by Andrew Walden
When 34 Samoans were killed in a September 29, 2009 tsunami, Mufi Hannemann’s brother Afimutasi Gus Hannemann was front and center defending a Territorial Government which allegedly “created positions” with funds earmarked to install 30 tsunami warning sirens.
CNN reported October 27, 2009:
Public records show that the Department of Homeland Security had awarded millions of federal dollars in grants for disaster preparedness here, including the construction of an island-wide siren warning system. But all the federal funding was frozen in early 2007 after DHS inspectors found that the local American Samoan government had been diverting millions of those dollars for its own uses.
Birdsall Alailima, director of American Samoa's territorial office of Homeland Security from 2003 through 2007, now lives in southern Illinois, not far from St. Louis, Missouri. He showed CNN on a map exactly where on the island the sirens were to have been placed. Thirty towers in all, he said, with 30 sirens that could have been activated by the push of a single button.
"You're saying that the systems should have been in place?" CNN correspondent Drew Griffin asked him.
"Absolutely," Alailima said.
"And people died as a result?"
KITV followed up with an October 28 report:
Tenari Ma'afala leads the Honolulu police union and lost two family members in American Samoa. He said that if the report is true, he is "angered and embarrassed for the Samoan community."
Evonne Andrews, whose aunt drowned in the tsunamis, said government officials were greedy.
"It's messed up what they did with the money," Andrews said.
Gus Hannemann, a former American Samoa legislative member in Hawaii, said he believes funds were not misused and that no government officials personally profited from American taxpayer dollars.
"I don't want the Samoan people here to be embarrassed by this. No one gained from it," Hannemann said. "The fact is that they froze the funds and the responsibility should have been on the federal government."
CNN has learned the U.S. government froze those federal grants in American Samoa.
What happened to the tsunami warning funds? Gus Hannemann says “no one gained from it”. But KITV explained:
Documents show U.S. taxpayers shelled out nearly $13 million in disaster preparedness grants since 2003, including construction of a tsunami warning system.
Samoa's former homeland security advisor, who was fired two years ago, said he was working on a plan for warning sirens, but claims some money went missing to pay for extra government jobs.
Government reports also show some money paid for travel and entertainment charges in Las Vegas, flat screen TVs and expensive leather chairs.
Corruption in American Samoa is often about creating positions rather than lining pockets. This allows the incumbent to build his political base and secure his position in a society where most land remains communally held.
The political economy of American Samoa is a caricature of Hawaii’s. With a population of only 65,000, America’s South Pacific island territory receives about $250M in federal funding every year—about $3800 per person or $19,000 per Samoa’s average five-person household. The proposed Territorial budget for 2011 is $466.2M—about $7100 per person or $35,500 per family of five.
A similar amount comes from taxes, fees and ground rent from American Samoa’s tuna canneries’, and other enterprises. Producing $500M of canned tuna annually and staffed by 5,500 people mostly from the independent nation of Western Samoa, tuna canneries made American Samoa proportionally the most industrialized nation on earth--until the US Congress mandated that American Samoa abide by US minimum wages, forcing the September, 2009 shutdown of Chicken of the Sea and major layoffs at Starkist.
The result is a corporatist state. Most of the population depends on government and government depends on outsiders whether they be the US Federal government, tuna companies, or Western Samoa workers.
Samoan political leaders July 3 completed a Territorial Constitutional Convention. On the ballot this November, Samoan voters will be asked to say yes or no to over 100 constitutional amendments as a group. Among them, a clause which will allow the Territorial government to appoint its own Chief Justice and end the Interior Secretary’s veto over decisions by the Territorial Governor—instead giving the power to the Fono. The changes come partly in response to the minimum wage law. As the New York Times explained:
“Samoa has been the smoothest of the relationships, in part because the treaty which is the basis for the relationship makes the U.S. job so simple, which is to protect their way of life,” said Allen Stayman, a former official at the Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs.
That means that some of the United States Constitution’s most sacred concepts — like the notion of one person, one vote — do not apply in American Samoa. For example, a network of tribal leaders, known as matai, controls communal lands and they serve as appointed members of the territory’s Senate.
American Samoa is a one-party Democrats-only Territory. And like Hawaii, the Democrats all hate each other. Governor Togiola Tulafono—who holds the territorial purse strings--and the Territory's lone Congressional Delegate Eni Fa'aua'a Hunkin Faleomavaega, Jr.—who holds the Federal purse strings--are enemies. Faleomavaega and the Hannemanns have been rivals for years.
Tulafono—usually called “Governor Togiola” by Samoans--and Faleomavaega both graduated from Honolulu high schools. Hannemann and Faleomavaega are both Mormon and Tulafono is Congregationalist. In the US, American Samoa is second only to Utah in the proportion of Mormons in the population. The liberalism of the National Democratic Party has no traction in Samoa and neither Tulafono nor Faleomavaega show any interest in importing the National Democrats’ favorite social issues.
And like Hawaii, corruption is everywhere. As CNN explained in 2009:
The FBI investigation is only the latest and most recent attempt by the federal government to try to track what one federal official told CNN was "endemic" corruption on the island.
Here are only a few instances of the alleged corruption:
• Both the current Samoan lieutenant governor (Ipulasi Aitofele Sunia) and a former state senator (Tulifua Lam Yuen) are under federal indictment on allegations of fraud, bribery and conspiracy. A trial is pending in Washington because there are no federal courts on the island. Attorneys for both men have refuted the indictment in court filings and say their clients are innocent of all the charges.
• An inspector general's report by the Department of Homeland Security issued in May 2007 cites numerous examples of American Samoan officials misusing federal grant money. The report's findings include the purchase of six flat-screen televisions for more than $25,000; purchase of executive leather chairs for $4,000; spending $77,000 on equipment no auditor could find; and extensive travel and entertainment charges, including money spent in Las Vegas, Nevada, by a Samoan official for a conference he was scheduled to have attended in Colorado.
• The DHS letter freezing its funding was sent on January 12, 2007. The action was taken because "we have found that Homeland Security Grant funds have been diverted to uses by State government offices for other than the intended use of Homeland Security funds. This is not only in violation of public trust but In Lieu of agreement as well."
When Tulafono moved up from Lt Governor to Governor upon the 2003 death of his predecessor, Tulafono appointed Sunia Lt Governor. Sunia continued to serve in office while remaining out on $50,000 bail. They were reelected as a joint ticket in 2008 after Tulafono rejected calls for Sunia’s removal from office. A Federal Judge hearing the case in Washington, DC declared a mistrial February 23, 2010 after jurors deadlocked. The US DoJ opted not to retry the case.
FBI agents returned to American Samoa September 16 and arrested the director of the school lunch program.
As Mufi Hannemann began planning his run for Governor of Hawaii, Gus Hannemann organized the August 2-9, 2009 Samoan Heritage Festival at Honolulu’s Blaisdell Concert Hall and Keehi Lagoon Park—which just happened to showcase Mufi Hannemann. His funding: $200,000 sent by Governor Tulafono from the Territorial treasury without approval of the Fono—American Samoa’s legislature.
Controversy again reared its head as the August 8-14, 2010 Second Samoan Heritage Festival approached. Dissident Senator Velega Savali Jr., won a temporary restraining order from the Territorial High Court prohibiting Governor Tulafono from disbursing any unbudgeted funds. Samoa News reported:
“We have gone ahead with the planning with a condensed version of last year’s event,” said Afimutasi Gus Hannemann, chairman of the organizing committee in a telephone interview from Honolulu, saying that all activities will be at Ke’ehi Lagoon Park on Oahu….
Aug. 14 is the main event with the parade. Gov. Togiola Tulafono along with former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann are the key speakers of the day as the pair were instrumental in putting together the first event, said Afimutasi.
A last minute appropriation bill was sent to the Fono July 14, but Senators adjourned without acting. Gus Hannemann received $50,000 from the Territorial government to fund the event at Ke’ehi Lagoon Park on Oahu only after Tulafono dipped into an already-budgeted contingency fund.
Tulafono is in some ways the most powerful Governor in the federal system. He has effective control over all government jobs because of the unwillingness of individuals to place their family income at risk to enforce civil service laws. Most of the federal money flowing into Samoa is used—like the tsunami warning funds--to add positions. The result is that, inspite of intense political factionalism within the Democratic Party, few are willing to stand up in public and take on specific instances of waste, fraud, and corruption.
Immediately after CNN broke news of the misspent tsunami warning funds, Common Cause of American Samoa organized its own public hearing and called for immediate installation of a siren warning system. And by January, 2010 a contract was signed with American Signal. The first four sirens were to have been installed August 9, but the Territorial Government changed its mind and decided that 48 sirens were needed instead of the 39 called for in the contract. A new contract is being drawn up and the latest target date for installation is the September 29 anniversary of the tsunami.
Common Cause argues:
…the people must put up with the embarrassment of being considered crooked people and being unable to disqualify CNN’s claim that “We are corrupt.”
…We have so many great examples: the Pacific Festival contributions and to date, no financial report; the deposed fiber optic call center and thousands of jobs; Heritage Week for Samoans in Hawaii costing $275K and appropriated after-the-fact; Segaula & Yacht for the elite; medical insurance task force with no report; ethics training in 2005 by Consultant George Wray, yet so many AG & Immigration cases requiring an Independent Prosecutor; mandate for Hawaiian Airlines to leave; equipment for Aloha Airlines costing $400K; and now, the FBI raid to qualify his constant statement of “Leave my Asians alone.”
The risk of losing government jobs may keep many from speaking out publicly, but hiding their identities behind the anonymity of the Internet, Samoans let their true feelings come out. As the Con Con approached and Hannemann’s ally Tulafono started speaking about “autonomy”, a Samoan commenter wrote:
Despite the Federal Government being the sole source of our capital and funding, the Governor wants them to just mind their own business while he uses their funding to do whatever he wants and bankrupt us. The reason the Federal Government doesn't leave these types of decisions up to our Government, such as appointing the Chief Justice, or making changes to the Local Constitution, is because of all of the evident corruption. If these decisions are left to our local Government, things will not change for the better but for the worse. Everything Togiola promises, whether it be an Early Warning Siren System or Direct Fiberoptic Communications Connection to the Mainland and Lotsa Jobs from the resulting Call Center (which he put $19+ million into), we never see him follow through. His way of doing things is to make outlandish promises and then not follow through with them. This has been his attitude from far back, from the start even. If you remember, he promised to bring another airline to take place of Hawaiian Airlines, which just like his current promises, turned out to be empty and hollow.
A major bloc of opposition comes from the numerous Samoans with military ties. Tulafono postures about autonomy in an effort to bring back third-world wage levels and support his government budget through tuna canneries’ taxes and land rent made possible by the underpaid labor of Western Samoans, but one commenter points out:
As long as this governor shows how is anti-American by NOT saluting the US flag and opposing all federal law he will try to change government to have you getting your funding from China. Tell him to go back and read the deed of cession, surrendering to the US means HE loses!
On the other hand ...could it be that the Governor was mistaken as to how the process for changing political status works? Changing political status toward autonomy never did require a local constitutional convention. It required discussing the matter with the United States Government and hammering out an agreement. Could it be that the Governor, maybe ill advised again, made the mistake of calling a constitutional convention thinking we amend our constitution first to adopt the new political status then talk to the U.S.?
If the Constitutional Amendments are passed by Samoan voters, the US Secretary of the Interior will have to approve disenfranchising himself in order to allow American Samoa to eliminate the US minimum wage.
Common Cause opposes efforts to reduce or eliminate the minimum wage, but many Samoans see it as necessary to re-start an economy demolished both by the tsunami and the closures.
Meanwhile the American Samoa Government is negotiating a ground lease for the former Chicken of the Sea cannery with Seattle-based Tri-Marine, one of the world’s largest tuna packers.
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