Fono discusses issue of COVID-19 checks for their fono offices
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — During yesterday’s first meeting of the fourth regular session of the 36th Legislature, both chambers of the Fono brought up the money that has been distributed among members of the Fono to renovate or rent their office spaces.
Senate President, Gaoteote Palaie Tofau told Senators that the Fono did not ask the Governor for the $500,000 distributed among members of the Fono. He said It was a decision by Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga to let the two other branches of the government — the Fono and the Judiciary — get a share of the COVID-19 relief funds.
Gaoteote’s explanation came after Sen. Tuaolo Manaia Fruen told the Senate that he is going to return his $10,000 check that he received from the COVID-19 relief money to fund an office, during yesterday’s Senate session.
Sen. Nuanuaolefeagaiga echoed Tuaolo’s statement and stated that he will also return his check because the government needs this funding to prepare our nation if the virus arrives on our shore.
Tuaolo said during his announcement that he wants to let his voice be clear about the check that was given to him by the Senate Secretary last Friday. He said when he asked the Senate Secretary what the $10,000 check was for, the Senate Secretary replied that it was for renovation of the Senator’s office.
“I don’t need an office,” Tuaolo said. “My office is my cell phone. I also don’t need funds for renovation because my house is in a good condition.”
He apologized to the Senate President and the Senators if his statement affected someone’s heart but he told them that he never went to the media to voice his concerns regarding this issue.
Tuaolo further stated that the he doesn’t want to just sound like he’s a honest person in the Fono, but he wants to make sure his voice is being heard about this issue.
Nua echoed Tuaolo’s statement regarding the checks. He told the Senate that he has received reports that there are government employees who have worked overtime during this time of the lockdown and still haven’t received their overtime pay.
Nua said furthermore the government is in need of funds in case the coronavirus enters American Samoa.
“I’m going to return my check and I want it used for these funds accordingly,” the senator said.
President Gaoteote interrupted and told Senators it would be better if anyone wanting to talk about this issue waits until the session is over. Gaoteote then called a brief meeting for after the session so that he could get the chance to explain the issue about the checks.
During the discussion, the Senate President made it clear to Senators that the issue about the funds given by the Governor to Fono members is not a new issue. He stated that it was during their meeting with Governor Lolo and House Speaker Savali Talavou Ale that they were informed by the governor about the funds for the Fono.
Gaoteote told Senators that the Fono is not the only part of the government that has received funding. All government departments and the Judiciary also received funding from the government under the Relief Fund.
“The Fono did not ask the Governor for this funding. It was given to us under the authority of the Governor,” Gaoteote said.
He also stated that he wasn't aware of the Governor’s decision to distribute the funds to Senators. The only thing he knew was that each Senator should look for good space in town to use as their office because the new Fono building is still being built.
Several Senators voiced their support of this issue. They said that the Fono must support and respect the Governor’s decision. They noted that the Governor has a lot of respect for the Fono, so the Fono must also do the same thing for the Governor and the Administration.
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
The House of Representatives also took up the issue of the checks during their session today.
House Speaker Savali elaborated on the purpose of the checks that were distributed last week to representatives and senators. He said Fono members have been without an office to meet with constituents and this has been raised in the House a few times.
Savali said the original intention was to rent hotel rooms however the funding was not enough so it was decided to give the funds to Fono members for offices at home.
The Speaker said lawmakers who don’t want the checks that have been given to them for their offices should return the money to the Fono.
(Samoa News should point out that he did not say if the money would then be returned to the Administrative Branch or redistributed among those who have accepted the checks.)
Savali also stated that most Fono members are in the 60 and above age group, who are deemed most vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic. He didn’t expand on the correlation between this age group and the funding for offices.
He said members should be mindful of the important role they play and also consider the effects of statements they make on the dignity and integrity of the Fono.
The Speaker didn’t name any lawmaker in particular but said those who don’t want their check should return the checks to the Fono.
Tualauta Representative Larry Sanitoa, along with Pago Pago Representative Vesiai Poyer Samuelu have returned their checks to the ASG Revenue Office.
(Samoa News notes that no mention has been made so far by the Administration about funding for the Judiciary — if there is any or if so what it is earmarked for.)