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By Gemma Q. Casas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Jan. 6) – The Philippines’ wealthiest businessman, Lucio Tan, will be among the very important guests of Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Governor-elect Benigno R. Fitial at his inauguration on Monday.

Tan, a tobacco and beer magnate, was ordered by the CNMI Superior Court last month to pay unpaid tobacco taxes to the local government amounting to $1.9 million.

Tan’s Fortune Tobacco Corp., which used to export Hope Luxury and Champion cigarettes to the CNMI, is banned from shipping and selling them in the Northern Marianas until the firm has settled its tax obligations here.

The 71-year-old Tan reportedly has a personal net worth of at least $1.5 billion and has extensive investments in China and Hong Kong..

Forbes Magazine ranked him as the 258th richest person in the world in 2003 and the 15th richest person in Southeast Asia.

Tan’s businesses include Fortune Tobacco Corp., Asia Breweries, Century Park Sheraton Hotel, Allied Banking Corp., the Philippine National Bank and Philippine Airlines.

In 2004, the Philippine Supreme Court revived the 25 billion peso ($480.7 million) tax evasion case against Tan which was dropped in 1998.

Last month, Superior Presiding Judge Robert Naraja ordered Tan’s Fortune Tobacco Corp. to pay the CNMI government $1.9 million, excluding costs and other fees, for not complying with local tobacco laws.

The lawsuit against Tan’s firm was filed by the outgoing administration’s Attorney General Pamela Brown.

Court papers show the monetary judgment against Tan’s firm covers $1,435,351.32 in civil penalties plus 9 percent interest per annum for a total of $1,913,801.76.

In his ruling, Naraja said Fortune Tobacco violated Public Law 13-15 which requires cigarette exporters to place monies into a qualified escrow account created by the 1998 master settlement agreement between U.S. tobacco manufacturers and the federal government.

The Attorney General’s Office said Fortune did not follow the requirement on the escrow fund even though it sold 13.7 million cigarettes in the CNMI in 2003 and 10.5 million in 2004.

January 6, 2006

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