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CNMI lawmakers shocked at abrupt action

By Agnes Donato

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Sept. 24, 2008) – The Legislature yesterday expressed shock at the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) Attorney General's Office's order for the new owners of Rota Resort to shut down and leave the property after failing to obtain government approval for their purchase of the 600-acre complex.

House Speaker Arnold I. Palacios and Senate President Pete Reyes, in a joint letter to Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, took issue with the AG's accusations of trespassing and threat of a lawsuit against JMSH LLC, saying these reflect poorly on the business atmosphere in the CNMI. They said the Department of Public Lands was to blame for the situation because it failed to work with the Rota Resort owners on the sale.

"At a time when we are struggling to bring in new business to our islands, this hardly seems to be the most encouraging news for potential investors," the letter says. "Most disturbing is the fact that this demand by the AG stems from what appears to be a lack of action on the part of the Department of Public Lands in working with Rota Resort owners to approve the sale."

DPL Secretary John S. Del Rosario Jr. could not be reached for comments at press time. But press secretary Charles P. Reyes Jr. said the Department of Public Lands was just looking out for the interests of the indigenous people.

"DPL is entrusted with the administration of public lands. They take their duties seriously. I don't think you can fault them for enforcing the law," Reyes said.

Palacios and Reyes said that JMSC LLC, the current owner of Rota Resort, has always been forthright with the sale of the property, even going so far as meeting with Fitial and announcing its plans in the local media. The legislative leaders added that efforts by the Rota Legislative Delegation to discuss the issue with DPL have been stonewalled.

Palacios and Reyes noted that there is so much at stake if the government forces JMSC LLC to shut down and leave Rota Resort.

The resort, which is the biggest draw to the island, was losing $3 million a year when JMSC LLC bought it last month. Shortly after the purchase, the company infused new cash into the business and saved the charter flights to Rota by blocking off 6,000 seats from Freedom Air to increase the Saipan-Rota and Guam-Rota markets.

"They were the only company willing to do that," said Palacios and Reyes.

They also pointed to the 108 employees who would lose their jobs if Rota Resort shuts its doors. "Are we to deny them employment because of government bureaucracy? Is it truly in the best interest of the owners of public land to have productive buildings rotting from disuse and productive land losing value due to a lack of maintenance while DPL takes its time deciding issues? It seems wasteful, at the very least," they said.

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