The delegate to Congress from the South Pacific islands of American Samoa has agreed to plead guilty to charges of bilking the government out of $131,920 by claiming ghost employees on his congressional staff payroll, the prosecuting attorney announced Wednesday.
In an elaborate scheme over 3 1/2 years, the delegate, Fofo I.F. Sunia, a Democrat, and his top aide regularly claimed payroll expenses for non-staff members, forged the signatures of the ghost employees and used the cash for political campaign and personal expenses, according to charges filed here by U.S. Atty. Jay B. Stephens.
Sunia, who has represented American Samoa's 35,000 citizens in Congress since the U.S.-owned territory was granted a non-voting seat in 1980, was in California on Wednesday and unavailable to comment. His attorneys and staff members refused to answer any questions.
Sunia's Aide Cooperates
An attorney for Matthew K. Iuli, the congressman's administrative assistant, who was charged with carrying out the fraud, said Iuli admitted his role in the scheme to federal investigators 18 months ago and has cooperated in the investigation since then.
"This has been an extremely difficult 18 months" for Iuli, attorney Richard Saltsman said in an interview. "He wasn't coerced into this with a gun to his head, but as the case progresses in court, I think you'll see that this gets a little more complicated from a human point of view." He refused to elaborate.
The attorney stressed that Iuli was not charged with using any of the stolen funds personally. The money allegedly went to entertain Sunia's constituents and staff members, conduct political campaign activities, pay for personal air travel for the congressman and his wife and eight children and make payments on Sunia's home and car.
14 False Employees
According to charges filed in district court, Sunia and Iuli put the names of non-employees on the congressional staff payroll and left intact the names of other fired workers. In all, 78 U.S. Treasury checks for 14 false employees were cashed between February, 1983, and August, 1986, the prosecutor charged.
In an interview with the Washington Post in April, 1982, Sunia described both his enthusiasm and his frustration in representing American Samoa. Washington, he said, is "the source of just about everything, but primarily financial support. Back in the territory we used to have a saying that 'all blessings come from heaven, but via Washington.' "