'Now is not the time to blink,' Sen. Terlaje says as governor keeps legislature at arm's
How will the administration spend the $129 million in federal aid Guam received under President Trump's CARES Act? With all these federal funds pouring into Guam, increased transparency is imperative, according to Sen. Therese Terlaje.
"Now is not the time to blink or look the other way," the senator said, noting that Adelup officials have been keeping their cards close to their chests.
Despite countless letters to Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero and cabinet members seeking details on the administration’s Covid-19-related spending structure, Terlaje said Guam senators have been kept in the dark.
Terlaje said senators sought clarity on the administration's plans to purchase more tests, to provide personal protective equipment for frontline workers, to expedite economic relief for those unemployed and how the federal relief will be prioritized during the coronavirus crisis. Senators did not get any response.
"It is perplexing to me why the legislature, a co-equal branch of government, and the people of Guam would be denied this basic information while they continue to suffer and instead be told by the administration to submit a FOIA," Terlaje said.
But as far as the governor is concerned, reporting to the legislature about the disbursements of Covid-19 federal aid package is redundant, if not beyond the senators' authority.
“A local statute commanding the executive branch to do what federal law already prescribes should not confuse these processes,” the governor said in vetoing Bill 333-35, which would mandate transparency on how federal funds are being used.
In a bid to keep the senators at arm's length, Leon Guerrero said the District Court of Guam has previously ruled the government of Guam may receive direct federal appropriations based on congressional guidelines.
"Placing additional requirements on the use of these funds is an overreach of legislative authority,” the governor said.
Authored by Terlaje, Bill 333-35 would have required governor to "keep a full account of all Covid-19 expenses" and to submit a report to the legislature within 20 days of the close of each calendar month.
But the governor said federal funds granted to the states and territories already come with mandatory timelines, and the methods to operationalize federally funded programs. "Secondly, some federal implementation plans- particularly those involving the Internal Revenue Service are covered documents under federal law, meaning they cannot be published until final or at all," she said in her veto message.
Terlaje warned that the "unprecedented power and money controlled by a handful of public officials, as a result of this public health emergency, will have long lasting repercussions for every individual on Guam."
Noting that Bil 333-35 received a unanimous vote in the legislature, Terlaje said the senators' call for increased transparency is "a whisper compared to the public’s growing discontent and demands for truth and real relief. We must use facts to dispel doubt about their government and restore a partnership worthy of the people’s trust and cooperation."
Terlaje is asking her colleagues to override the governor's veto. "I urge my colleagues to stand firm on transparency and expedient reporting of Covid-19 expenditures."
Sen. James Moylan, a co-sponsor of Bill 333-35, expressed support for Terlaje's call for a veto override.
"While on one end of the spectrum I stand in support of providing the governor some flexibility in managing this crisis, as decisions need to be made efficiently and expeditiously, and not be layered with roadblocks and red tape. The public's health and safety are on the line," Moylan said. "However, as a lawmaker it is also my responsibility to assure that all taxpayer dollars are accounted for, whether it be from local funds, or via federal monies dedicated for our island."
He also noted that it a legislative obligation to effectuate the checks and balances in government.
"Today we are learning from media reports that the Governor's Chief of Staff is residing at the Pacific Star Hotel, with a billing being sent to the people of Guam. Maybe there are justifiable reasons for this, or maybe it is questionable, but Bill 333-35 would have mandated detailed reports, so that the people would know what is actually going on," Moylan said.
Now that federal stimulus funds are now GovGuam accounts, Moylan said "it is worrisome to imagine how these monies can be misspent through questionable contracts and transactions. While we are not here to make accusations, it is vital that our branch of government question expenditures, and merely ask on behalf of the people of Guam."
The governor also vetoed Bill 336-35, also introduced by Terlaje, which would expedite the procurement of critical medical supplies.
In rejecting the bill, the governor said the the actual language of the measure does not grant new procurement authority under the law. “Furthermore, every healthcare worker assisting a Covid patient has the required PPEs and other equipment. At our current burn rate, that supply should last about one month," she stated in her veto message. "Despite this fact, Guam also has standing orders with certified PPE providers. And, the same is true for other vital equipment.”
Terlaje said Bill 336-35 was introduced three weeks ago, 22 days after the declaration of this unprecedented public health emergency and after four people had died from Covid-19.
"At that time, despite individual agency efforts, the government had failed to obtain ventilators to expand our ICU capacity, had failed to obtain enough PPE to allay the fear and concerns of our frontline healthcare workers, had failed to obtain enough tests beyond the meager amounts handed out by the CDC, had failed to provide a place for GMH nurses to rest without infecting their families, and had failed to provide safe housing for COVID-exposed homeless individuals," the senator said.
She said people involved in emergency procurement reiterated that these expenditures would exceed the $100,000 per month limitation set in the Islan Guahan Emergency Health Powers Act.
"In the absence of any clear explanation for the failure, the legislature unanimously sought to ensure that money was not going to be the reason for the delay in obtaining supplies and equipment that other jurisdictions were aggressively pursuing," Terlaje said. "At that point, the administration refused to disclose the source of funding for any emergency expenditures or the details of any FY2020 transfers. Coincidentally, on the day before we went into session to ensure the swift procurement of these critical items, the first transfer report for fiscal year 2020 was delivered to the Speaker."
Terlaje said she will not pursue an override of Bill 336, which would otherwise authorize additional spending without accountability. "We need the executive branch to account for the money already spent and to demonstrate that these critical supplies made it to the frontlines where they belong," she said.
The Guam Republican Party issued a separate statement, asking the administration: "Will you be transparent with how these funds are spent?"
Party leaders noted that the governor's position that the legislature does not any purview on the federal stimulus funds indicated that Adelup has no intention of sharing any information with the people of Guam on how they plan to spend public monies.
"A couple of weeks ago, the Guam Legislature in an unprecedented vote defeated legislation which would have given the governor of Guam the authority to unnecessarily monitor and restrict the movement of island residents," the opposition party said. "Now, this same governor states that she does not intend on sharing any information on how these federal relief funds will be spent."
Without transparency, party officials said, the people of Guam "may never know which business entities received contracts from these monies, or how many supporters the Governor chose to hire during this process. We will never know if the funds were truly expended on Covid-related emergencies, or opportunities to enrich family and friends."
The local community group Vigilance Committee earlier protested the governor's decision in March to suspend the Open Government law.
"The recent executive order purportedly suspends the operation of seven sections of the Open Government Law, and the practical effect guts completely the statute. The suspended sections require that the public be given notice of board and commission meetings, and because no one would know when a board or commission is meeting, any board and commission can meet without running the risk of public participation and thus your executive order has created a situation which encourages abuse of public trust," said Michelle Armenta, the group's president.
"In short, your executive order has de facto repealed the Open Government Law and opened the door for, what in light of violations of the law by the Consolidated Commission on Utilities and the Guam Housing and Urban Renewal Authority Commissioners, allows intolerable mischief. "