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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center

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CNMI Delegate Urges Obama To Quickly Replace Babauta
Sablan says Assistant Secretary post ‘beneficial to islands’

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Feb. 11, 2013) – Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), along with 21 other members of the U.S. House of Representatives, asked President Barack Obama to retain the position of Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas under the U.S. Department of the Interior, citing the benefits that the CNMI, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and other U.S. affiliated islands have derived from the post.

Anthony "Tony" M. Babauta, a native of Guam, vacated the post when he resigned on Feb. 1.

"Your decision to raise the position to Assistant Secretary status for the first time since 1994 has proven beneficial to the islands for the last four years as it allowed the Assistant Secretary to focus on your administration's policy commitments to the four insular well as other U.S. affiliated islands," the U.S. House members told Obama in a Feb. 6 letter.

They said these commitments are reflected in the different initiatives put forward by territorial delegates and advanced by the assistant secretary and the Interior's Office of Insular Affairs.

These include pursuing strategies to foster economic development, measuring gross domestic product of the U.S. territories for the first time, addressing critical health needs, and the adoption of sustainable energy solutions.

"We urge you to continue this commitment by retaining and quickly filling the position," the House members said.

In the CNMI, Sablan said the assistant secretary "has been instrumental in bringing federal resources to assist the Commonwealth Health Center, has prioritized investments in renewable energy, and has worked closely with the congressional office to support a variety of community organizations and local government agencies."

"Retaining this position assures continued attention from the highest levels of the federal government," Sablan said.

2011 probe

In other news, former U.S. Interior Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs Anthony "Tony" M. Babauta was a subject of a 2011 investigation by the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Inspector General that was "closed with no further action." This is separate from a 2012 probe that placed him on administrative leave in November and later his resignation on Feb. 1 this year.

Babauta told Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Jan. 24 that he believes his work "improved the Office of Insular Affairs."

In February 2011, the Interior's Inspector General concluded an investigation based on an anonymous hotline complaint alleging that Babauta and another OIA employee used government funds to travel to San Francisco, Calif., from Nov. 16 through 18, 2010, but did not conduct government business.

The complaint also implied that Babauta and the OIA employee were involved in an improper relationship.

The IG report said Babauta and the OIA employee, whose name was redacted to protect her privacy, said they met with individuals regarding OIA issues, including the OIA-funded Micronesian Center for a Sustainable Future, Guam Memorial Hospital, and a Pacific islands business summit.

Two of the leaders from Micronesia confirmed they met with Babauta and the OIA employee during that time. Both Babauta and the OIA employee denied having a romantic relationship.

"We are closing this investigation with no further action," the IG report says.

In May 2011, an IG letter referred to the Office of the Interior Secretary a complaint from an anonymous source alleging that Babauta engaged in wasteful spending and abuse of government funds.

Babauta and six others including OIA Director Nik Pula and director Wendy Fink traveled to San Francisco, California for a one-day training session on Alternative Dispute Resolution during the week of May 16, 2011.

"We have determined that this complaint would be better addressed by the Office of the Secretary; therefore, we are referring it to your office for review and any action you deemed appropriate," the IG told the Interior secretary's office.

A separate 2012 IG investigation is reportedly about a grant that Babauta's office awarded to the University of Guam. This investigation is still ongoing.

Babauta was among the highest ranking native Pacific Islander serving in the U.S. government. His office has oversight over U.S. insular areas such as the CNMI, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.

Obama nominated Babauta in July 2009. Two months later, the U.S. Senate confirmed his nomination.

Babauta's former post is currently filled by Eileen Sobeck, but only in an acting capacity.

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