Kumoi: Audit senators • Senator alleges taxpayers’ money spent to buy flowers, pay cable
Expenditures by senators came under close scrutiny after a colleague asked the Office of Public Auditor yesterday to determine how taxpayers’ dollars are spent by the Senate whether or not they pass the test of the “public purpose” law.
Sen. Ramon S. Guerrero expressed dismay and disappointment over major expenditures made by his colleagues in recent months following a disclosure by Finance Sec. Lucy DLG. Nielsen in response to his request for these documents.
The stack of documents that he made public to the media revealed what he said are questionable expenditures, including a $4,000 down payment for a car, thousands of dollars worth of fruits, flowers and fruit baskets given to hospital patients, and restaurant bills that amount up to $2,000.
Thousands of dollars more have been spent for telephones and cellular charges, airfares and donations, and even a cable subscription in one residential home, according to Mr. Guerrero.
“Why should any of us senators buy flowers and give it to a friend who is giving birth at CHC? Should the taxpayers pay for that? I don’t think so,” he told in an interview.
“Is it fair that a taxpayer should pay for your cable TV at home? Should they pay for your private telephones? It’s the senators’ money, it’s the taxpayers’,” added the senator.
Mr. Guerrero, who defeated Saipan incumbent Sen. Juan P. Tenorio last November as candidate for Reform Party, stressed his decision to ask OPA for an audit is not intended to attack his colleagues in the upper house, but to fulfill one of his campaign promises — to inform the public how their tax dollars are spent.
“I made that commitment. Whether my colleagues are not going to like me for what I’m doing, I believe I have the backing of the taxpayers,” he explained. “It’s up to the public and the taxpayers to [judge] who are really the honest politicians. I hope this will help them decide who are they going to vote in 2001.”
Most members of the Senate were off-island as of press time, but the two other Saipan senators, when sought for comment, welcomed any investigation into their expense accounts, saying that each lawmaker has accountability for all his expenditures.
“I don’t have any problem with the public auditor checking my account,” said Senate Floor Leader Pete P. Reyes. “I have been in the Legislature long enough to know that each member is responsible for his action.”
Noting that the finance secretary has always been wary in reimbursing lawmakers unless the expenditure are for public purposes, Mr. Reyes emphasized that she has also accountability for any improper spending.
Senate Vice President Thomas P. Villagomez, on the other hand, underscored the need to comply with the law concerning guidelines on which expenditures can be shouldered by taxpayers’ money.
“Each member has to know the restrictions of the public purpose law. They should be guided by these regulations. Expenditures made beyond provisions of this law, that can be considered personal expenses that must not be paid by taxpayers,” he said in a separate interview.
Amid Mr. Guerrero’s questions on the Senate’s expenses, lawmakers and finance officials have remained at odds on what constitutes “public purpose” despite recent passage of two local statutes aimed at clarifying the constitutional provision.
A draft of regulations drawn up last month by the Department of Finance to implement Public Laws 11-84 and 12-2, has already courted opposition from both chambers because it would require each member to seek approval of the presiding officers — the Speaker for the House and the Senate President — first before they can be reimbursed.
Such policy is contrary to their in-house rules which grant each legislator expenditure authority for their individual accounts, they said. The Legislature is expected to provide comment on the DOF-drafted regulations soon.
Mr. Guerrero, meanwhile, is throwing his support behind Ms. Nielsen in not reimbursing those who can’t justify their expenditures for public purposes.
“If [the senators] don’t like me for any reason, it’s too bad. I have been elected and my obligation is to serve my constituents. I hope that by bringing this issue out, not only will I bring necessary correction, but also to help the secretary of finance,” he said.
“If any of my colleagues want to challenge these public documents, they are welcome to do so. I hope they have good answers,” added Mr. Guerrero who maintained that his own expenses, including the $1,000-a-month rent of his satellite office at the Gualo Rai Center, are properly documented.