U.S. Interior Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs Tony M. Babauta, who has been placed on administrative leave, may be on his way out of the Obama administration, sources told Saipan Tribune. Other CNMI and Guam officials, however, said yesterday the Interior has not reached any conclusions yet.
Delegates Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) and Madeleine Bordallo (D-GU) said in separate statements to the media yesterday that the Interior's Office of Inspector General is currently investigating Babauta's conduct.
Sablan said: “While the Interior has not reached any conclusions, the assistant secretary has been placed on administrative leave to ensure the integrity of this ongoing investigation.”
Babauta is currently the highest ranking native Pacific Islander serving in the U.S. government. He is the first person of Marianas/Micronesian descent appointed by a U.S. President, the Interior's Office of Insular Affairs website says.
His office has oversight over U.S. insular areas such as the CNMI, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.
Sablan himself received a call yesterday from Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Eileen Sobeck, who has been designated acting Interior assistant secretary for insular affairs “until this entire matter is resolved, one way or another.”
“And I offered her my support as she takes on this additional responsibility,” Sablan said in a statement.
In an interview, Sablan said Sobeck assured him of the continued working relationship between the CNMI and OIA.
“I've been assured that whatever is on the table will continue to be worked on. She assured me of continued support to the CNMI. She will also consult with Mr. Nik Pula, who has institutional knowledge. There's going to be continuity,” Sablan told Saipan Tribune.
Sobeck has been visiting the CNMI for a number of years.
Bordallo, in a separate statement yesterday, said she is “aware of the ongoing Department of Interior Inspector General review of travel in the Office of Insular Affairs as well as the review of a specific grant that was awarded by the office.”
She said the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee is aware of this ongoing process and of the allegations.
“There are not a lot of details right now and it would be inappropriate to comment on specific allegations until they have been fully reviewed and reported on by the IG. The Department of the Interior is following a well established process for IG reviews. I respect this process and look forward to receiving the full IG report when it is completed,” Bordallo said.
Sablan and Bordallo also expressed their continued confidence in Babauta.
The CNMI delegate said in the past three years, he relied on Babauta's institutional knowledge that he brought with him to the Interior.
“He has been helpful to me, as the Northern Marianas representative to Congress, and also as the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee [that] oversees insular affairs. While I wait for the investigation to be completed, I will continue to rely on the good people of the Office of Insular Affairs for their continuing support. And DAS Sobeck assured me that I will continue to receive that support,” Sablan said in a statement.
Bordallo said that, as Guam's own, she has known Babauta for a long time.
“I have confidence in his integrity and in the work he has performed as the Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas. He has used his expertise on insular issues to fully engage leaders from across the Pacific and in the Caribbean. Our islands are better positioned because of his leadership. I believe that he has always exercised sound decision making and I hope this will be reflected in the IG results,” Bordallo said.
Other sources said the investigation could be more than travel spending and procurement.
Babauta previously worked in the Guam Legislature, initially with Territorial Sen. Elizabeth Arriola and then with Bordallo, then senator and who, since 2003, has been the Guam delegate to Congress. In 1998, Babauta moved to Washington, D.C. to become a legislative assistant to Guam Delegate Robert Underwood, although he was hired the next year to serve as a professional staff member for the House Committee on Natural Resources, a position he held through 2006.
In 2007, Babauta became Majority Staff Director of the Committee's Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, which exercises oversight regarding the same island possessions for which Babauta now has administrative responsibility. He held that position through May 2009.
Babauta last visited the CNMI in late October to early November, along with OIA director Nik Pula, on a host of issues including an Interior-commissioned report that highlighted the CNMI's mounting cumulative deficit of over $300 million, OIA-funded utilities projects, and CHC.
President Barack Obama nominated Babauta in July 2009 and the U.S. Senate confirmed him in September 2009.
Babauta is a native of Guam but spent much of his early childhood in the U.S. mainland before his family relocated back to Guam in 1982.