UPON OFFICE OF GOVERNOR’S LEGAL COUNSEL’S ‘FRIENDLY ADVICE’

Finance redacts credit card info from original documents

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Posted on Aug 14 2020
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Some details of documents outlining the governor’s purchases and reimbursements were intentionally obscured at the advice of Office of the Governor legal counsel Gilbert J. Birnbrich, it was learned during the continuation of a House of Representatives committee’s review of the governor’s expenses.

Speaking before the House Special Committee for Fiscal Review of Executive Expenditures yesterday, Birnbrich stated that he reached out to Department of Finance’s director of Administrative Services Margaret Bertha Torres in June 2019, and advised her to make the redaction, after learning from “somebody” in the Office of the Governor that Gov. Ralph DLG Torres’ financial information had been released to the public.

“That’s what prompted me to communicate with director Torres, in my capacity as attorney for the governor and Office of the Governor, to protect their interests, and also just in a generalized wish to have Executive Branch officials follow the law,” he said.

The special committee hit a roadblock in their review of the governor’s purchases and reimbursements last Tuesday, after learning of the redactions made to original documents being held by Finance. Information redacted include Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, and credit card numbers, in their entirety.

Birnbrich said that he advised the Finance director, through a phone call, that under the constitution and the Open Government Act, personal identifiers regarding financial information, such as bank account and social security numbers, or information often used by people to commit identity theft and fraud, should be redacted.

Birnbrich also clarified that the governor did not instruct him to contact Finance and direct it to redact the records or to direct Finance to physically alter the original records.

Margaret Bertha Torres also disclosed that on June 17, they have received an OGA request from a citizen on the governor’s travels and reimbursements, among others, with the requestor having paid $913.50, based on an official cash receipt made last July 9, 2019, for the documents. At $.50 a page, the requester was provided 1,827 pages worth of documents.

The Finance director also stressed that the documents, which were thereafter released by a news outlet, was only given to that one requester.

As to the redacted information, Margaret Bertha Torres said that she is “the one that instructed the staff to redact it from the original.”

She also clarified that Birnbrich did not ask her to redact from the original documents, and it was her own decision, saying it was because at the time, they had the Office of the Public Auditor, the House minority bloc, and the Legislature asking for the same documents.

The Finance director added that they have done no redaction to any documents previously requested under the OGA.

According to committee chair Rep. Ralph Yumul (R-Saipan), Birnbrich’s advice caused confusion at Finance, where they ended up redacting items that they are not supposed to, such as all numbers of the credit cards, from the original documents.

“All these information are pretty much gone from the face of the Earth because now, we don’t know what’s going on. …My concern is when any counsel advises, especially the Department of Finance, to hide certain things. The last four digits for me is not a personal ID. Now, we’re getting this road bump, I am not sure where to go,” Yumul added.

‘A friendly advice’

Birnbrich referred to his communication with the Finance director as “friendly advice.”

According to him, he would sometimes give advice to other Executive Branch officials, but would also remind them that their legal counsel is the Office of the Attorney General, and that the OAG’s advice will override Birnbrich’s and will be binding on the departments.

“It usually is what I would call friendly advice, as a lawyer. …Every once in a while, I’ll go out, especially if the Office of the Attorney General is not providing the service sometimes they should be, I will just give them [Executive Branch officials] what I call a friendly advice,” he said.

When vice speaker Rep. Lorenzo Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan) asked if this is common practice, Birnbrich replied, “it’s not something that happens all the time.”

The Department of Finance is not a client of Birnbrich, and its official counsel is the Office of the Attorney General.

“What I’m doing is not really that different. In fact, I would say it’s the same [as] what you would do in private practice. If you feel somebody is infringing on your client, you write a letter to that person saying why you think under the law, they shouldn’t do what they’re doing. You’re advocating for your client. You tell them what that situation was about,” he said.

When asked after if he agrees that the interest of the governor may be different from the interest of the Department of Finance, Birnbrich said, “I would agree that sometimes, they are not the same.”

The special committee will be on recess, and will meet again on Monday, Aug. 17, for Department of Finance Secretary David Atalig’s testimony.

Iva Maurin | Author
Iva Maurin is a communications specialist with environment and community outreach experience in the Philippines and in California. She has a background in graphic arts and is the Saipan Tribune’s community and environment reporter. Contact her at iva_maurin@saipantribune.com
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