Update: Details on ruling to disqualify Manu’a-1 House candidate
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Chief Election Officer Uiagalelei Lealofi is maintaining his decision to disqualify and withdrew the name of candidate Ali’itama Sotoa from the local House of Representatives race for Representative District #1 – Manu’a.
“The decision to disqualify Mr. Aliitama Sotoa as candidate in District No. 1 is based on law,” wrote Uiagalelei in an Oct. 26 response letter to Louise K. Y. Ing, a Hawai’i based attorney and partner of the law-firm Dentons US LLP in Honolulu, who represents Sotoa and had sought to re-qualify the candidate for the Nov. 08 Midterm Election.
“By trusting Mr. Sotoa’s assurance to comply with residency requirements, he was given a chance and his name was printed on the ballot for 7 days beyond expiration date. The trust was misplaced,” Uiagalelei explained.
He declared that the “decision to disqualify” Sotoa as a candidate in the midterm election “will remain”.
The Election Office announced earlier this month that new ballots for District #1 – Manu’a, were printed, after Uiagalelei withdrew Sotoa’s name as candidate for the midterm election.
In a Sept. 27 letter to Sotoa, the Chief Election Officer wrote that: “After several efforts to secure and collect documents in order to meet your House of Representatives candidate requirement for the... Midterm Election, to no avail, I have made the decision to withdraw your name from the official ballot for Representative District #1- Manu’a, effective immediately, September 27, 2022.” (See Samoa News edition Oct. 05 for details.)
Uiagalelei’s Sept. 27 decision prompted Sotoa to seek legal representation through Ing, the Hawai’i based attorney — after two-plus weeks of “one-on-one meetings and coordinations” with the Chief Election officer, Election Office legal counsel Faoa Aitofele Sunia and deputy election commissioner Fiti Tavai, the Election Officer said to Sotoa in an email that was shared with the local news media over the weekend.
Sotoa also released, over the weekend, his legal team’s “Demand Letter” to Uiagalelei as well as the Chief Election Officer’s response — and the letters are dated Oct. 26. American Samoa based attorney, Sean Morrison, of the Sean Morrison Law Office LLC, is also a member of Sotoa’s legal team that signed the “Demand Letter” to Uiagalelei.
The letter requests Uiagalelei to “immediately re-qualify” Sotoa as a candidate and that his name promptly be returned to the official ballot and other documents relating to candidates for the District #1 - Manu'a.
“With due respect, you had no legal basis for removing him from the ballot and your action in doing so was not only arbitrary and capricious, but in violation of American Samoa law,” Ing and Morrison wrote to Uiagalelei.
The attorneys explained in the letter that before departing American Samoa temporarily for healthcare treatments in California in early July, Sotoa obtained and had with him all the required Candidate Filing Process documents. Sotoa also timely submitted signed and notarized documents consisting of the Candidate Information Form, Candidate Confidential Qualifications Questionnaire and Notarized Certification.
During the entirety of Sotoa's stay in California, he maintained and continued telephone communications with the Election Office through staff and one of the Election Office staff members, about his medical updates as well a doctor’s note of when he is expected to return back to work in the territory.
“Despite Mr. Sotoa's compliance with all candidate prerequisites, he received without warning on September 30, 2022 a shocking and unjustified emailed letter from you, dated September 27, 2022” stating that Sotoa’s name is being withdrawn from the official ballot for District #1- Manu’a, “effective immediately,” Ing and Morrison wrote to Uiagalelei.
The attorneys said that Uiagalelei’s letter did not specify the documents to which he was referring. And it took a telephone call from Sotoa to “Election Office staff to learn that you were expecting to receive documents relating to Mr. Sotoa's medical appointments, none of which are required under American Samoa election laws and regulations.”
On Sept. 30, Sotoa called and informed Election Office staff that he would upload the medical documents from his healthcare portal and bring with him to the Election Office hard copies of those documents upon his Oct. 03 return to American Samoa. He hand-carried the documents, along with his doctor's note, in person to the Election Office on Oct. 04.
“Respectful of the ‘Samoan Way’ — Fa'aaloalo Fa'asamoa — Mr. Sotoa tried every which way to resolve the medical documents issues in order to gain reinstatement of his candidacy, to which he was legally entitled, to no avail,” Sotoa’s attorneys wrote.
“His efforts included an exhausting two weeks of separate one-on-one meetings” with Uiagalelei, the Election Office Legal Counsel and the deputy election commissioner.
Sotoa’s attorneys argued — in the letter — that Uiagalelei “incorrectly stated to Mr. Sotoa that ‘there's a clause somewhere in the law of American Samoa Code Annotated (ASCA) that says I have the discretion to make decisions on my own and me alone’.”
“You disregarded Mr. Sotoa's valid argument that — ‘if that's the case, since you have all the documents, you can use that same discretion to reinstate my candidacy’,” the attorneys pointed out.
Sotoa’s attorneys also discussed in summary the legal authority of the Chief Election Officer, provided by local law. “Despite your belief that ‘there's somewhere in the law that gives you absolute power on who becomes a candidate’, with all due respect, that is incorrect,” they wrote to Uiagalelei
The attorneys noted that the law gives the Chief Election Officer the authority to create blank petitions, count signatures, and ensure that the administrative requirements are met.
“That is an administrative duty, not a discretionary choice. The law does not give you authority to begin investigations into candidates or request private medical documents to prove their qualifications,” the attorneys said.
Additionally, the process for challenging qualifications is outlined in local law — ASCA 6.0302 — and it does not originate with the Election Office.
Furthermore, if a candidate correctly completes their petition and supporting documentation by Sept. 1, 2022 — which was the deadline to file petition for candidacy — the Chief Election Officer is obligated to print the candidate's name for office.
“Mr. Sotoa completed his requirements in a timely matter, and you gave no valid reason for your later position that his petition was deficient,” the attorneys tells Uiagalelei. “Your letter rejecting Mr. Sotoa's qualifications merely mentioned unspecified missing documents.”
However, “the documents to which Election Office staff confirmed you were referring are not a prerequisite to qualification for public office in American Samoa and are not grounds for denial of a candidate's petition,” the attorneys pointed out.
They reiterated that Sotoa was in regular communication with the Election Office regarding his medical appointments and therefore, the Chief Election Officer was fully informed of Sotoa’s situation.
“Even though the election requirements did not mandate that he provide his medical appointment documents to the Election Office, he hand delivered these documents to your office on October 4 as a courtesy, upon his return from a temporary stay in California,” the attorneys said.
“If your disqualification of Mr. Sotoa as a candidate was an effort to deny his qualifications based on residency, your grounds are utterly insufficient,” the attorneys argued and point to local law — ASCA 6.0212 — which they say is clear that "the residency of a person is that place in which his habitation is fixed, and to which, whenever he is absent, he has the intention to return."
The attorneys further argued that there is no evidence that Sotoa's medical treatment off-island somehow undermined his intention to return or terminated his residency.
“If anything, his qualifying for elected office was overwhelming evidence that he intended to return home,” the attorneys said and point out that Uiagalelei has “not provided any justification” for denying Sotoa’s qualifications based on residency or any other reason.
The attorneys reiterated their request that Sotoa “immediately be re-qualified as a candidate” and his name be included in the midterm election ballot for District #1 - Manu’a and in any other publications listing candidates.
The attorneys ask Uiagalelei that their request to re-qualify Sotoa be confirmed by or before noon on Oct. 28, to avoid violations of local law and violations of the duties of the Chief Election Officer.
However, Uiagalelei has maintained and upheld his decision to disqualify and withdraw Sotoa’s name as a candidate for District #1 - Manu’a.