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Babauta calls on AG to force Torres cronies to pay back millions in illegal overtime

By Jacob Nakamura

Congresswoman Celina Roberto Babauta (D-Saipan) wants Gov. Ralph Torres's cronies, who received illegal overtime payments after Super Typhoon Yutu to pay that money back to the people of the CNMI.

In a letter May 30 to Attorney General Edward Manibusan, Ms. Babauta minced no words on the matter:

"I am requesting that the collection efforts be commenced as soon as possible. More than one year has passed and I am not aware that any action has been taken to recoup the unauthorized payments."

Ms. Babauta referred Mr. Manibusan to his opinion, OAGOP 2020-14 issued January 13, 2020 to the Public Auditor, where he concluded, "As to the extra payment for typhoon emergency work, Cabinet members are not covered under any [of the foregoing] regulations."

Several of Torres's cabinet members, staff, and other cronies were paid overtime at a rate of double their rate of pay and for which governor's senior advisor Robert Hunter defended. Mr. Hunter assailed critics on social media, telling the public these cabinet members and highly-paid staffers committed to a "labor of love" following Yutu, and that overtime to them was accrued, but not paid.

When Congressman Ed Propst confronted Mr. Hunter with documented proof of the payments, Hunter said nothing.

An example of the illegal overtime, which Kandit reported on, was a May 11 through May 23, 2020 timesheet request and authorization to pay public safety commissioner Robert Guerrero 41 hours of overtime for a 12-day period at a rate of $62.50 per hour. Mr. Torres signed the authorization.

The overtime payments occurred at a time, when the CNMI was facing dire financial and economic austerity, hundreds had lost their jobs and wages, and several still had not been able to rebuild their homes. The Torres administration attempted to have the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency reimburse the CNMI government for the cost, but FEMA refused.

In February this year, Secretary of Finance David Atalig informed the Commonwealth Legislature that the total cost of the illegal overtime payments was about $8 million.

"Atalig has openly stated in a February 23, 2021 meeting with the members of the House of Representatives that $8 million of personnel cost was deemed non-reimbursable by the [FEMA] due to the unlawfulness of overtime pay for appointed excepted service employees, and that he will do nothing unless instructed by your office or the Office of the Public Auditor, to collect the unauthorized payments," Ms. Babauta wrote to Mr. Manibusan.

She is asking him to join with the Public Auditor "to mandate the Secretary of Finance to initiate collection efforts to recover the unauthorized payments."

As Torres administration cronies obnoxiously and obtusely call on their critics to discuss solutions for economic growth, they have been keen and arrogant to ignore the millions they have squandered on themselves.


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