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General Fund - not Rehab Account - used to buy new police cars

One of the new Ford 'Interceptors' reently purchased for DPS. [SN file photo]

ASG Treasurer Uelinitone Tonumaipea claims that money from the government’s General Fund was used to finance the recent purchase of new police vehicles, while Police Commissioner Le’i Sonny Thompson emphasized that he has no authority to use any funds without going through the proper approval process, which includes authorization from either the governor or lieutenant governor.

But ASG documents received by the Senate, show that the law enforcement fee account “was charged” for the purchase, said Sen. Fa’amausili Mau Mau Jr., chairman of the Senate Public Safety/Homeland Security Committee during a hearing yesterday regarding the controversial purchase of the new police vehicles.

Besides Le’i and Tonumaipea, another witness at the hearing was ASG Budget and Planning Office director, Catherine Aigamaua Saelua.

 Attorney General Talauega Eleasalo Ale was in the Senate gallery, but was not called when the hearing began and he later left.

The hearing was a result of a concern raised last week by Sen. Magalei Logovii, who said that based on information the Budget and Appropriations Committee received, the purchase was financed by the $10 fee, which is imposed and collected by the court for any traffic violation.

Money collected from the $10 fee shall be segregated into a separate checking account designated “ASG - Traffic Rehabilitation Account” administered by the Treasurer, according to provisions of the law, which also states that such costs shall be expended solely for purchase or maintenance of traffic control devices, traffic patrol vehicles, and traffic safety or traffic law enforcement.

During the Senate hearing, Le’i pointed to the Traffic Rehabilitation Account and said he has no authority to spend any revenues without approval of the governor or lieutenant governor. As for the police vehicles in question, Le’i said he followed procedures, going through the Procurement Office, Treasury, and Budget, and then approved by either the governor or lieutenant governor.

Le’i explained that police service is in need of additional vehicles and it has been his plan to get more for the fleet, including motorcycles - for use by motorcycle cops. He said he didn’t violate the law and he followed the proper procedure for the purchase in question.

However, Sen. Fa’amausili, a retired police official, pointed out that provision of the law regarding the $10 fee requires that expending such money comes to the Fono first for approval.

This provision of the law, states, that “revenues generated from the fee imposed in this section shall be subject to appropriation by the Legislature and approval by the Governor.”

Tonumaipea said the Rehabilitation Account has its own bank account in which all revenues collected from the $10 are deposited.

He explained that money to finance the vehicle purchase came from the ASG General Fund, with the hope that the general fund will be reimbursed by the Rehabilitation Account, when the Police Commissioner comes to the Fono with a reimbursement request.

Fa’amausili said the process in which money was used for the purchase was still not in compliance with the law, because the Rehabilitation Account will have to reimburse the general fund.

“Is that how our government procedures are?” Fa’amausili asked, referring to purchasing first and getting Fono approval later. Tonumaipea responded that money from the Rehabilitation Account cannot be transferred to the general fund, unless the police commissioner comes before the Fono with the request.

And although the vehicles are already purchased, if the reimbursement cannot be made or the Fono does not approve the police commissioner’s request, the general fund remains the financing source, said Tonumaipea.

Fa’amausili asked what happens if the Fono does not approve such a request. Does that mean the general fund will continue to have a shortfall in revenue?

Tonumaipea claimed that previous administrations have done the same thing, using the general fund for purchases with no requests being sent for Fono approval. He said many times, there were no reimbursements made to the general fund.

Sen. Paepae Iosefa Faiai inquired about the DPW Law Enforcement allocation of $200,000 under the Special Program budget category that is overseen by the Governor’s Office, to which Saelua responded that this is a different program from the Rehabilitation Account.

Paepae asked if the Police Commissioner can use this funding or  if it's up to the governor and Saelua responded that the Police Commissioner can use this money.

“Is this true Commissioner?” Paepae asked Le’i, who repeated what he said earlier, that he does not have the authority to use money without approval. He said it appears from what is being stated during the hearing that he has the authority to expend revenues.

Le’i emphasized that the police commissioner does not have the authority to use any money “without the approval of the governor or the lieutenant governor”. He explained that purchase requests go through the Budget Office and Treasury.

Paepae then asked about what happened to the nice big Ford Expedition, with flashing lights that was used by the previous police commissioner.

Le’i said that when he took over the post, that vehicle was at the Territorial Correctional Facility and it has since been repaired and was recently used for VIPs during the 2017 Flag Day. He said the vehicle, now at the DPW compound, is too big and not useful for carrying out his duties.

Paepae said he is concerned that when a new police commissioner takes over, that individual would seek out his own specific type of vehicle instead of proper planning to ensure that such a vehicle is useful  for carrying out police work.  He said this was not a cheap car and requested that DPS ensure that they purchase vehicles that are proper for DPS work.

Sen. Nuanuaolefeagaiga Saoluaga T. Nua sought confirmation from Saelua as to what account was used for the purchase in question, since Tonumaipea said it was the general fund.

Saelua explained that with the governor’s cost containment measures already in place, Le’i’s request goes through the governor who then gives the approval and the account number is provided to be used for the purchase.

If there is sufficient revenues in the account, then the paperwork is processed, she said.

Fa’amausili pointed out for the committee that the Rehabilitation Account was “charged” for the purchase of the vehicles. This was based on copies of the documents the Budget Office gave the committee at yesterday’s hearing.

That means it's the $10 fee imposed and collected by the court, Fa’amausili said. This prompted Nuanuaolefeagaiga to say that providing false testimony to the Fono is not good.

Sen. Magalei Logovii informed Saelua and Tonumaipea that the only thing senators want to hear is an apology from them, that they made a mistake. He said if “you erred” in making such a decision, just apologize and senators will accept it but just “don’t do it again”.

Magalei, a former ASG Treasurer, said Le’i’s testimony is correct in that he submits a request and the Budget Office works on identifying the funding account to cover the request.

Sen. Tuiagamoa Tavai asked why the general fund was used for the purchase instead of submitting a proposal for Fono approval.

Tonumaipea responded that Treasury doesn’t review the funding source for a payment. He said that when invoices and purchase orders are submitted, “we pay it” as long as it's approved by Procurement and the Budget office. He said the vendor wanted to get paid for the cars.

He added that it was later learned that the Rehabilitation Account was to be used, and the plan now is to transfer money to the general fund, but because of the concerns from the senate, the money has not been transferred to the general fund yet.

He apologized, saying Treasury didn’t know that purchases using the Rehabilitation Account required legislative approval and that’s the truth. He said Treasury paid the invoice as the vendor had sought payment, and it was paid under the general fund account.

At the end of the nearly hour-long hearing, both Fa’amausili and Nuanuaolefeagaiga suggested that the witnesses still follow the law and submit proposed legislation to allow the purchase of the cars, to correct what’s already done.

It was also made clear several times during the hearing that the Senate is not against the purchase of new police vehicles, they just want the law to be followed.