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House questions wording of appropriations bill, including funding source

Fainuulelei  and Malemo Tausaga

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Several members of the House of Representative question the wording of a bill that is now before the House. The bill appropriates the sum of $278,000 to provide funding for the partial payment of various legal claims against the American Samoa Government.

 In the House, yesterday, July 24, 2023, the House Budget and Appropriation Committee Chairman, Representative Vailoata Amituanai welcomed two witnesses from the Governor’s office,  Fainuulelei F. A. Utu, the  Attorney General and Malemo Tausaga, Director of the Department of Treasury — to explain the bill and answer questions.

It is the same bill that was an issue of a Senate hearing last week, where the identified funding source was also questioned by the senators. The same occurred in the House, but also queried the use of the phrase “partial payment” versus “final payment” to identify what exactly the $278,000 appropriation is being used to pay.

As was also explained in the Senate, the witnesses noted that an appropriation bill is required of these settlements, as they meet the statue set in A.S.C.A & 43.1212. — settlement exceeding $85,000 must have a source identified for the payment which would be done through an appropriations bill.

According to the explanation by the two witnesses, statutory settlement — meaning what the government can settle without coming before the Fono (both chambers) is up to $25,000 per claim. In the seven cases identified in the bill, all exceed the $25,000 limit. And while, $25,000 has been paid out to the seven claimants, this bill by law, appropriates the amounts that are in balance, i.e. still owed to the individuals, after the $25,000 was paid out.

The total amount owed prior to the $25,000 payout, was $453,000, after the $25,000 was paid out on each claim, the total amount of $278,000 is still owed on the seven claims.

Reviewing both the Senate hearing, and yesterday’s House hearing, Samoa News has worked out the seven settlement amounts as follows: Simeonica Tuiteleleapaga/ DOL v. ASG and DHSS- $125,000, balance owed $100,000; Mona and Nicholas King v. ASG- $115,000, balance owed $90,000; Howard Dunham v. ASG- $45,000, balance owed $20,000; Lolesio Smith v. ASG- $42,000, balance owed $17,000; Maatulimanu Maea v. ASG- $42,000, balance owed $17,000; Simi Paepae v. ASG- $42,000, balance  owed $17,000; and, Togotogo Sotoa v. ASG- $42,000, balance owed $17,000.

The identified source of funding in the appropriations bill, according to the two House witnesses, is from the Supplemental Budget 2021 of $7.4 Million, which is also identified as the 2021 surplus. Further, the surplus budget or supplemental budget earmarked $500,000 for the payment of settlements of claims again the government.

The Attorney General said the $500,000 was more than enough to cover the 7 claims totaling $453,000, with $175,000 paid out as “Expenses”, with a balance of $325,000 against the $500,000, to be used for the $278,000 still owed on the settlements.

Malemo pointed out that it’s not a surplus for 2023, because the financial year 2023 is not yet finished. It is leftover money from 2021.

 He also reminded the House of the $7.4million supplemental budget brought before them and they had passed it — this includes the $500,000 identified as the funding source for the seven who filed civil actions against the government.

However, confusion seemed to continue, with chairman of the House Budget Appropriation Committee Faipule Amituanai saying, “What we’re talking about is the Appropriation Bill 2023 — this is a bill from the Administration being introduced (by Vice Speaker Fetu Fetui) into the House following procedures.

“The bill, inside it’s 2023, so where are we?”

 In response, the Attorney General says: “Our passed supplemental Public law 38-1 an Act appropriating a sum of $7,405, 000 from unobligated and unexpected revenues from fiscal year 2021 to supplement the fiscal year 2023 budget provides for early effective payment.

“It was passed by the House and Acting Governor Talauega Ale signed it on January 27th 2023.” he stated.

The AG pointed out that this 2023 supplemental budget is the $7 plus million surplus from the unobligated and unexpected revenues from FY 2021. It includes “the $500,000 as a surplus from 2021 added in to the 2023 budget” through the supplemental.

Fainuulelei says he believes this Act or Appropriations bill (currently being discussed), written by the Governor’s legal team, mentions $278,000 to provide funding for the partial settlement of various legal claims against the American Samoa Government. “Appropriation is required as these settlements meet the statutory set in A.S.C.A & 43.1212.”

“We are still following the supplemental budget, or the Social funding for these settlements,” he stated.

Vice Speaker of the House Fetu reminded the witnesses of a case from the past where the government lost $7million ( to a company) and these civil actions against the government are still coming. He asked the AG if the amounts awarded are appropriate.

“Yes, these settlements and the amounts are legally fair for the protection of the American Samoa government,” the AG said.

“The Deputy AG working with me (Mr. Roy Hall), is the most Senior lawyer practicing in our territory, with a deep understanding of such cases. If you’d view these cases, then you can see the amounts they sued the government for was way higher than the settlements we arrive at.

“The analysis we worked amongst us lawyers, this is a better deal to protect us than going to Court.”

Fetu in his opinion says the performances of those lawyers serving in the government are not up to a standard, or are incompetent. (O iai a le le atoatoa o le performance a loia, poo le lelei foi o loia o loo tautuaina le malo) a reason behind what’s happening. Our government doesn’t have much money.

He then pointed out to the phrase —  “Partial Payment” — in the bill, asking the AG if this would be the rest of the payment or would there be any other payments, as “Partial Payment” is used instead of “final payment or last payment”? He suggested replacing ‘partial payment’ with ‘final payment of settlement amount agreed upon’.

The AG responded that the bill has been written by the Governor’s legal team, and he assumes the Senior lawyer was looking at this last payment as partial payment of the total amount — with the first partial payment being the $25,000 paid earlier, and this last payment as the final partial payment, i.e. the balance owed on the full amount.

However, Fetu continued to suggest that the witnesses look at the wording of the bill again.