To address concerns on overtime incurred in COVID-19 operations
The Office of the Attorney General has asked the Office of the Public Auditor to review the circumstances in which overtime payments were allegedly made to some CNMI government employees during Super Typhoon Yutu, as a House panel probes into the overtime payments made on operations under the COVID-19 pandemic.
This comes soon after the House Special Committee on Federal Assistance and Disaster Related Funding initiated an investigation into COVID-19-related overtime payment requests.
Speaking in an interview yesterday, Attorney General Edward Manibusan said, “We’ve got to be a transparent government, and you cannot have corruption in government. It’s a no brainer.”
Last January, the OAG issued an opinion to OPA on payments made to government employees during the Super Typhoon Yutu operations, the findings of which, once finalized, could provide guidance on the legitimacy of overtime payments made under COVID-19 operations. The letter asked the OPA to review the overtime payments made during Yutu.
“The office, being responsible for certain issues relating to the use of public funds, after having received concerns about the extraordinary pay that were given to certain government employees, I sent a letter to the Public Auditor to review the circumstances in which those payments were made,” said Manibusan in his latest interview.
In the case of the Yutu-related overtime payment, he explained that the three different tiers of government employees—civil service, excepted service, and exempt employees—are treated differently in terms of payment, either for overtime pay or for extraordinary payment,
“We’re actually referring to this extraordinary payment of the 2.5. Each of this tier of employees is entitled to some kind of overtime pay, but with respect to extraordinary payment, there are certain of this tier that will be exempted from that,” he said.
“We wanted the Office of the Public Auditor to review the law, as we found that to be inconsistent with what we thought was a payment, and so they’re going to take a look at that,” he added.
Manibusan also explained why his letter has not been made available to the public yet. “We have a professional code of responsibility that we have as lawyers and when we write legal opinion or things of that nature to another agency, that should be kept confidential until such time that it can be reviewed and made available to the public.”
Concerns on funding
In a follow-up interview, House Special Committee chair Rep. Ralph Yumul (R-Saipan) affirmed that his office has received a copy of Manibusan’s opinion that was sent to the Office of the Public Auditor.
While Yumul cannot disclose the contents of the document, he said that there is a comment saying that there’s no legal basis for the overtime. There is also no mention in the document that the governor did anything illegal.
“The committee now will review the letter, the opinion, and then we’ll take steps now as to the payroll register that we requested, so we can see who was paid already, and if…we’re heading to that same repeat of history [this time with COVID-19 operations].”
Yumul said that his committee is concerned, especially with the budget coming up next year. “The CNMI is going to be faced with probably not a shortage but we’re going to find the money to compensate all these employees that did work during the COVID days, and still are working right now,” he said. “We’re concerned about how do we fund this, the overtime and the extra pay if [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] decides not to reimburse us again. We don’t know, but we’d be preparing for that impact and we might have to start looking as to where we’re [going to] find funding to cover this overtime and extra pay.”
No Cabinet member has been paid
Press secretary Kevin Bautista said in a separate interview that he has not received any official word that any Cabinet member has been paid out under COVID-19. Only the first responders from the quarantine sites, isolation facilities, and Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. are currently being paid, he added.
“That’s our understanding, and that we are ensuring that disaster pay for eligible employees, under the COVID-19 Task Force, Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., and any other auxiliary government agency that’s involved in the COVID-19 response, will be paid out first,” he added.
Bautista said he did not submit a request for authorization for overtime. He disclosed, however, that he submitted a Category B form, or a log time sheet for hours worked, subject to FEMA approval and the timekeepers within the payroll department at the Governor’s Office.
“If it ends up that our members are not going to get paid out of this, at the end of the day, it’s for our understanding, given that getting the right, accurate, and true public information is such an important thing for this pandemic,” he added.
As for the investigation being conducted by the House Special Committee regarding payments under COVID-19 operations, Bautista said that they will work with the Office of the Attorney General. “What we intend to do is work with the [OAG] to ensure that we are in compliance with whatever stipulations have been made by the Office of the Attorney General, and the Office of the Public Auditor.”
“From there, use that in terms of the depth determination of what’s going to be paid out in terms of what is considered disaster pay, or COVID-19, pay for this definition of the pandemic,” he added.