Propst: Espaldon ethics investigation offers lesson

ETHICS: Sen. James Espaldon is shown during legislative session at the Guam Congress Building in Hagåtña on May 23. Espaldon faces censure for violating a legislative ethics rule. David Castro/The Guam Daily Post

When former Sen. Matt Rector resigned from his post as lawmaker in 2010, he did so before the legislative Committee on Ethics and Standards, which held a public hearing into his alleged failure to disclose his criminal record. 

Now, Sen. James Espaldon is in a similar position regarding alleged conflicts of interest with his role as negotiator in a defunct generator deal in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. But he will do so behind closed doors.

The current standing rules for the Guam Legislature allow the investigative hearing process to function under confidentiality, unless the accused wishes to make the process public. 

This would not have happened several years ago, according to former Sen. Judith Guthertz, when the rules at the time required the hearing process to be public. Guthertz oversaw the investigation into Rector and is now seeking for the establishment of an independent ethics commission – a regulatory body that was created more than two decades ago but has never been impaneled.

Without the commission, the legislature is left developing its own rules on how to handle ethics violations.

The Open Government Law sets guidelines for the transparency of government practices. In particular, a legislative committee is considered a public agency, and subject to open meeting laws, when conducting a hearing.

However, the rules of procedure for the legislative ethics committee, within the current standing rules, defines a "hearing" as any meeting in the course of an investigatory proceeding conducted for the purpose of taking testimony or receiving other evidence.

It is unclear how the Open Government Law and the standing rules reconcile in their use of the word "hearing." Attorney Julian Aguon, legal counsel for the legislature, had not responded to inquires by press time yesterday.

Regardless, Guthertz said, she believed investigative hearings should be made open to the public as a measure of transparency. Drawing parallels to the Civil Service Commission, Guthertz said employee complaints become public knowledge once filed and hearings are open process.

"What should be the difference?" Guthertz said.

"I think for consistency purposes, we should consider some of these things."

Espaldon was notified of the committee's intention to proceed with an investigative hearing on July 7. A hearing is to commence within 30 days of the notice, but exactly when the hearing will occur cannot be released to the public by the ethics committee chairman.

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