Finance Secretary David Atalig is prepared to answer the questions of lawmakers when he faces the House Special Committee on Federal Assistance and Disaster Related Funding during an oversight hearing on July 20.
Atalig said in an interview he is confident that all the COVID-19 expenditures are justified, with “no wrongdoing or favoritism, or anything of that matter.”
“I’m prepared to answer any questions that the committee has. There’s nothing that we’re going to hide. We will share what exactly we’re spending and show the reasons why we spend what we spend,” he said.
Atalig said he tried his best to control the expenses as much as he can, and not repeat any “lessons learned” from the time when Super Typhoon Yutu hit the CNMI in 2018, when critics questioned overtime payments, government contracts, etc.
“We controlled overtime, we controlled labor. I know we have expenses and labor but maybe a couple million dollars compared to the overall cost of COVID-19 expenditures. I’m confident that the questions that they will ask will be answered truthfully, and find no discrepancies in such that is anything illegal, so to speak,” Atalig said.
The committee is reviewing the CNMI government’s expenses related to COVID-19 operations, and has on hand documents, including a list of employees receiving supplemental payment related to COVID-19 operations, as well as contracts the CNMI government has entered into. The committee received last week new documents related to the additional contracts and registry for the supplemental pay.
Committee chair Rep. Ralph Yumul (R-Saipan) said copies of the documents will be provided to committee members for review.
Last April, the Office of Personnel Management of the Civil Service Commission issued a memorandum that waived the “exempt” status of 27 employees, and authorized payment for the extra hours they performed under the CNMI’s COVID-19 operations, beginning April 17, at the rate of “1.0 x the basic hourly rate of pay.”
Included are five employees from the CNMI Homeland, four from the Department of Public Safety, nine from the Department of Finance, three from the Department of Commerce, two from the Department of Public Works, two from the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs, one from the Department of Corrections, and one from the Public Assistance Office.
The governor’s senior policy adviser, Robert Hunter, is part of that list. Hunter was called in by the COVID-19 Task Force to put staffing together for Kanoa Resort, which serves as the quarantine facility in the CNMI, and for mass care at Pacific Islands Club.
In an interview, Hunter said he did not get paid overtime but got paid an additional amount for the times he logged in to do COVID-19 work at the quarantine facility. “In the case of the COVID-19, where I was concerned, I can’t speak for every other group or government office, I was simply paid an additional, slight additional amount for those times that I logged in at the quarantine [facility]. That’s it.”
Hunter also explained that there were initially 15 people on their team in six-hour shifts during 24/7 operation, in an attempt to not over-expose them, given the virus cases, and that soon after the first positive case was reported in the CNMI, this number further decreased.
“When I hear overtime, I actually am kind of offended by that because we didn’t work over 40 hours during the work week, which anytime after that then becomes overtime. …We look at that as hazard pay. It wasn’t 2.5, it wasn’t 1.5, we were initially thought it would probably be .5, it ended up at 1,” he said.
Reassignment of duties
According to press secretary Kevin Bautista, there is a misperception about what reassignment means within a disaster.
“When we fill out a Category B form, that is considered an authorized reassignment of duties. I am no longer the press secretary for the Governor’s Office, he is no longer the secretary for the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs. He’s now the CNMI mass care coordinator, I am now the CNMI COVID-19 communications director,” Bautista said. “At that point, that’s considered an authorized, in line with [Federal Emergency Management Agency] standards as well, about us authorized to receive compensation for COVID pay.”
All workers, including Cabinet members, need to sign the Category B form required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in order to get the FEMA reimbursement. The form states that the worker is being reassigned to respond directly to COVID-19, the reason for working, and the hours worked during the operations.
It is also one of the documents received and being reviewed by the members of the House special committee.
The worst of times
In a Facebook Live post on Sunday, minority leader Rep. Edwin K. Propst (D-Saipan) called out Bautista for allegedly describing the expenditure oversight as a witch hunt. He invited Bautista to come to the organizational meeting in the House at 9am today, to tell lawmakers of his concerns and what he thinks they are doing wrong.
“Please understand that this is organized by [House] Speaker B.J. Attao and we will do our job,” Propst said. “We will be bringing out the issues. …We are talking about the worst of times.”
The House Special Committee on Federal Assistance and Disaster Related Funding is scheduled to have the first of a series of oversight hearings next week, Monday, July 20, at the House chamber on Capital Hill.