Senators grill Treasurer over conflicting testimony
A direct deposit is just an “option” for ASG employees to consider when it comes to payroll checks, according to testimony yesterday by ASG Treasurer Dr. Falema’o ‘Phil’ M. Pili before angry members of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.
With the Treasurer using the word option in his explanation, it appeared to resolve the issue — until later in the hearing, when Sen. Gaea Pelefoti Failautusi read out part of a memo issued by Pili that makes direct deposit mandatory effective after April this year.
This prompted Sen. Soliai Tuipine Fuimaono to say he no longer trusts testimony by Pili, whose next testimony should be sworn in before the Senate to ensure questions are answered truthfully.
At the start of the hearing, which was called after public complaints were lodged with senators, Pili told senators that perhaps the main concern with this issue is that “we’re trying to convert everyone to direct deposit”, which is mandatory in the military and used by other federal agencies and many countries.
He says the move saves money — but this is not very important to him — adding he is aware there are employees whose parents want to see the actual paper check.
Additionally, direct deposit saves time and makes things easy for the government, he noted.
Senate President Gaoteote Tofau Palaie was the first to ask questions and his tone was not a happy one, asking Pili if he is aware of major public criticism of this move. At least three times, Gaoteote described Pili’s action in Samoan as “pule saua”, or “authoritarian action”.
Last week, Pili told Samoa News the move to have every government employee on direct deposit does not include the semi-autonomous authorities,_ and he is looking at later next month for everyone to go into direct deposit and no more paper checks.
During the hearing, Gaoteote pointed out the Fono is included in the Treasurer’s action and wanted to know if he had ever consulted the Fono leaders on this issue.
“Or did you use your own authority to implement this action?” Gaoteote asked, and Pili replied that he believes there is a misconception and misunderstanding of the goal of direct deposit.
Pili then said the Treasurer cannot order people to use direct deposit.
Gaoteote quickly interrupted and characterized his action as “pule saua” — on the part of the Treasurer. He asked repeatedly if the Treasurer fully understands the very serious complaints from the community about the type of authority he is using.
“The intention is to try to switch our people to direct deposit,” Pili replied, and quickly added direct deposit is “an option” adding, “I can’t force [anyone] — that’s dictatorship. All I want to do is set a goal for American Samoa.”
He apologized if there was any misunderstanding in the communications he sent out and said he will retract such statements, if they do not clearly have the word ‘option’.
Gaoteote’s tone of voice quickly changed, saying the issue is now clear that this is an option, when it comes to direct deposit and not the reports circulating in the community.
Sen. Magalei Logovi’i then commented that it was clear now, instead of the misconception carried by the newspaper.
Sen. Afoa L.S. Lutu suggested that the Treasury Department conduct sessions with ASG employees to explain to them this issue so that everyone has a full understanding that they have this option of direct deposit. He says this would make the transition easy for those wanting direct deposit.
THE FAMOUS MEMO
Just as it appeared that the senators were pleased this issue had been fully clarified and and it was the newspaper that had misinterpreted the mandatory direct deposit, Gaea pointed out he had a copy of a Jan. 16, 2014 memo from the Treasurer to government departments and agencies.
Gaea read out loud a large portion of the memo, which states, “In line with federal standards of e-Government and to help provide accountability to protect each employee, ASG shall implement a government wide ACH (or Automated Clearing House) direct deposit to be in effect within 90 days ending Apr. 15, 2014.”
“This notification... also designates that all new government employees to be hired shall complete a direct deposit form so that all payroll checks will be deposited into their respective banking institution,” the memo says. Additionally, the memo notes, current ASG workforce or all others are encouraged to provide appropriate direct deposit information for their respective bank accounts.
“After April 2014, ASG will no longer process paper checks for payroll and all payroll checks will be distributed through ACH direct deposit,” it says.
Gaea then told senators that based on the memo, that means after April this year, there will no longer be paper checks but everything will be done by direct deposit.
Gaoteote quickly pointed out this memo says nothing about an "option" for direct deposit and the memo has already been presented to employees. He further noted that from the outset of the hearing, it appeared reports by the newspaper were misrepresented — but the memo clearly shows that direct deposit is not optional.
Pili responded, “I think it was intended for new employees”, adding that direct deposit is still an “option.”
But Soliai said, “I don’t agree with your explanation” , adding that if Pili was testifying under oath, his testimony would be a lie — and a lie to senators. He said Pili could be held in “contempt” of the Senate for giving different testimonies.
Soliai also said that he has reached the point where he no longer trusts the testimony of the witness, who should be sworn in, in order to testify. “I’m not very happy,” the Senator said.
Afoa asked if the memo is still valid, adding that no information in the memo uses the word “option” for direct deposit.
Pili replied it is not his intention — or the intention of his office — to mislead senators, but there is still an option when it comes to direct deposit.
Afoa read out a provision of the memo which states that after April 2014, ASG will no longer process paper checks for payroll and all checks will be distributed through ACH direct deposit.
He then asked the witness, “Is your testimony now— that this is no longer true?”
Pili’s only answer was “yes” but that didn’t sit well with Gaoteote who insisted that this memo, an official government document sent out to departments still lacks the word “option”.
Gaoteote also said there were concerns of possible misreporting by the newspaper, but “here is this memo saying the same thing” — and without the word option.
“What is the truth?” he asked twice, while he still insisted there is a conflict in what Pili said earlier and what’s cited in the memo.
Pili responded he will reissue the memo to clarify this issue, and the committee suggested to please include in the memo the Treasurer’s testimony that direct deposit is an option.
See tomorrow’s edition on other issues covered in the hearing.