters,” he said.
Salazar himself has also submitted his resignation but Obama has yet to announce a replacement.
Babauta is among the highest ranking native Pacific Islander serving in the U.S. government. His office has oversight over U.S. insular areas such as the CNMI, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.
Guam Delegate Madeleine Bordallo made the initial announcement of Babauta's resignation on Saturday, followed by a statement from CNMI Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) yesterday.
'A friend of the CNMI'
CNMI Lt. Gov. Eloy S. Inos, when asked for comment Saturday night, said Babauta has “helped the CNMI a lot” and his friendship will be missed.
“I hope that whoever succeeds him will give the kind of attention that Tony had given us for the time he's been the assistant secretary. I'm not privy to the circumstances surrounding his resignation but I wish him well in his future endeavor. We will miss him and we consider him a friend of the CNMI,” Inos told Saipan Tribune.
Obama nominated Babauta in July 2009. Two months later, the U.S. Senate confirmed his nomination.
Delegate Sablan, in a statement, said it was a “milestone for all of us to have someone from the Mariana Islands heading the Office of Insular Affairs.”
“For that reason alone I certainly regret the news that Assistant Secretary Tony Babauta is leaving the Interior Department,” Sablan said.
He said Babauta has worked hard to help the islands. Most recently, Babauta directed millions of dollars in technical assistance funds to the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. to get the CNMI hospital back on its feet.
“And he helped coordinate with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to send a team of medical professionals here to respond to the hospital crisis,” Sablan added.
The CNMI delegate said he will be encouraging the Obama administration to retain the position of Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs and to find a person to nominate for that responsibility “who has the same extensive background in island issues that Tony Babauta brought with him.”
Interior officials in CNMI
Sablan also confirmed that Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary Eileen Sobeck, who has been in charge of the Office of Insular Affairs, will be in the CNMI this week.
Sobeck is traveling with Sally Howard, the chief of staff of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
“They, too, will be focused on the hospital and on making sure that CHC is able to retain its certification and continue providing service to our community,” Sablan said. “So, even though we are losing Assistant Secretary Babauta, we are still getting the attention we need from the highest levels of the federal government.”
Other Interior/OIA personnel will be accompanying Sobeck and Howard.
Empowering the islands
Babauta said that during his tenure, OIA was able to empower island constituencies by establishing initiatives to engage the non-profit community, encouraged a framework for small local business partnerships, and initiated a campaign to encourage the purchase of local products.
Collaborating with federal partners, OIA under Babauta's term funded initiatives with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to design renewable energy plans tailored to each island area; the Corps of Engineers to assess every public school classroom throughout the islands; and the Department of Commerce to annually gather and report gross domestic data for each jurisdiction.
The latter was a first in the nation's history, he said.
Babauta also testified in Congress for, among other issues, revisiting federal minimum wage policy for the CNMI and American Samoa and addressing outstanding claims from Guam as a result of the island's occupation during World War II.
“In addition, my office was instrumental in providing interagency leadership to implement extension of national immigration laws to the Northern Mariana Islands and, in so doing, maintaining the Islands' access to the tourism markets of China and Russia, a critical component of their developing visitor industry. Along with this, we also provided strong recommendations to Congress for the treatment of the foreign workers in the Northern Marianas,” he said in his three-page letter to Salazar.
Guam's Bordallo, in a statement Saturday, said Guam and the territories “have been well served by Tony's leadership.”
“As Assistant Secretary, Tony always pushed for the best interests of our people and worked to improve the unique disparities of the insular areas. Although his resignation marks the loss of an important ally for our Pacific Island and Caribbean communities, I am confident he will be successful in his future endeavors,” Bordallo said.