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Hunter, several other Torres cronies, told to repay illegal overtime payments

"Accordingly, the funds that you received as emergency typhoon pay were paid in contravention of law and must be returned to the Commonwealth." - demand for payment issued by Attorney General Edward Manibusan to Torres cabinet members

By Jacob Nakamura

Despite publicly saying he was never paid illegal overtime, CNMI Attorney General Edward Manibusan has sent a letter of demand to governor's senior advisor Robert Hunter to pay back $17,147.90. His name and the amount he owes the taxpayers of the CNMI appears in a list from the OAGCNMI entitled "Recovery of Wrongfully Paid Overtime - Typhoon YUTU Compensation for Gubernatorial/Mayoral Appointments."

Those on the list received a "Demand for Repayment" letter from the AG on May 24. Part of that letter reads: "You have been identified as an employee of the Commonwealth Government who received emergency typhoon pay at a rate of 2.5x your base salary for Super Typhoon Yutu. This was done in error and contrary to Commonwealth law. The Commonwealth is now seeking repayment of the funds that were paid to you."

According to this list, Hunter was paid peanuts in overtime compared to his donut-loving buddies on the Torres cabinet. Clyde Norita owes $45,042.69 from overtime he received while commissioner of fire and emergency management services.

Public safety commissioner Robert Guerrero owes the taxpayers even more: $46,893.87.

Others on the list include James Ada, Antonio Benavente, Vicky Benavente, Larrisa Larson, and Mark Rabauliman.

Several of Gov. Ralph 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.

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.

In a letter May 30 to Attorney General Edward Manibusan, Congresswoman Celina Roberto Babauta minced no words on the matter:

"I am requesting that the collection efforts be commenced as soon as possible."

"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.

Mr. Manibusan apparently needed no encouragement. In his demand letter, he stated:

"The compensation of work performed by government employees during a declared typhoon emergency depends on which employment category they belong. Non-Civil Service employees, including executive branch heads; resident department heads; members of boards; commissions; councils, and gubernatorial appointments such as Cabinet members are not covered for emergency typhoon pay. Nor is there any statute authorizing extra payments for typhoon emergency work. As such, even if the Governor's directives were intended to authorize such payment to these exempted employees, there is no legal basis for doing so. Accordingly, the funds that you received as emergency typhoon pay were paid in contravention of law and must be returned to the Commonwealth."

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