June 25, 2001 – Five and a half months after the arrival of the Bush administration, there is still no political appointee at the head of the Office of Insular Affairs within the Department of the Interior — the office that coordinates federal relations with the Virgin Islands and the U.S. Pacific island territories.
Interior sources indicate that a lawyer from California who has worked in political positions on island affairs in the past, Howard Hills, would get the job. Hills was an aide to Ambassador Fred Zeder when the original agreements were worked out between the United States and the mid-Pacific nations of the Marshalls and Micronesia. More recently, while in private practice, he has represented the atomic bomb-damaged atoll of Rongelap in the Marshall Islands.
Hills, however, told the Source that he's not interested. "While I would like to make a contribution and come back to government sometime," he said, "now is not the right time for me."
He noted that Interior has been one of the slowest of the government departments in getting get sub-cabinet executive appointments. And, he added, "They will appoint the assistant secretaries before they get to the office directors."
Were Hills to be named to head Insular Affairs, observers say, his appointment would continue the recent practice of naming someone to the post who knows something about the islands. The Clinton administration's second appointee to the office, Alan Stayman, had followed insular matters for years as a staff member on Capitol Hill. So had Stayman's deputy, and eventual successor, Danny Aranza, a Guamanian of Filipino descent who had practiced law in Hawaii.
In prior years, even when the Insular Affairs boss had the rank of assistant secretary, the White House had regarded the post as one that should be filled by mainland minority persons with strong political credentials, whether or not they had any prior contact with the islands. Richard Montoya and Stella Guerra, who held the job in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, were mainland Hispanics, as the Pacific Islands Monthly used to chronicle in detail. The first Clinton appointee upheld the tradition: Leslie Turner was an African-American who had worked in the law firm of Vernon Jordan, a prominent lobbyist and sometime golfing partner of Clinton's.
"These appointees came to the OIA job not only with no island experience, they were new to Interior, and did not seem to have well-developed networks elsewhere in town; they all struggled as a result," according to one, long-time Interior staffer.
Most of these Insular Affairs directors have stay on in Washington, D.C., after leaving their appointive office: Turner and Arranza have returned to the practice of law and Stayman has taken an apolitical position in the State Department, handling the renegotiation of the government's treaty-like arrangements with the Republic of the Marshalls and the Federated States of Micronesia.
Both the Marshalls and Micronesia are called associated states; they are near-sovereign entities but defer to the United States on military matters and are heavily dependent on U.S. financial aid. It is an unusual arrangement, nothing like the relationships of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to the United States.
The acting director of Insular Affairs since Arranza's departure at the end of the Clinton administration is Nicolao Pula, a civil servant from American Samoa.
"OIA and the islands are not hurt by the delay in naming a director," Hills said. "The place is in strong hands with Nik Pula as the acting director."
The speculation is that it be many more months before a permanent Insular Affairs director is in place. The job does not require Senate confirmation.


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