Island Times team

(2-part investigative article on the US pandemic assistance to Palau under the WIOA program)

But while the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) has kept most Palauans afloat during the pandemic, the office and the people who used to run it has been facing accusations of fraud which according to the ongoing investigation could have prevented many Palauans from getting the assistance needed most at the time of crisis. It could affect Palau’s good standing with the United States. 

Individuals who believed that they have been mistreated or barred from the program unfairly started voicing their opinion through the media.  In local radio the show, allegations were made that certain people received a lot of money from WIOA which they were not entitled to receive.

Questions raised include why some people who were eligible to receive assistance before are no longer eligible even though they are still unemployed, and why some people whose hours were reduced were eligible and now are no longer eligible. Others questioned why the Palau government does not “convince” the United States to make exceptions to Palau under this assistance.

Complaints started in 2020 during the term of former President Tommy Remengesau Jr. and the former director have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in the implementation of the assistance.  

“No money has disappeared or gone missing from this program,” said former WIOA Director Josephine Ulengchong to allegations that money from WIOA program has been misused or gone missing.

“I provide weekly and quarterly reports on how much was spent, who received the money, and who were self-employed to the United States. If funds disappear from this program, we will be held liable, arrested, and taken by the FBI to jail in the US!” stated Ulengchong.

By the end of 2020 or early 2021, heated discussions arose and intensified from former recipients of the program and others who feel that the disbursement of funds through WIOA has not been fair or transparent.

The former Director claimed that the US Department of Labor made changes to and clarified definitions of eligibility five times.  For example, under Change 4, it made determination that only those people who were laid off due to company closure are eligible for assistance. People who were laid off but the companies they worked for are still open or have re-opened are not eligible. People whose work hours were reduced are also no longer eligible for assistance under the CARES Act and the Continued Assistance Act.

“Those people who were laid off but companies were still open or worked on reduced hours should not have received the assistance,” said Director Ulengchong, based on the legal interpretation of the US Department of Labor.

This definition was further amended under Change 5 reverted to allow people with reduced hours in companies that have re-opened to continue to receive assistance as long as those companies meet COVId-19 impacted definition.

Palau was again approved for the assistance until September of 2021. 

While the disbursement continued, the complaints also did not stop. 

By June this year, President Surangel Whipps jr. stepped in and announced that an investigation ensued against the WIOA and the subject of the numerous complaints, the former director and management staff were terminated. 

Whipps Jr. temporarily closed the Office of WIOA, and placed all employees on administrative leave, citing complaints of improper distributions of COVID relief funds and the ongoing investigations of the Office of Special Prosecutor and Office of Public Auditor.  

A press release issued by the Office of the President  by the end of June stated that based on recommendations by Special Prosecutor and Public Auditor, there is an ongoing investigation into complaints regarding the distribution of US COVID relief funds, his office is “cooperating fully with this investigation…and taking every recommended action to secure public funds, records, and programs.”

The press release also stated that the employees of WIOA were placed on paid administrative leave pending the “review of their roles in the administration of funds.”  Information also stated that the investigation process is ongoing and as such, anyone that is accused is “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” 

Employees were instructed to turn over all their access and passwords to the government.

President Whipps said that they have informed the United States Department of Labor and the U.S. Ambassador in Palau of the actions they’ve taken according to processes required under US laws. 

President Whipps then issued an Executive Order 453 to reconstitute Palau’s State and Local Workforce Development Boards which he said had already expired.

Most of the staff resumed work while the Managing Director was terminated and two other management level personnel were not renewed. 

Justice for both the accused and those allegedly deprived of the assistance is in limbo.

After nearly 8 months, the Office of the Special Prosecutor is still awaiting the audit report from the Office of the Auditor and the conclusion of the probe might not be out for months. 

(The article is made possible with support of Pacific Anti-Corruption journalists network.)

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