On Wednesdaymorning, lawmakers held a public hearing for Bill 85, which would reaffirm the Guam Ethics Commission as an independent body able to receive, hear and render opinions on allegations of ethics violations in the Government of Guam.
It also outlines the duties of the commission’s executive director relative to ensuring the conduct of investigations, hearings, supervising and hiring of commission staff.
Bill 85, introduced by Sen. Joe S. San Agustin. was well-received by Sens. Chris M. Duenas, Sabina Perez, and Joanne Brown, but some concerns matters arose during the hearing.
The Ethics Commission was established in 1996 by Public Law 23-105, but wasn’t an active GovGuam entity until a 2019 executive order was issued by Lt. Gov. Joshua Tenorio to reactivate it.
Other bills related to bringing the commission online are also awaiting hearing, including one to mandate ethics training for all government employees and another to establish an anonymous reporting channel for ethics violations.
The recently appointed executive director of the Ethics Commission, Jesse John Quenga, appeared before legislators in support of the bill. He proposed an amendment to increase the budgetary autonomy of the committee by outlining the authority to:
- hire staff as deemed necessary, by submitting an annual budget request to the Legislature;
- review and approve a fiscal year budget necessary to meet all conditions and requirements set forth by public law;
- provide a detailed breakdown of necessary funding to the Legislature;
- exempt the commission from the Bureau of Budget Management Research/Office of the Governor of Guam budgetary allotment control; and
- draw against its respective appropriations from the Legislature, without impediment from the Director of Administration.
Quenga said the amendment was identical to previous language adopted to promote the independence of the Guam Election Commission and similar to exclusions made for agencies such as the Office of Public Accountability and others to ensure independence.
“The inclusion of this amendment identifies and closes a potential backdoor that any future administration may have to suppress the independent and apolitical work of the Guam Ethics Commission,” he said.
Sen. Joanne Brown pushed back against the proposed amendment. Brown stated while agencies such as the Judiciary of Guam are meant to be free from political interference, they aren’t provided the same lengthy protections to budgeting as proposed by Quenga. The undefined and potentially unlimited budget the amendment would allot for is a reason for concern, she said.
The Guam Ethics Commission has appropriated a budget of $194,000 for the current fiscal year.
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Sen. Christopher M. Duenas also raised concerns over the current authority of the governor, as stated in law, to “remove or suspend any member of the commission for cause.” Duenas said the current state of affairs warranted further research and discussion, to preserve the ability of the Ethics Commission to operate under it’s stated mission.
Quenga said it was the intent of the board to put up a “wall between themselves and the front office.”
“That relationship (to the governor’s office) should be non-existent in order for us to really be able to practice and put into practice, what the intent is of the law,” Quenga said.