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DHSS director now fully confirmed after sharp questioning in Senate

Muavaefa’atasi John Suisala
Sen. Malaepule questions nominee’s involvement with a certain non-profit

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — The Fono has officially endorsed the governor’s nomination of Muavaefa’atasi John Suisala as director of the Human and Social Service Department, the same department the nominee headed during the previous administration.

The Legislature’s final decision came yesterday with the Senate vote of 14-1, while the House had already given its approved of Muavaefa’atasi, who appeared yesterday morning for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Human and Social Services Committee chaired by Sen. Fonoti Tafa’ifa Aufata.

At the outset of the 40-minute hearing, Sen. Malaepule Saite Moliga spent about 15-minutes asking pointed questions. Among them, are any DHSS employees affected by the governor’s roll-back order and if so, how many.

Sen. Malaepule Saite Moliga poses for a Samoa News photo, following a Senate committee confirmation hearing yesterday morning for the governor’s nomination of Muavaefa’atasi John Suisala as director of Department of Human and Social Service. Malaepule spent about 15-minute asking pointed questions of the nominee, who is now officially DHSS director, after he was confirmed by the Senate yesterday, while the House gave its approved last Friday. [photo: FS]

The Manu’a senator is referring to Gov. Lemanu Peleti Palepoi Sialega Mauga’s Feb. 5th memorandum, which ordered the roll-back of pay adjustments made without justification in the budget, and conversion of contract to career service — starting Jan. 1, 2019 to the present.

Muavaefa’atasi responded that there are several employees affected but the total number of employees was not known yet. He said the affected employees received letters from Human Resources Department that their files are being reviewed in accordance with the governor’s directive.

At the time of yesterday’s hearing, Muavaefa’atasi says no one has had their salary rolled back, or any other action taken, as the final decision is still pending from DHR. 

At one point, Malaepule said he is concerned that Muavaefa’atasi has been off island for about 7 or 8 months, leaving DHSS without proper leadership. (Muavaefa’atasi was among the 159 passengers on the first repatriation flight on Feb. 1st.)

The nominee responded that while stranded off island due to border closure, he was still working, keeping in touch with DHSS via telecom and when he was in the 14-day quarantine at Tradewinds Hotel, he conducted a Zoom session with the employees who received letters from DHR saying that their files are being reviewed.

Malaepule inquired about DHSS service in Manu’a to which Muavaefa’atasi responded that the department continues its programs, such as Women, Infant and Children (WIC) and food stamps. And there are five DHSS employees in Manu’a  — three on Ta’u island and two for Ofu and Olosega islands.

Malaepule moved his questions to Muavaefa’atasi’s involvement with a “non-profit” group — referring to the Center for Families of Individuals with Developmental Disabilities (CFIDD), whose office was formerly housed at one of the ASG buildings at the Tafuna housing complex across from Lions Park.

The senator, who was director of Administrative Services Department during the Lolo Administration, the department that oversees this Tafuna housing complex, recalled that the government didn’t get any money from the “non-profit” group’s use of this building, which was also where DHSS had an office.

Malaepule questioned whether or not it’s a “conflict of interest” for DHSS to have an office at this building used by a “non-profit” group with which the nominee is involved.

Muavaefa’atasi confirmed his ties to CFIDD and explained that the department planned to set up a WIC office at the Tafuna Community Health Center to serve the populous Tualauta county and others on the western side of the island.

However, that plan fell through, so DHSS found space at the building which housed CFIDD, according to Muavaefa’atasi who also pointed out that WIC had its own room/ space in the building, and so did CFIDD.

Malaepule responded that he doesn’t see the rational in this whole set-up and noted possible conflict of interest especially with Muavaefa’atasi who had roles in both DHSS and the “non-profit” group.

(To date: the building that housed CFIDD is being taken down, as the government is leasing that parcel to another company.)

Malaepule had more concerns, pointing to a “conflict of interest” with CFIDD getting grants from DHSS, when Muavaefa’atasi had a role in both organizations.

Muavaefa’atasi confirmed that CFIDD had received grants but pointed out that a project manager within DHSS oversees it and signs off on it.

However, Malaepule was not satisfied, repeating — again — his concern with a “conflict of interest”, saying at the end of his questions, that answers by the nominee will help determine his confirmation vote. (Senate confirmation votes are by secret ballot.)

Other senators who spoke during the hearing thanked the governor for nominating Muavaefa’atasi to, again, head DHSS which provides a lot of service to the community through many federally funded programs.

Responding to a question from Sen. Magalei Logovi’i, the nominee said that the grantor would conduct an audit of the programs administered by DHSS if there are problems that surface. But, the nominee said none was ever carried out during his tenure as director in the Lolo Administration.

At the start of the hearing, Muavaefa’atasi thanked the governor and lieutenant governor for the chance to continue to serve the government and people of American Samoa through DHSS.

Several DHSS staff, along with nominee’s family members and others were in the Senate gallery to show support. After a request from Sen. Soliai Tuipine Fuimaono, at the end of the hearing, the group of supporters song a popular Samoan thank-you song, “Ua faafetai, ua fa’afetai, ua malie mata e vaai”.

Because of limited seating capacity inside the gallery — others, who came to show support for the nominee, either waited outside or left the compound. Muavaefa’atasi did inform senators that all DHSS staff there, took leave.