When justice is blind, deaf and dumb – and for sale
Yap officials who swear to uphold the state constitution often cite it when it’s to their advantage and ignore it when it is not. This extends to illegal activities that the state legislature and the court are constitutionally obligated to address but end up turning into compost in an inbox or with a ruling that the matter falls under “tradition and culture” and is pushed to the traditional councils to handle. But they often ignore matter, as well.
John Haglegam, second president of FSM, wrote in his 1997 white paper for the Australian National University’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies titled “Traditional Leaders and Governance in Micronesia”: “Let me assert from the outset that contemporary politics and governance in Micronesia are influenced to a large extent by the traditional system which underlies the modern system. This traditional system has given a unique Micronesian flavor to contemporary politics and governance, albeit undemocratic in some cases.”
However, he added that the traditional councils of Pilung and Tamol, “individually or jointly, have forced members of the state legislature to resign. In one instance, a particular member who had made a public remark against the traditional chiefs was forced to resign by one of the councils.”
So much for free speech.
According to Transparency International’s 2021 Global Corruption Barometer, 80 percent of people surveyed in FSM believe corruption in government is a big problem; 60 percent said they believe corruption had increased in the prior 12 months; and 46 percent responded that public officials never or rarely face consequences for engaging in corruption.
A key issue on a small island like Yap with only 7,000 residents is the personal relationship the judges have with the rest of the community. Chief Justice Cyprian Manmaw has relatives throughout the island. He is also the bullhorn for the traditional Council of Pilung.
Conflicts of interest run deep where family and community come first and Manmaw’s relationship with members of the other branches of government run especially deep. He is the elder man of the village of Teb in Tomil, the second largest municipality on the main island. Former senator and speaker of the legislature, Vincent Figir, Sen. Joseph Giliko and Gov. Charles Chieng are also among the prominent members of the municipality. Associate Justice Jonathan Tun served as the attorney general during the administration of his uncle, then-Gov. Tony Ganngiyan.
Among the cases that the Yap State Court has ignored is that of the convicted felon behind the 2019 murder of then-acting Attorney General Rachelle Bergeron. Frances Choay Buchun was motivated by Bergeron’s filing of 27 sex charges and one count of threatening to kill the underaged victim. Buchun was scheduled to appear in court the week Bergeron was killed, but the case was lost in the chaos of the murder investigation and has never been revisited.
The Yap legislature has a history of ignoring the transgressions of its members. The constitution states, “no employee shall solicit or accept, directly or indirectly, any gift, gratuity, favor, entertainment, loan, or any other thing of monetary value, from any person, corporation, government, group, or other entity.”
Yet, like the Chinese bribery detailed in former President David Panuelo’s letter about FSM officials, money, travel and other gifts have been given to members of Yap’s business community and leadership by Chinese developers when they arrived in private jets.
One brave member of the Council of Pilung announced publicly that he had refused to accept an envelope containing $3,000 from a Chinese representative who lives on island, managing their hotel and acting as their translator. He did so at his own peril since retribution for being a whistleblower can be harsh.
The FSM has no government watchdog to combat corruption. While the public auditor has highlighted irregularities, there is no enforcement capability. The Attorney General’s Office has primary responsibility for combating government corruption, but it seldom takes on such cases. Only when the FBI gets involved or the crime is committed on U.S. soil have some criminals been taken to court, as was the case of Sen. Peter Christian’s son-in-law, Master Halbert, who pled guilty to money laundering in a federal court in Hawaii.
During the 10th legislature, Vincent Figir and his colleagues were confronted with the revelation of the illegal election of Figir’s righthand man, Sen. John Mafel, who swore wrongly that he was a pardoned felon when he filed his petition to run.
According to the state constitution: “A person convicted of a felony shall not be eligible to serve as a member of the legislature unless the person so convicted has received a pardon restoring his civil rights.” He was not pardoned until several weeks after the election by then-Gov. Ganngiyan. Mafel continued to collect his pay and his votes remained intact. He won the 2022 election and is still serving in the legislature.
The legislature also ignored the sexting of young women by then-Floor Leader Jerry Fagolimul despite the constitutional article that states: “The Legislature shall be the judge of the qualifications of its members and shall have, for misconduct, disorderly behavior or neglect of duty of any member, power to punish such member by censure or, upon a two-thirds vote of the members, by suspension or expulsion of such member.”
Embarrassed by the social media airing of his selfies and videos, Fagolimul disappeared for a while but soon returned to his seat in the legislature. He again ran in 2022 but lost to a write-in candidate.
This was next followed by a threat of banishment from the main island and a bribe paid to a senator from an outer island to change his vote and approve the impeachment of then-Governor Henry Falan. With no choice, he complied. Again, the situation was met with silence from the legislature with the implicit understanding that retribution would be harsh if anyone spoke up.
The legislature turned over in 2022 and has not had to deal with the misdeeds of its members. So far.
But how to solve this problem that exists throughout FSM?
Establish an ombudsman’s office and appoint a group of independent circuit court judges, one from each state or from Guam, to hear cases in states other than their own that are a conflict of interest for the presiding judge.
Conflict of interest is also found in the public defender’s office. Recently, Yap’s public defender stepped aside when he was threatened if he took on a certain case. It would be beholden to those defendants who cannot afford to hire a lawyer to be represented by another state’s public defender.
However, oversight is unlikely when heads of state are themselves benefitting from rich handouts by foreign governments and contractors and the silent acceptance of kickbacks and palm-greasing presented to their subordinates.
Joyce McClure is a former senior marketing executive and former Peace Corps volunteer in Yap. Transitioning to freelance writing, she moved to Guam in 2021 and recently relocated back to the mainland. Send feedback to email@example.com