Yap AG’s office shut down; Falan suspects political motives
By Joyce McClure
Yap Gov. Henry Falan has issued an executive order directing the temporary closure of the attorney general’s office partly due to the Yap State Legislature’s failure to authorize funds for salaries of the state’s only two attorneys.
The two lawyers have not been paid since July 4.
A complete government shutdown in Yap was avoided once during the current fiscal year, but a shutdown of the attorney general’s office was finally deemed unavoidable, said Falan.
He issued the executive order on Sept.16.
“I was forced to take this drastic step and shut down the AG’s office,” Falan said, “to avoid the Yap State government from being liable for a potential charge of human trafficking and abuse of constitutional rights because the attorney general and assistant attorney general are foreign citizens.”
“In addition, this unavoidable action leaves the state without legal counsel,” he said. “Neither I nor my administration can operate without our only two lawyers.”
At the beginning of FY2021 last Oct. 1, the legislature removed the budget for all vacancies across all departments, including the AG’s office.
On March 5, Falan sent a supplemental budget request for FY2021 to Speaker Vincent Figir in the amount of $556,250 to cover the resulting shortfall.
Of that, $421,483 was to be funded from local revenue, and the remaining $134,767 was to come from a Compact Health Sector grant which was approved by JEMCO and OIA for the Department of Health Services.
Figir forwarded the request to Nicolas Figirlaarwon, chair of the YSL finance committee, for review and recommendation.
Some of the roadblocks to the legislature’s approval of Falan’s request have been temporarily resolved. But still at issue is the compensation of Attorney General Eliesa Tuiloma and Assistant Attorney General Tevita Muloilagi.
While all have agreed publicly that the money is available, the core issue raised by the committee was how the administration’s budgets are managed once approved.
The administration presents a line-item budget to the legislature every year for approval and enactment on Oct. 1; but, once approved, the funds have historically been managed by each department as all-up funds, not by line-item allocations.
Based on this method of all-up accounting, Falan made the decision to combine four open positions in the attorney general’s office to provide competitive compensation to attract and hire two qualified candidates.
“Once the legislature approves the ceiling for the fiscal year for each department,” said Falan, “it is the administration’s prerogative to move monies according to need within each category, in this case salaries, so long as the ceiling is not exceeded.”
But the legislature’s legal counsel, Leelkan Dabchuren, said fund realignment is illegal. Attorney General Tuiloma disagrees with her opinion.
“Despite what Chairman Figirlaarwon has been saying that he supports moving forward and that he agrees it is inhumane not to pay the salaries of the state’s employees, none of his committee reports have recommended approval of the salaries for the two AGs even though I have not exceeded the ceiling for expenditure in that office’s budget,” said Falan. “I am not a lawyer, but it is common sense to me that not paying a salary is not in the best interest, or the welfare, of the people.”
In an attempt to resolve the impasse, Falan invited Figir to meet one-on-one.
“During this meeting, I suggested ways of resolving the issue,” Falan said, “including having the legislature’s budget people meet with my administration’s budget people to work out a solution.”
Falan suggested a continuing resolution. “This is a common practice of legislative bodies to give the administration the authority to continue operating based on the prior fiscal year’s budget ceiling while the issue is resolved,” the governor said.
“The legal counsel of Yap’s legislature could have recommended this action to Figirlaarwon. The legal counsel and most members of the legislature have served in their positions for many years and should be familiar with this option. But they did not and so they tied my hands.”
After their meeting, Figir told Falan that he needs concurrence from the other members about the governor’s proposed options before moving forward. But so far Figir has not responded to Falan’s suggestions on how to put the matter to rest.
One part of the original supplemental budget request involved salaries for employees of the Office of Administrative Services (OAS).
Falan said the legislature’s approval of the OAS payroll while withholding action on the AGs’ salaries appears to be a political move linked to the 2022 elections. The OAS employees are local citizens and eligible to vote; the AGs are not.
“This is unprofessional, heartless and intolerable,” Falan said. “There is no reason for this refusal when the state has the money to pay the two AGs. I have not exceeded the ceiling for that department in my request.”
On Sept. 11, Falan met with the traditional Council of Pilung (COP) to inform them “that I am being forced to shut down the AG’s office.”
The COP, the fourth branch of the Yap government in charge of matters concerning culture and tradition, met with Figir and Falan last year and mandated that the two officials work together for the benefit of the state’s citizens.
The FY2022 budget is up for approval by the end of September so it can be used on Oct. 1, but there is no word yet from the legislature about the status of the administration’s proposed financial plan for the coming year and no indication as to how they intend to address compensation for the two attorneys general.