By Pacific Island Times News Staff
The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (Wespac) claimed $1.2 million in questionable expenditure involving undocumented procurement of services in 2019, according to the Office of Inspector General's audit released recently.
The audit found inadequate documentation for goods and services that were delivered by vendors that were improperly procured.
The audit particularly cited a sole-source contract of $345,526 by the CNMI's Department of Lands and Natural Resources for a fishing vessel and training services.
"The council did not retain adequate support for claimed costs, obtain required approvals from the awarding agency, or properly allocate costs to the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund (WPSFF) awards," the audit said. "The subrecipients did not provide adequate documentation to support certain claimed costs and did not spend all federal funds received."
The WPSFF currently acts as the repository for funds collected from Pacific Insular Area Fishing agreements, foreign fishing violations, contributions received to support territorial Marine Conservation Plans and arrangements made pursuant to specified fishing agreements with Pacific islands regional jurisdictions including Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Marianas.
The IG conducted the audit upon request from four members of the U.S. House of Representatives in August 2019.
"The results are deeply alarming. The Inspector General’s audit is a necessary first step towards the transparency and accountability that is needed to ensure WESPAC is not wasting the taxpayers’ money it is entrusted with,” said Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair of the natural resources committee. “As damning as this report is, it raises more questions about Wsespac than it answers. Their financial activities should continue to be examined."
Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), chair of the Water, Oceans, and Wildlife Subcommittee, said Wespac's management of the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund Award has long been questionable.
"This audit of the Fund paints an unflattering picture of WESPAC’s financial activities, to say the least,” Huffman said.
He said the audit results indicated the need for Congress to improve oversight and management of Wespac and ensure that government funds are being spent responsibly.
“The Inspector General’s report underscores the need for substantial reforms in the way that WESPAC does business. Our federal dollars should be spent on the critical mission of sustaining and conserving vital marine ecosystems, not on controversial awards and questionable and unsupported spending at the behest of council staff with potential conflicts of interest,” said Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii).
The IG report, Case added, is just the beginning of the congressional inquiry into Wespac's management of federally appropriated funds.
"We must act on the report’s findings to prevent any further waste and abuse of government funds by Wespac and potentially other regional fishery councils operating under the same rules," Case said.
Rep. Gregorio Sablan (CNMI) said the IG report found that Wespac breached the rules on sole-source contracts and other financial controls.
"This all confirms the concerns that led Chair Grijalva, Representatives Huffman and Case, and me to request this in-depth audit of how WESPAC uses federal funds,” said Rep. Sablan. “I look forward to the decision of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Grants Management Division on the appropriate next steps to recover any money that was improperly paid.”