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AG: Yutu ‘overtime’ payment is ‘extraordinary payment’

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ATTORNEY General Edward E. Manibusan on Wednesday said the Super Typhoon Yutu-related “overtime” payments are actually “extraordinary payments.”

The CNMI government, he said, pays a base salary and overtime for working beyond 40 hours. But there is also extra pay that is allowed by law for a certain group of employees, he added.

“We’re not dealing here with overtime,” he said, referring to the Yutu “overtime” pay. “We’re talking about the payment that people are concerned with: whether or not [employees and cabinet members] are entitled to 2.5 of their base salary.”

He said the CNMI government has civil service and excepted service employees.

“Each of these categories of employees are treated differently in terms of payment, either for overtime pay or for extraordinary payment,” he added.

“In this situation, for Yutu-related overtime payment, we are actually referring to this extraordinary payment of the 2.5. Each of these tiers of employees are entitled to some kind of overtime pay, but with respect to extraordinary payment, there are certain [employees] of these tiers that would be exempted from that, so we wanted the Office of the Public Auditor to review the law as we found them to be inconsistent with what we thought was a payment. So, [OPA is] required to take a look at that. That’s basically all I can say about the issue,” he added.

When asked why a copy of his legal opinion has not been made available to the public, Attorney General Manibusan said: “We have a professional code of responsibility as lawyers. When we write a legal opinion or things of that nature to another agency, that should be kept confidential…so that it could be reviewed, then made available to the public.”

He said due to concerns about the “extraordinary pay” that were given to certain government employees in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yutu, “I sent a letter to the public auditor to review the circumstances in which those payments were made.”

He added, “We have got to be a transparent government. You cannot have corruption in government.... We have an obligation, we have a duty…. We have to do our work, and we have to be very careful in how we do it and how we arrive at a decision.”

He said his office welcomes any information about alleged wrongdoings committed by public officials or government employees. To submit a tip, fill out an online form via cnmioag.org/hotline/ or contact the Office of the AG’s Investigative Division at 237-7630. If one does not wish to disclose his/her name when providing a tip, s/he can opt to remain anonymous.

House panel to review AG’s letter

The chairman of the House Special Committee on Federal Assistance and Disaster-Related Funding, Rep. Ralph Yumul, said on Wednesday that he had just received a copy of the AG’s letter to OPA.

“Because it wasn’t written directly to my office…I cannot share publicly what the comments were,” Yumul said.

The AG’s letter is about 25 pages long, including nine pages of legal opinion, he added.

“The committee will review the letter, or…opinion, and then we will take steps as to the employment payroll register that was requested, so that we can see who was paid already, and if, in fact, we [we will] repeat…history again,” referring to the Covid-19 overtime payment requests of some cabinet members.

“We haven’t received anything yet from the Public Auditor’s Office [regarding the Yutu overtime pay]. They did mention that the first batch of requested documents would be coming in today [Wednesday]. We are hoping that starting today, we will put all of the documents together, review them, and we’ll go from there,” he added.

Clarification

For his part, Press Secretary Kevin Bautista on Wednesday said the governor’s office received a copy of the AG’s legal opinion earlier this week.

“We’re still reviewing it and working with the attorney general for additional clarification…. To my knowledge, the Office of the Public Auditor has not been in contact with us here in the governor’s office directly regarding the opinion,” Bautista said.

“Right now we’re seeking additional guidance from the Attorney General’s Office for clarification regarding typhoon pay, overtime pay, and this…definition of…’extraordinary hours’ and what it…entails. We actually went ahead and proactively went after a definition and guidance from the Attorney General’s Office for that legal sufficiency.”

Bautista said the administration will “work with the Attorney General’s Office and the Office of the Public Auditor in complying with what has been stipulated, but I can’t divulge any further information about what [that] actually entails.”

He said the Yutu-OT issue will aid the administration in “determining what is going to be paid out, in terms of what is considered disaster pay or Covid-19 pay for this…pandemic.”

He added, “Just to make it clear, I have not received any official word that any cabinet member has been paid under Covid-19…. We are ensuring that disaster pay for eligible employees under the Covid-19 task force, the [Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.], and any other auxiliary government agency that is involved in the Covid-19 response would be paid first. So far, that has been happening. A lot of our first responders, from our quarantine sites, our isolation facilities, as well as CHCC are currently being paid out as we move forward.”

Meantime, administration officials will continue to “put in work as much as we can, and if cabinet members end up not getting paid [for OT], then at the end of the day…getting the right, accurate, and true public information is much more important….”

Bautista noted that department or agency heads have taken pay cuts in light of the Commonwealth budget shortfall due to the impact of Covid-19 on the global economy.

“We all understand that we have to share the burden of cutting costs in order to keep the government running. We all know that sacrifices need to be made in order to provide public services to the community, and that includes receiving a substantial pay cut. But that’s not to say that our substantial pay cut is anything more or less than anyone else’s. This government has never wanted to do pay cuts at the onset anyway,” he said.

Prior to the pandemic, he added, “this year was initially projected to be a major turning point for the CNMI economy in a positive way.”

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