BILLION DOLLAR LAWSUIT AGAINST SAIPAN GARMENT INDUSTRY

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By Benhur C. Saladores

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (January 14, 1999 - Saipan Tribune)---Senate floor leader Pete P. Reyes yesterday said the federal government is trying to coerce the CNMI into a federalization move through a $1 billion lawsuit against the garment industry.

He said it is yet another attempt to bash the commonwealth, describing the lawsuit as "politically motivated."

He warned that the move will aggravate the current economic crisis of the CNMI.

"This lawsuit is not going to help us at all," Reyes said in an interview. "If anything, it will only threaten businesses in the CNMI when things are really down and the government is gasping out of the water to breathe some air."

The senator was commenting on the lawsuit initiated by a New York-based firm against the local garment sector and its U.S. buyers for alleged labor abuses. It could prove to be the most serious attack on the commonwealth.

The case, which was expected to be filed in federal courts on Saipan and California today, came on the heels of insistence by the U.S. government to strip CNMI of immigration and labor powers. This was indicated in a recent letter of President Bill Clinton to Gov. Pedro P. Tenorio.

Reyes accused Allen P. Stayman, director of the Office of Insular Affairs and one of CNMI's most vocal critics, of having a hand in the lawsuit.

"I strongly believe that Stayman is involved," he explained. "He's out to prove something out of this," Reyes said. He declined to elaborate.

The senator feared that it may yet signal a "season of bashing" against the CNMI.

"Every time there is discussion on federal takeover, it's CNMI bashing time -- every time the garment industry hits the headline. It's CNMI bashing time," he said.

Reyes lamented that despite local efforts to address Washington's concerns on local labor and immigration standards, federal officials appear bent on pressing for application of U.S. laws on minimum wage and immigration.

"We are moving ahead with our reforms," Reyes said, adding that the lawsuit and the continued criticisms by Washington are "frustrating" for the CNMI.

In December, Clinton sent a message to Tenorio, thanking him for agreeing to the planned takeover. The governor has maintained his stand against federalization, preferring to deal with the federal concerns through cooperation.

Reyes, meanwhile, challenged the private law firm to file a case against the federal government for using millions of dollars to finance its war against Iraq, instead of targeting the garment industry that has been a constant source of income for the CNMI over the last decade.

"What is it that we have that attracts too much attention?" the senator asked.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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