By Jacob Nakamura
(Hagatna, Guam) Yap Governor Henry Falan has been fighting corruption against wealthy businessmen linked to the Chinese government since he took office this year. By his side until a few days ago fighting with him was his acting attorney general, Rachelle Bergeron.
Ms. Bergeron was assassinated outside her home Monday night as she returned from a run with her dog. Both she and her dog were shot and killed. Her widower, Simon Hammerling, was inside the home, according to news reports from Yap.
Mr. Falan took the murder especially hard, delivering an address to Yapese citizens and the global community and saying, "Yap's spirit is broken," as a result of this "senseless and heinous" crime. The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating the assassination. Kandit spoke with the Governor's Office in Yap, which will be sending a statement on the status of the investigation later today.
Ms. Bergeron was only 33 years old, when she was slain. She left behind her husband and a child they were caring for, as well as at least one other dog. She also is survived by her family in Wisconsin, who recently visited her in Yap.
The reforms Mr. Falan and Ms. Bergeron were making have raised suspicions that Ms. Bergeron's death could be linked to enemies she and the governor have made as a result of their crackdown on corruption. That corruption involves multimillion dollar deals the previous Yap governor entered into with Chinese corporations interested in developing the island, which is the closest to the Mariana archipelago of all the islands of Micronesia.
Kingma Holdings, a Chinese-based company, had a lease agreement to build a $25 million development called Happiness Resort. Mr. Falan cancelled that agreement and has been cracking down on illegal Chinese development on his island. Ms. Bergeron was helping him. But they weren't alone.
Earlier this year the governor invited the U.S. FBI to investigate Chinese activities on the island and its connections to illegal development, human trafficking, and other transnational crimes. Ms. Bergeron had led the local effort in the Yap State government's cooperation with the United States.
U.S. interests in the region are climbing due to to the increased attempt by the Chinese to infiltrate the economies of Micronesia with foreign investment that has begun to validate Chinese interests over this geopolitical sphere of influence. This is a problem the United States government forecast as far back as the 1980s, which precipitated its Global Realignment of the Armed Forces that led to the updated security agreement with Japan. That agreement has led to the military buildup in the Mariana islands, which is at Yap's doorstep.
But Chinese interests in this region don't just end with Yap, Guam, Rota, Tinian, and Saipan. Neither does the corruption that has come with it. Kandit previously reported its dismay with the proposed expulsion of journalist Joyce McClure, a correspondent for the Pacific Island Times.
Ms. McClure had also been critical of Chinese development in Micronesia. Earlier this year the Yap Council of Pilung - its council of traditional chiefs - requested that the government declare Ms. McClure persona non grata in Yap for what they termed disruptive journalism. It is unclear to what extent Kingma's business interests in Yap had infiltrated the council, however, Mr. Falan won his election narrowly last year against the council's wishes. It was the first time in Yap's history that its electorate went against the decision of the traditional chiefs, signaling an era of reform.
The Republic of Palau and the other islands of the Federated States of Micronesia also are being courted by Chinese interests.
Corruption within the islands of Micronesia is becoming more pronounced. In February this year the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed an indictment against Master Halbert, a former official in the FSM Department of Transportation, Communications, and Infrastructure for his role in a conspiracy to commit money laundering. A month earlier, on January 22, Frank Lyon, an executive with a Hawaii-based engineering and consulting firm, plead guilty to paying bribes to FSM officials in exchange for attaining and retaining lucrative contracts worth a total of $8 million. A February 12, 2019 news release from the Justice Department provides further details:
Charges were unsealed yesterday against a Micronesian government official for his alleged participation in a money laundering scheme involving bribes made to corruptly secure engineering and project management contracts from the government of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). In a related matter, on Jan. 22, a U.S. executive pleaded guilty for his role in a scheme to, among other things, bribe the Micronesian official in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).
Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and Special Agent in Charge Sean Kaul of the FBI’s Honolulu Field Office made the announcement.
Master Halbert, 44, a Micronesian citizen, was charged in a criminal complaint filed in the District of Hawaii with one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Halbert was arrested yesterday in Honolulu, Hawaii, and had his initial court appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard L. Puglisi of the District of Hawaii. Halbert is scheduled to have a pretrial detention hearing on Feb. 13 and a preliminary hearing on Feb. 22.
According to the criminal complaint, Halbert was a government official in the FSM Department of Transportation, Communications and Infrastructure who administered FSM’s aviation programs, including the management of its airports. The complaint alleges that between 2006 and 2016, a Hawaii-based engineering and consulting company owned by Frank James Lyon paid bribes to FSM officials, including Halbert, to obtain and retain contracts with the FSM government valued at nearly $8 million. According to the complaint, Lyon entered into an agreement with Halbert to bribe Halbert in exchange for Halbert’s assistance in securing contracts for Lyon and his company. Lyon and Halbert allegedly agreed that these bribes would be transported from the United States to FSM.
The charges contained in the complaint are merely allegations and the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
In the related matter, Lyon, 53, of Honolulu, Hawaii, pleaded guilty on Jan. 22 to a one-count information filed in the District of Hawaii charging him with conspiracy to violate the anti-bribery provisions of the FCPA and to commit federal program fraud. Lyon is scheduled to be sentenced on May 13.
Trial Attorney Katherine Raut of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section is prosecuting the case. The Criminal Division’s Office of International Affairs also provided assistance.
The Fraud Section is responsible for investigating and prosecuting all FCPA matters. Additional information about the department’s FCPA enforcement efforts can be found at www.justice.gov/criminal/fraud/fcpa.