In response to multiple felony and misdemeanor charges filed against him for the misuse of government funds, former Angaur State Governor Marvin Ngirutang arrived at a plea agreement with Special Prosecutor April Cripps which saw him pleading guilty to lesser charges.
The charges, which centered around the “misuse” of a $500 thousand appropriation given to Angaur State by the OEK for the repair of the State ferry Regina IV, included four felonies and three misdemeanors. The plea agreement, which was accepted by the Supreme Court, saw the former Governor pleading guilty to three misdemeanors including Theft of Government Property in the Third Degree, while dismissing more serious felony charges such as Misconduct in a Public Office.
In a plea hearing on Wednesday afternoon, former Governor Ngirutang apologized to the Court for his mismanagement of funds, but stressed that this was the result of negligence, and not a willful abuse of power.
“I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to my people, my family, and my friends for the negative publicity on Angaur for my negligent actions,” Mr. Ngirutang said in Court, adding that he had chosen not to go to trial in order to spare his family and friends from further embarrassment. He stressed that the funds, although not documented properly, had been used in service of Angaur, and not for personal gain.
The agreement reached between the Special Prosecutor and the former Governor states that Mr. Ngirutang will pay a full restitution of $72,905.53 to the Angaur State Government, in increments of $6,629.75 every month, by March 2022. He is also obligated to complete 629 hours of community service at the Ministry of State, which he will begin on Monday. Mr. Ngirutang said that he will be using his twelve years of experience as a diplomat to help the Minister and Vice President Uduch Sengebau Senior in speech writing, international relations, and policy analysis, formation, and management. The Court imposed one year of incarceration, suspended on condition that Mr. Ngirutang complete his community service and restitution payments.
“This is a lesson learned,” said Presiding Justice Kathleen Salii, adding that there was factual basis to the plea, and was entered knowingly by both parties.
The case stemmed from an audit report released last year by the Office of the Public Auditor, investigating the use of funds which were appropriated by the OEK for an overhaul of the Regina IV in Cebu, Philippines in 2016. The ferry experienced mechanical failures upon its return to Palau, leading the Office of the Public Auditor to “question all payments”.
A subsequent investigation by the Special Prosecutor alleged that around $68 thousand of the grant was used for “unauthorized” travel expenses without proper documentation, in violation of Angaur State’s travel policy. It also alleged that the former Governor had taken multiple flights to Taiwan using Regina IV funds “without any proof of travel for government business”, as well as meals and smaller purchases without justification.
When reached for comment, Mr. Ngirutang addressed these allegations by stating that, upon his trip to Taiwan, while he did visit his father who was living in Taipei at the time, he was there primarily for government business. This business had included conducting negotiations for the leasing of a fishing boat for Angaur, as well as international relations at Kaohsiung, which, like Angaur, is challenged by the presence of wild monkeys. In regards to the meals, he said that these were for government employees on the Angaur state boat who would stay overnight in Koror. Mr. Ngirtuang said he had helped those employees out of pocket who did not have money for supper and then reimburse the money with government funds. The travel expenses were for members of the Angaur Transportation Commission, who had traveled to the Philippines and back for the ship repairs. The funds used for travel had allegedly been reviewed by his treasurer and attorney prior to his approval, but he said that it was often a challenge to obtain the receipts following their return.
Mr. Ngirutang added that he had believed the payments to be legitimate when he was authorizing them, but as soon as the Public Auditor had released the findings and deemed the $68 thousand discrepancy inappropriate, he had offered to pay the sum, but had been told not to by both the Public Auditor and the current Governor of Angaur.
At the plea hearing, Special Prosecutor Cripps stated that the agreement was “best for the Court and the community”. She specifically cited how impressed she was by the defendant’s willingness to “accept responsibility” for his actions, as well as by the “incredible amount of people in the government and outside of the government” who called to speak on his behalf.
Apart from saving the government time and money from proceeding to trial, the Special Prosecutor said that the outcome was in line with her office’s policies.
“It’s always been the policy of the [Special Prosecutor’s] Office to try to work cases out,” Ms. Cripps said. “I didn’t have to ask that he take accountability in this case. He came to me on his own.”
She went on to say that she believed Mr. Ngirutang’s example would “assist other governors to understand the responsibilities they take” when they act in official capacities.
In regards to the plea agreement, Mr. Ngirtuang said that he was thankful that the Special Prosecutor was willing to meet and discuss the matter.
“I always believe in the Office of the Special Prosecutor,” said the former Governor. “This country needs it. We need that office to be there as a deterrence against abuse of power.”
He went on to say that he hoped the case would serve as an example to the rest of the state governors to closely document their finances.
“What’s happening in Angaur is a reflection of a lot of the state governments; accounting is a challenge,” said Mr. Ngirutang. “This is a lesson to all of us: keep your receipts.”