Senator Wyden Protests the Closing of the Ombudsman Office

June 3, 2013

Senator Ron Wyden, Chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, has written a letter to U.S. Department of the Interior's Secretary Sally Jewell to protest the closing of the Federal Ombudsman Office in Saipan. He said that the "critical work currently performed by the Ombudsman must not be abandoned."

The letter states, "This decision was apparently made only weeks after the President's budget indicated that the Office would continue to operate at current levels through fiscal year 2014."

This suggests that the person or persons making this decision disregarded the President's decision to continue funding the Office.

The Senator said:
"It is particularly troubling that this decision to close the office was made without any apparent consultation with Congressional Committees, other affected federal agencies, the government of the CNMI, or the workers who depend upon the Ombudsman Office for advocacy and services. In fact, it appears that the decision to close the Office was triggered by the failure of Department officials to properly plan for the entirely predictable expiration of the term appointment of the Ombudsman."
If the decision to close the office was actually made because OIA failed to plan for the expiration of the Ombudsman's term appointment, that suggests that perhaps OIA, not the Ombudsman Office, is the office in need of serious changes. In fact, my most recent experiences with the Office of Insular Affairs has been a series of late responses, an official missing a scheduled appointment with me and other advocates, officials failing to respond to questions that they promised to respond to, and unanswered emails, including one asking why the Ombudsman Office was to be closed.

Senator Wyden spoke of a May 2 meeting that his staff members had with OIA officials. He said that plans to have the Field Representative Office and other federal offices absorb the functions of the Ombudsman were "unpersuasive." He stated that OIA did not consult with or make plans with other federal agencies and did not conduct an analysis to determine what duties of the Ombudsman were still critical.

Wyden's letter is followed by a set of 13 questions that the Senator asks Secretary Jewell to answer  within 30 days. The Senator asked the Secretary how many open cases the Ombudsman Office has and the expectation of how they will be resolved. He questioned whether the OIA had entered into discussions with the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security concerning how they would absorb the cases.

Wyden questioned whether the U.S. Department of Labor had a staff outside of the two Wage and Hour investigators and whether the Department had jurisdiction to enforce wage claims against "the majority of businesses now operating in the CNMI after the closure of the garment industry." (They do not.)

Another question asks how OIA plans to continue to serve the people of the CNMI and Guam after the closure. As pointed out previously on this site, the duties of the Ombudsman were extended to Guam in 2011.

Wyden asked Jewell how the OIA plans to spend the $250,000 that President Obama allocated for the operation of the Ombudsman Office in 2014.

He questioned what plans OIA had to fill the vacant Field Office position left by Jeff Schorr and at what grade level would the position be advertised. He also inquired if the Field Representative would be tasked with taking over the duties of the Ombudsman and if so, what funding would be made for interpretation and translations services for aliens who do not speak English. He asked if OIA had considered advertising for contract employees to provide interpretations services and if not why not.

The Senator asked, "Did OIA consult with the CNMI Government; the U.S. Departments of Labor, Homeland Security, and Justice; the alien worker community; and the CNMI Women's shelter regarding the closure of the Ombudsman's office, and if so, what were their views?"

That question, like several others, appears to be rhetorical. Apparently OIA consulted with no other department or entity involved in the issues of the foreign workers before making the harmful and unwise decision.

In previous years it was the Office of Insular Affairs that led the charge to stop the exploitation and abuse of the foreign workers. It was the Department of the Interior and the Office of Insular Affairs that stood up to the Fitial-DeLay-Jack Abramoff co-conspirators at Congressional Hearings to tell the truth about the plight of the CNMI's foreign workers and demand reform. Who would have thought that this Department and this Office would make a move that would contribute to the denial of justice for the suffering foreign workers.

Read the letter from Senator Wyden: