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Senate rejects bill for criminal background checks for candidates

American Samoa Election Office photo

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Chief Election Officer, Dr. Lealofi Uiagalelei says candidates seeking public office are asked in a questionnaire whether they have been convicted of a crime, and voters can challenge the eligibility of a candidate.

Uiagalelei was responding to Samoa News questions after the Senate rejected in second reading a House bill that would mandate the Chief Election Officer to conduct criminal background checks for all candidates petitioning for the gubernatorial, congressional and local House of Representative seats.

Prior to the Senate vote, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Tuiagamoa Tavai informed his colleagues that there is a question - in which the answer is “yes” or “no” on the questionnaire - for candidates running for public office pertaining to his/her criminal background.

The committee had held discussions with the Election Office and conducted its own research, and found that sufficient laws are in place to address such matters.

Uiagalelei confirmed - for the record - to Samoa News yesterday that there is a “yes or no question” on the candidate’s application, asking if they have been convicted of any crime.

“This question helps the [election] commissioner decide whether to certify a candidate if the answer is yes,” he said, adding that a legal opinion from the Attorney General and/or Election Office counsel will also be needed for the commissioner’s decision.

“Thus, there is also a 3-day period given to any voter to challenge a candidate before certifying the list of eligible candidates,” he explained.

Uiagalelei said the challenge shall be made no later than 4:30pm on the 3rd business day after the Chief Election Officer issues his determination of nominated candidates eligible for election. The challenge shall be in writing, setting forth the grounds upon which it is based, and be signed by the person making the challenge.

Two legal observers told Samoa News last week that the “challenge avenue, as dictated by law, is another layer” that gives the public the right to argue that a candidate does not qualify due to - for example - a conviction.  Additionally, there are additional provisions of the election law, which punishes a person who makes false claims.

“The Fono can also do a background check before swearing-in a candidate,” Uiagalelei told Samoa News.

Rep. Faimealelei Anthony Fu’e Allen, the bills sponsor, had told the House that if the candidate simply answers "no" on the nominating petition — whether he or she has been convicted of a felony — the Election Office does not carry out any further investigation. (See Samoa News Feb. 4, 2019 edition for details).

Candidates information on the Election Office website, provides “qualification for office” for gubernatorial, congressional and local House of Representative races. It also shows information on “disqualification” of a candidate. “Any person convicted of a felony under the laws of American Samoa, the United States, or the laws of any state of the United States is not eligible for election to the above offices unless the convicted person has been pardoned and has had his civil rights restored.”