Congressional Delegate Pleads Guilty to Payroll Padding Scheme
WASHINGTON (AP) _ American Samoa’s non-voting delegate to Congress, in an effort to ″avoid further shame,″ pleaded guilty to a charge he participated in a $130,920 payroll padding scheme, his lawyer says.
Defense lawyer Earl Silbert told U.S. District Judge Stanley Harris on Wednesday that Del. Fofo I.F. Sunia stood ″a reasonable chance of acquittal″ if the case went to trial.
But Silbert said that Sunia, a Democrat who has represented Samoa since 1981, was pleading guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to defraud the government ″to avoid further shame to himself and his people.″
Sunia insists that he did not participate in the conspiracy from its inception in early 1983, but later became aware that his chief aide, Matthew Iuli, had arranged for paychecks to be issued to people who were not working for the congressman, Silbert said.
Iuli also pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge as well as a second count of filing a false payroll document.
Silbert told Harris that Sunia will resign from the House, where he can vote only in committees, before his Oct. 4 sentencing.
The lawmaker declined to comment on his guilty plea or say when he would resign. Sunia, 51, could receive a five-year sentence and a $250,000 fine.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Andary revealed in court that Iuli began cooperating with federal investigators 18 months ago, even though he remains on Sunia’s payroll to this day.
Sunia was aware of Iuli’s cooperation with the Secret Service agents who were investigating the case, according to sources familiar with the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
By way of some explanation, Silbert said the cultural background of Sunia and Iuli, plus their ″extraordinarily passive personalities, combined to make one of the strangest cases I’ve ever encountered.″
The defense lawyer told the judge that Sunia did not profit from the scheme.
But Andary disputed that contention, saying the lawmaker used $39,112 for personal expenses, including payments on a house and a car.
Silbert said the money was used mostly to pay the hotel bills and restaurant tabs of visiting constituents - Samoan hospitality that was expected from Sunia.
Investigators were tipped to the scheme in late 1985 when a former member of Sunia’s staff, Roger Hazell, complained that his W-2 tax form showed he had earned an extra $1,995.
Secret Service agents determined the paycheck had been deposited in a joint checking account held by Sunia and Iuli.
A large number of payroll checks ended up in the account or another for the Committee to Re-Elect Fofo, Andary said.
None of the Samoans named as payees worked for Sunia and told investigators they were unaware their names were on the congressman’s payroll, Andary said.
The prosecutor said Iuli conceived the scheme in early 1983 after the congressman’s staff was doubled from nine to 18 members. Iuli determined that there was not enough work for 18 people but the office would lose any money he didn’t spend to hire extra people, Andary said.
So he placed phony names on the payroll to get the money to defray some of the costs of running the office, Andary said.
Iuli also used some of the money to reimburse himself for expenses he had paid out of his own pocket, Andary said.
Iuli’s sentencing was scheduled for Oct. 3. He could receive two five-year terms but prosecutors agreed not to seek the maximum sentence against him.
In return for Sunia’s guilty plea, prosecutors agreed not to prosecute him for forgery and false statements, including false reports to the Federal Election Commission.
Both men agreed to make restitution of undisclosed amounts of money.