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Sablan sued government for Federalization suit information

By Kristi Eaton

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, April 23, 2009)—After seven months and a lawsuit, Rep. Tina Sablan finally received some documents relating to the CNMI government's federalization lawsuit, although the lawmaker says the disclosed records may not be in compliance with the court order.

At 5:11pm on Tuesday, the deadline for disclosure, Sablan received the contract of Howard Willens, the governor's special legal counsel. Willens, as part of the Jenner & Block law firm, is representing the CNMI in its lawsuit against the federal government, which seeks to halt the extension of U.S. immigration laws to the CNMI.

Sablan received the following documents:

Willens/Wilsie Co.’s contract change order No. 2, dated Sept. 19, 2008;

Willens’ independent contractor agreement with the Office of the Governor, effective Jan. 1, 2007, to Sept. 30, 2007, with attachments; and

Willens’ independent contractor agreement with the Office of the Governor, effective Jan. 19, 2006, to Dec. 31, 2006, with attachments.

In October, Sablan, citing the Open Government Act, asked Gov. Benigno Fitial to produce copies of all contracts related to the lawsuit, including any contracts between the CNMI government and Jenner & Block, as well as any private attorneys or law firms involved in the suit.

She also asked for documents on payments made on the contracts and the funding sources. She called on the governor to identify government agencies that have had their funds reprogrammed to fund the lawsuit, and the amounts of money taken from them.

Acting Attorney General Gregory Baka declined to produce the documents, saying the OGA prohibits the release of certain litigation-related information that the government's opponent in a lawsuit could not otherwise get in court. Sablan asked for the same documents from Finance Secretary Eloy Inos and again was denied.

In March, the lawmaker sued Fitial, Inos and Baka in an effort to compel the administration to release the information. Baka was dismissed from the lawsuit. Last week, Superior Court Associate Judge David A. Wiseman ordered the defendants to produce some of the documents.

At a hearing earlier this month, assistant attorney general Braddock Huesman, counsel for Fitial and Inos, objected to giving Sablan copies of three documents: the letter engaging the services of lawyers; billing documents and statements sent to the CNMI for the 903 litigation (federalization lawsuit); and payments made by the CNMI to attorneys for the 903 litigation.

Sablan said she believes the records pertaining to Willen's contract are incomplete. Change Order No. 1, for example, is missing, she said in a statement.

"In the second place, I had also expected to receive copies of any fee or retainer agreements related to the 903 litigation," she said in a statement. "It is my understanding that the fee or retainer agreement is distinct from the engagement letter. Further, it is well-established that fee or retainer agreements are not considered privileged information. The court did not specifically authorize defendants to withhold the fee or retainer agreement."

Also, the defendants failed to answer whether or not private entities were involved, she said.

Sablan also questions earlier statements made by Baka after receiving the documents.

Baka earlier revealed the sole public source of funding was from the Governor's Operating Account. Yet the account to fund Willen's contract is different. Moreover, Willens provides his legal services free of charge yet receives payment as an independent contract and other benefits.

Huesman is expected to submit the privilege log to the court shortly and Sablan will receive a copy, she said.

Charles Reyes, press secretary for the Governor's Office, said he could not comment on questions related to the funding of the lawsuit. He referred some of the questions to the lawyers.

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