If there's anything Guam's senators – especially the seasoned ones – should be familiar with or at least be cautious about, it's refusing high-value gifts that could later leave them in a bind and pressured to return the favor to the giver or givers.
This issue has come up as certain members of the Legislature visited Taiwan for nearly a week, courtesy of the Taiwan government.
Speaker Tina Muña Barnes and Sens. Kelly Marsh, Clynt Ridgell and Telo Taitague left for Taiwan Sunday and will return Friday. They were invited by the Taiwan Foreign Affairs Department, according to a press release from the speaker's office.
The Taiwanese government funded the trip for Barnes, Ridgell and Taitague, the press release stated. Marsh paid her airfare with personal funds, according to her office.
When reporters asked if it was proper to accept free trips on the Taiwan government's tab, the speaker's office said Guam has a longstanding sister-city relationship with Taiwan and added that U.S. governors have done the same thing.
"The U.S. federal government has a new policy encouraging U.S. government officials to travel to Taiwan in order to strengthen relations with Taiwan," according to the speaker's press release Tuesday. "In fact, at least three U.S. government officials traveled to Taiwan just last year including Governors Butch Otter of Idaho, Gary Herbert of Utah, and Matt Mead of Wyoming. Their trips were also funded by the Taiwan government."
Without going into why the governors of Idaho, Utah and Wyoming accepted free trips from Taiwan – if true – Guam senators do have Guam laws to follow.
Under Guam law, a section prohibiting gifts under a certain value threshold states, in part: "No employee shall solicit, accept, or receive, directly or indirectly, any gift valued singly or in the aggregate from a single source in excess of $200, whether in the form of money, prize, service, loan, travel, entertainment, hospitality, thing or promise, or in any other form, when a reasonable person would infer that the gift is intended to influence the employee in the performance of that individual's official duties or is intended as a reward for any official action on that individual's part."
Taiwan has been open about courting foreign governments and government officials – including paying for their Taipei junkets to win friends on the international stage – something China has frowned upon. It doesn't take a lengthy analysis to realize that taking a free trip from Taiwan might not come without strings attached – directly or indirectly.
The Guam delegation had talked up the trip as an opportunity for local officials to learn from the successes of Taiwan, particularly in agriculture, renewable energy, health care and port operations, but that's beside the point in the ethics issue.
The senators concerned still have to answer whether the decision to take the free trip overlooks the Guam law prohibiting expensive gifts of travel, and from a foreign government at that. It does look like at least one senator, Marsh, took some precaution when she decided to pay her own airfare. The airfare alone would exceed $200, and the cost of hotels and meals would bring the cost of the trip way above the threshold on gifts of value.
It sounds like Attorney General Leevin Camacho and the Guam Ethics Commission have a job to do. They need to investigate and keep their findings public.
The public will be waiting for the results.
Until then, senators who took the free trips should reimburse the government of Taiwan – out of their personal pocketbooks.