Sacked health chief hits 'blatant corruption' in Marshall Islands, seeks probe into trust funds
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Jack Niedenthal, who was recently “fired” as health secretary of the Marshall Islands, blasted the national government for turning a blind eye to the “blatant corruption” involving “greedy politicians.”
“Our people, at the hands of our own corrupt leaders, are like the tiny little bait fish in the ocean. If they get too close to the surface of the sea, they get eaten by birds,” Niedenthal posted on his Facebook page on Thursday, following the Public Service Commission’s move to cancel the two-year extension of his contract with the Ministry of Health.
“If they try to escape by going deep into the ocean, they get eaten by the big fish. It is like we have nowhere to go and no one to turn to. We are alone,” he added.
According to the Marshall Islands Journal report, the commission’s move to fire Niedenthal was prompted by the health chief’s letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior seeking assistance in auditing two trust funds provided by the U.S. government for Kili, Bikini and Ejit islands.
Niedenthal said nearly $100 million in trust funds have been depleted “in just seven short years at the hands of our own selfish leaders.”
“The [Marshall Islands] and U.S. governments have been asleep at the wheel for seven years as we have seen numerous, constant reports of blatant corruption in our local weekly newspaper,” Niedenthal wrote in his Facebook post.
In his March 31 email to DOI Assistant Secretary Carmen Cantor, Niedenthal raised concerns about the result of the lack of accountability in public fund expenditures.
Kili Island, for example, is running out of fuel for the power plant and is unable to purchase supplemental food, he said.
"They now can’t even afford the cost of the ship even if they could purchase these essential items to send them to Kili," Niedentahl said.
"We still have not had our February 2023 quarterly Section 177 payment from our Bikini Claims Trust Fund provided to us under the first Compact of Free Association. Our bank accounts are rapidly being frozen because all of our payroll and Section 177 compensation loans are now delinquent," he added.
A component of the Compact of Free Association, the trust funds were established by the U.S. Congress in 1982 as reparations for islanders displaced by U.S. nuclear tests conducted at Bikini Atoll from 1946 to 1958.
The initial amount of $20 million was eventually supplemented with an additional $90 million.
"We have been living off our trust funds since 1982 and now we believe we may have nothing left," Niedenthal said.
The health secretary said he was seeking the DOI's assistance in his capacity "as a member of the Bikinian community," where he worked for more than 32 years, from 1984 to 2016.
"I have been a Marshall Islands citizen since 2000 and I am a registered voter for Kili Island, where I lived for three years as a teacher and council advisor in the early 1980s," he stated in his letter to Cantor. "My wife of 34 years, Regina, is a Bikini Islander, we have five children and seven grandchildren, all Bikinians."
Niedenthal said when his term ended in 2016 as the government’s trust liaison, “we were fully auditable and held $128 million in trust in two different funds.”
“We were clearly one of the most successful stories of fiscal trust fund management in the region,” Niedenthal wrote on his Facebook page.
He said the trust funds were spent on the construction of almost 200 concrete houses, medical treatments and scholarships, among other successful social services for the Marshallese.
"On our own, we managed a world-class dive program on Bikini Atoll, where people could dive on such famous ships as the USS Saratoga and the HIMJS Nagato that were sunk during Operation Crossroads as target vessels," Niedenthal added.
In 2017, the DOI granted the Marshal Islands complete control over the trust funds.
Seven years later, Niedenthal said, the U.S. Department of the Interior notified the Marshall Islands that the two unaudited trust funds had a remaining balance of only $29 million, leaving almost $100 million unaccounted for.
"You need to take back the authority and the responsibility the U.S. government has toward the people of Bikini," Niedenthal urged Cantor.
"This is not colonialism; this is living up to a responsibility promised to our elders in 1946 when they were told in a public forum on Bikini Atoll before the testing that they would be taken care of whether they were on a sandbar or adrift on a raft at sea, the people of Bikini will be like America’s children," he added.
While acknowledging Niedenthal's email, Cantor responded with caution.
"Please be assured we are committed to the long-term success and well-being of the RMI and Bikinian people, and we understand that the maintenance and oversight of these trust funds assets are an important aspect of that commitment," Cantor said.
"As you mentioned, and we are keenly aware, there needs to be a careful balance between self-determination and oversight, a theme that has been stressed during the ongoing Compact negotiations," the ambassador said.
Just the same, Cantor assured the health official that the information he has relayed will be taken into consideration during a review of both the Bikini Claims Trust Fund and the Resettlement Trust Fund.
"We are also in touch with the U.S. Embassy in the Marshall Islands and others as we continue to learn more and recognize which questions we still need answered," Cantor said.
The Marshall Islands Journal reported this week that the Public Service Commission withdrew Niedenthal's contract extension for acting "blatantly" and breaching protocols by emailing Cantor directly.
"Only in the Marshall Islands can you be 'fired' as secretary of health by the Public Service Commission at the behest of the chief secretary and my own minister of health -- after leading what was arguably one of the world's best and most successful Covid-19 responses through a 38-month state of health emergency-- for simply caring about the future of my family, all nuclear victims from Bikini Atoll," Niedenthal said on his Facebook post.