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Senate endorses Falema’o after tough questioning

The governor’s nomination of Falema’o M. “Phil” Pili was endorsed by the Senate Wednesday in a 14-2 vote and the final vote is expected Thursday in the House after he goes before the House Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing earlier Thursday. Prior to the Senate vote, Pili appeared before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for his confirmation hearing, where issues about his job in the now defunct ASG Employees Federal Credit Union, alleged past problems he had in government service, and ASG finances were raised.In his opening remarks, Pili said that he wants to utilize what he was given by God to serve the government and its people. He also said that he does not believe in looking back but to the future for the betterment of American Samoa. He said the task before him as a Treasurer is not going to be an easy one but by working together with others, including the Fono, it can be achieved. Sen. Sua Vaiuli Matautia praised the nominee for his education and work background. He said the Treasurer is the heart of ASG and that Pili qualifies for the post. He then said that Pili was part of the credit union in the territory many years ago and the financial institution fell apart without any full understanding by the public as to what happened. Budget committee chairman Laolagi F.S. Vaeao quickly stopped the question, saying he is not sure if the witness should answer a question pertaining to the credit union. The hearing then moved on with no answer from Pili.In answering questions about ASG’s financial status, Pili gave the same numbers covered by Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga during his State of the Territory Address — that there is a deficit of just over $44 million and this includes a projected deficit of $5 million by the end of the current fiscal year based on a review of the first quarter —which ended on Dec. 31. He did note that revenue collections, which includes excise taxes, has increased a little and the administration is now forecasting a slight decrease in the FY 2013 deficit. Pili said at this time the administration is still going through the books. “I’m a very optimistic person,” he said. “There is an answer to everything and there is also a solution to problems.”Sen. Alo Fa’auuga’s asked if there were any problems in the past dealing with Pili’s work history or if something had happened to him. He didn’t provide any specific details for his question. Pili responded saying that there will always be criticism and complaints against him, but in the last 30 years of his professional career working in finances, he knows of nothing he has done wrong. He said there have been rumors and criticism but no proof presented publicly about him. Additionally, in the more than ten years when he was deputy Treasury for ASG, nothing happened that would tarnish his name. Pili also told the committee that he had also served — for 25 years — as president of one of stakes for the Mormon Church and among the duties is handling a lot of church finances and nothing negative surfaced against him. He suggested that evidence be brought forth to prove any wrongdoing on his part. Alo asked about the time he was chief financial officer with the American Samoa Community College, to which Pili said, the current ASCC president Seth Galeai has the right information and he left ASCC due to issues pertaining to his employment contract; and if the Senate wants the truth, Pili suggested the Senate contact the ASCC president to provide the full details and accurate information. He pointed out that his tenure with ASCC is one of those issues that have surfaced as rumors and criticism against him. Sen. Nua Saoluaga had a different set of questions focusing on financial matters and had a lengthy exchange with Pili. Nua specifically inquired about payouts to directors of the last administration as well as to the former governor and lieutenant governor, and asked whether these payouts were budgeted in FY 2013. Pili said the total payouts came to $1.04 million and about $500,000 of the payouts were not included in the budget. Additionally, the half-a-million was borrowed from the second quarter budget allocation, he said.Responding to more questions from Nua dealing with governor appointees getting sick and annual leave, Pili said these individuals were entitled to paid leave, adding that some of them can claim compensatory time, which will be reviewed by the new administration. Nua appeared not satisfied with the responses from Pili and said Pili needs to work with the Fono to resolve many of these money issues to ensure that they are not repeated.Senate President Gaoteote Tofau Palaie quickly interjected before Nua moved to another line of questions that Pili has only been at his post for a couple of days and many of the questions asked about ASG finances could not be answered until the new administration completes its review of ASG books. He said the current administration will need more time to conduct a thorough review of the first quarter of FY 2013 - which was during the time of the last administration. Sen. Soliai Fuimaono Tuipine also focused his questions on ASG finances wanting to know if the administration has fully confirmed that there is a $44 million deficit to which Pili pointed out that the governor had provided details about that during his State of the Territory Address to the Fono on Jan. 14. “But are the financial numbers confirmed — that there is a deficit? And how is the government going to address the deficit? Soliai asked, to which Pili explained that there is an over-forecast of $5 million in individual income tax for FY 2013 budget. He said the administration will continue to review the financial records and will carry out another review at the end of this month. Laolagi again interrupted, asking senators to focus their questions on confirmation issues, but Soliai responded that a confirmation hearing is the right time to ask these types of questions especially about financial projections by the government.Gaoteote disagreed, pointing out that this is a confirmation hearing and the focus of questioning is whether or not the nominee is qualified for the job. Sen. Magalei Logovi’i, the last ASG Treasurer, asked, “How’s your health nowadays?” Quickly adding that being Treasurer is a stressful job, because he’s “been there”. He said Pili has a huge job ahead of him, if fully confirmed by the Fono, because there is the biweekly payroll of $3.9 million to deal with, subsidies to the ASG authorities and other expenditures. He also said that for many years now, there have been no new revenue measures enacted into law to help the ASG coffers. He said the only one enacted was the one last year for the new 2% wage tax, but that goes for other purposes (it is for the LBJ Medical Center).The last question came from Laolagi, who wanted to know if the Treasurer has a plan to address the deficit and other financial shortfalls in the budget.Pili said “yes” and he has discussed this with the governor, who will provide that information to the Fono very soon. (Samoa News understands that this is the supplemental budget). Pili said the biggest achievement for him, as Treasurer — if confirmed by the Fono — is to clear the deficit.Of interest, Sen. Leatualevao S. Asifoa advised Pili that if any director overspends their budget, Pili should recommend to the governor their removal for violating the budget law.