Tony Babauta Resigns as Deputy Secretary for DOI, UPDATED

January 26, 2013

Tony Babauta
Photo by Wendy Doromal ©2011
Guam native, Tony Babauta resigned his position as Deputy Secretary for Insular Affairs two months after he was put on administrative leave while being investigated for  travel and the awarding of some DOI grants.

The letter submitted to DOI Secretary Ken Salazar (who also submitted his resignation to President Obama) indicates that Mr. Babauta's resignation is effective February 1, 2013.

DOI Office of the Inspector General officials were on Guam earlier this month to conduct investigations at the University of Guam and Guam Community College regarding DOI grants.  They also met with officials at the educational institutions and with Governor Eddie Calvo.

Prior to being confirmed by the U.S. Senate for the position of Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Department of Insular Affairs, Babauta served as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s senior advisor.

I first met Tony Babauta when he was serving as staff Director for the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee's Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans, and Wildlife. He served as an advisor to the full committee concerning U.S. policy towards U.S. territories and other U.S. affiliated island nations.

Babauta took several trips to the CNMI while serving as the Resources Committee staff director, including one trip with Congresswoman Donna Christensen (D- Virgin Islands). He gained the respect of workers and advocates for his support of upgraded status for legal, long-term foreign workers and a resolution of their problems, including unpaid wages and civil rights violations.

However, Babauta's Report on the Alien Worker Population in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which was mandated by the Consolidated Natural Resources Act, did nothing to gain status for the de facto citizens of the CNMI. The U.S. Congress failed to act on the recommendation made in April 2010.

Advocates and workers were hoping the report would contain the language promised when the grandfathering provision was removed from the CNRA because of political  pressure from indigenous rights groups, Governor Fitial and other racist leaders from the CNMI and Guam.  The promise was that after the bill passed with the status provision removed, we could expect another bill to be introduced to grant the legal, long-term foreign workers permanent residency with a pathway to citizenship.  The closest language alluding to permanent residency in the report was this statement:
"Consistent with the goals of comprehensive immigration reform, we recommend that the Congress consider permitting alien workers who have lawfully resided in the CNMI for a minimum period of five years to apply for long-term status under the immigration and nationality laws of the United States."
Following that statement was a list of possible status upgrades that could be considered, including outright citizenship, permanent residency and nonimmigrant, second-class citizen status (page 19). The report contained a smorgasbord of recommendations rather than one firm recommendation.  Not only did the U.S. Congress fail to act on the report, but disappointingly, there was no push or commitment from the Obama Administration or the OIA to get the job done.

Although Mr. Babauta made efforts to meet and communicate with advocates and the leaders of the legal, long-term foreign workers early on in his role as deputy secretary, as the years progressed he appeared to snub their efforts to meet with him. It was disappointing, since advocates and workers thought that Babauta, an Obama appointee, would prioritize this issue and ensure that the long-suffereing foreign workers would finally receive justice and be made whole. It was not to be.

It was Babauta's predecessor, David Cohen, who continued to support the plight of the legal, long-term foreign workers years after he left the DOI. In December 2011 he wrote an editorial, for The Daily Caller entitled, The Forgotten workers of Abramoff's islands. It called for permanent residency for the legal, longterm foreign workers. He wrote:
“Some say that guest workers who have lost their jobs should just go home. But many of them have devoted their entire adult lives to supplying the skills needed to build the CNMI economy. As their contracts were renewed year after year, the CNMI became their de facto permanent homeland — but one in which they, as perpetually “temporary” workers, could never have political rights. Many of them have minor children — U.S. citizens by birth — who know no other home. It seems cruel to pack these American children off to alien third-world countries to live off of the third-world wages their parents would earn there. If there is no work for these families in the CNMI, why not grant them U.S. permanent residency so they can find opportunities elsewhere in America? As bad as our economy is, surely we can find room for a few thousand workers whose skills and work ethic have proven indispensable to building up a small corner of our country. 
To say that the CNMI offers a “cautionary tale” doesn’t do it justice. It’s more like a cautionary library, well stocked with miscalculations, ironies, unintended consequences and reminders that we should be careful what we wish for. The local islanders originally fought to control their own immigration because they were afraid of being overrun by outsiders. They did end up getting overrun by outsiders — precisely because they were granted control of their own immigration. Most guest workers hailed the federalization of wages and immigration, but many have now lost their jobs — and may soon lose their legal status — as a result. 
Some see parallels between the challenges faced by CNMI guest workers and those faced by illegal aliens in the mainland. Congressional staffers say that opposition to amnesty somehow makes it politically impossible to grant CNMI guest workers permanent residence in the U.S. But CNMI guest workers are legal aliens. They cannot afford to wait until Congress figures out how to deal with millions of illegal aliens — and they should not have to.
In his resignation letter to Secretary Salazar, Mr. Babauta wrote:
After first serving as a professional staff member for the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee under Representatives George Miller and Nick Rahall, I was honored by President Obama's appointment, as the first native islander to serve as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for the Insular Areas. I belive that my work, shaped by the islands values as well as congressional experience, improved the Office of Insular Affairs and, more importantly, benefitted my fellow island brothers and sisters. 
. . .I have had a storied career of public service since arriving in Washington, DC; none of it possible without being surrounded by colleagues and leaders unafraid to speak up for many of our fellow citizens whose lives are surrounded by sun, sand, and surf. Yet the histories of these peoples are often stories of injustices nor righted or promises not kept. I am hopeful that my contributions to the President, my fellow islanders, and you have helped to re-shape their future. 
Read Tony Babauta's entire 3-page letter of resignation to DOI Secretary Ken Salazar here.

Tony Babauta's Resignation Letter to President Obama:
Thank you for the opportunity and your confidence to serve as Assistant Secretary of Interior for the Insular Affairs, U.S. Department of Interior. I am honored to be the first native islander to hold this position and hopeful that the values and experience from which I led has helped to provide a better future for all who calls the islands home.
Statement issued by Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo (D-GUAM):
“Assistant Secretary Tony Babauta has been a steadfast advocate for the needs of the territories and has significantly improved relations between the federal and territorial governments,” said Congresswoman Bordallo. “In his capacity as the Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas, Tony initiated direct engagement between the U.S. territories and our allies in the Pacific. He has ensured that the needs of the territories were addressed at every level of the federal government and worked diligently to ensure that our constituencies were treated comparably to Americans in the 50 states. Specifically for Guam, Tony was a strong supporter of the Administration's renewed engagement in the Asia-Pacific region and helped expand job opportunities for our people. 
Guam and the territories have been well served by Tony’s leadership. As Assistant Secretary, Tony always pushed for the best interests of our people and worked to improve the unique disparities of the insular areas. Although his resignation marks the loss of an important ally for our Pacific Island and Caribbean communities, I am confident he will be successful in his future endeavors.”
 Congressman Gregorio (Kilili) Sablan issued the following statement on Tony Babauta's resignation:
"It was a milestone for all of us to have someone from the Mariana Islands heading the Office of Insular Affairs. For that reason alone I certainly regret the news that Assistant Secretary Tony Babauta is leaving the Interior Department. 
Assistant Secretary Babauta has worked hard to help our islands. Most recently, he has directed millions of dollars in technical assistance funds to the Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation to get our hospital back on its feet. And he helped coordinate with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to send a team of medical professionals here to respond to the hospital crisis. 
Assistant Secretary Babauta, who as a congressional staff person worked on drafting the federal immigration law, was also important in ironing out the implementation of that law. Many of the things we have done to make the transition as least difficult as possible, such as assuring that Chinese and Russian tourists could keep coming to our islands, Tony Babauta advocated for within the Obama administration. 
As much as I regret seeing Tony Babauta departing, I am also assured that the Obama administration continues to focus on our islands and that we will see a smooth transition. 
This week Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary Eileen Sobeck, who has been in charge at the Office of Insular Affairs, will be here in the Northern Marianas. She is travelling with Ms. Sally Howard, who is Chief of Staff of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. They, too, will be focused on the hospital and on making sure that CHC is able to retain its certification and continue providing service to our community.  So, even though we are losing Assistant Secretary Babauta, we are still getting the attention we need from the highest levels of the federal government.
We are in a time of transition at the Interior Department, however. Secretary Ken Salazar, who has also been a good friend, has submitted his resignation, too; and the president has not yet announced a replacement. I will certainly be encouraging the administration to retain the position of assistant secretary for insular affairs and to find a person to nominate for that responsibility who has the same extensive background in island issues that Tony Babauta brought with him.
Best wishes to Tony and his family.


Anonymous said...

Tony is in trouble. He is under a Federal investigation. When the Feds investigate one of their own they usually have a mountain of evidence. So they will get Tony the Tiger to squeal on other pieces of the Interior corruption puzzle. For years the DOI people in the Marianas have gone about their business with little oversight and it's finally caught up to them. Too many players in the Marianas have worn too many hats over the last few decades. Trust me, Tony to the T will rap his way to a plea bargain and will give up his peeps from the Ombuds office to DC.

Wendy Doromal said...

3:20 An investigation does not mean someone is in trouble. An investigation could be called by enemies as we have witnessed several times with employees of the DOI. Others were innocent. Tony could be too. And the accusation that he would give up people is out there too. It is also doubtful that there are "peeps" to give up!

Anonymous said...

A Federal investigation into one of their own does mean someones in trouble. He also resigned Wendy. Does an innocent person resign because they're innocent? Two things will happen. One, this will go away because it's a monumental Federal embarrassment. Two, indictments will be handed out. I believe Tony will squeal. They all do when facing Federal prison. Someone blew the whistle on the DOI in the Marianas Wendy. This is just the beginning. That's why Tony resigned - he's turning into a Federal witness.

Wendy Doromal said...

3:04 Of course people resign from their jobs for many reasons. Maybe he resigned because he was guilty, as you suggest. Maybe he resigned because the job was too much pressure or he was distressed by the investigation. We do not know why he resigned. The Tony I knew was a good guy. There was a federal investigation into Ombudsman Pam Brown that was an outright witch hunt. She was exonerated. Unless we have facts, we are guessing, which may not be fair to the accused. I just don't have enough facts to even make a guess. I hope that the person who takes his position has as much or more knowledge about the CNMI and the plight of the foreign workers.

Anonymous said...

Nope you're wrong Wendy. Tony T was placed on administrative leave THEN he resigned. That probably means that he has hired an attorney - most likely a hired gun criminal defense type. If he's lucky he'll get a trial on Guam - with a jury of his peers (Chamorros). Graft amongst the Chamorros is almost cultural and they will be sympathetic.

Wendy Doromal said...

6:54 Yes, I know the timeline. I reported it on this site!

I am just saying he may or may not be found guilty of crimes.