Distribution Of CNMI Fund Contributions Hinges On Senate

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Joint resolution to be considered removes disputed clause

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Oct. 18, 2013) – Disbursement of over $40 million in defined benefit (DB) plan contributions for Northern Marianas retirees could still take days, depending on today’s Senate action on a new joint resolution that the House of Representatives is likely to adopt this afternoon to heed Attorney General Joey Patrick San Nicolas’ request yesterday.

The AG asked the House and Senate to take the "quickest way" by amending a joint resolution or introducing a new one approving the Retirement Fund settlement agreement so as not to further delay the disbursement of DB contributions.

San Nicolas said the lawyers for the plaintiff, Betty Johnson, have taken issue with one of the "Be it further resolved" clauses in the resolution that cleared the Legislature last week.

This particular clause was among those added by the Senate to House Joint Resolution 18-10, House Draft 1.

This clause preserves the Legislature’s constitutional and statutory rights to challenge the settlement agreement.

House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) called for a 2pm session today for a likely adoption of a new House Joint Resolution 18-11 that only removes the clause in question.

The new resolution has the same intent of acknowledging and approving the Fund settlement agreement, minus the disputed paragraph.

Acting Senate president Victor Hocog (R-Rota), meanwhile, said yesterday that the Senate believes that the measure adopted last week—HJR 18-10, HD1, SS1—meets the legislative approval requirement under the settlement deal.

"Why do we have to fall under the control of Betty Johnson’s lawyers? The resolution is constitutional," Hocog told Saipan Tribune.

The Senate-added clause in HJR 18-10 preserves the Legislature’s sovereign rights under CNMI and U.S. Constitution and laws in approving parts of the Fund settlement deal "in order to challenge the said agreement due to the said agreement’s coerciveness and the agreement’s attempt to extort the constitutional authority of the Legislature."

But the AG said the plaintiff’s attorneys "believe that the paragraph negates the legislative approval of the settlement agreement."

However, the AG pointed out that he believes last week’s adopted resolution satisfies the "legislative approval" requirement under the settlement deal to pave the way for the disbursement of the remainder of DB plan employee contributions.

Members expecting the disbursement of their DB employee contributions have expressed frustration and disappointment over the delay, touching off another round of finger-pointing that blames the NMI Retirement Fund, the Legislature, the federal court, plaintiff Betty Johnson, or the Inos administration for the delay.

3 options

The AG, in his two-page letter to the Legislature, said yesterday that the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) is left with three options given the plaintiff’s position on HJR 18-10, HD1, SS1.

One, the OAG can continue to discuss the issue with the plaintiff’s attorneys and hope to reach an agreement that HJR 18-10 is sufficient.

Two, the OAG can file a motion with the court and seek court determination that HJR 18-10 satisfies the "legislative approval" requirement under the settlement deal.

Three, the Legislature can amend HJR 18-10 or pass a new resolution to delete the disputed paragraph.

San Nicolas said the OAG is proceeding with the first two options, and they are carefully prepared to argue for the sufficiency of HJR 18-10.

"However, I believe that legislative action that deleted the disputed paragraph would be the quickest way to resolve the issue as there is no guarantee that plaintiff’s attorneys will come around and filing a motion would require time for briefing and possibly a hearing. Accordingly, I respectfully request that you amend HJR 18-10 to delete the disputed paragraph or pass a new resolution that does the same," the AG told the House speaker and Senate president.

San Nicolas met yesterday with some senators, including Senate floor leader Ray Yumul (Ind-Saipan).

Yumul was the main proponent of a Senate substitute version of HJR 18-10. He said the legislative approval requirement has been met, and it’s now "in the hands of the federal court."

Hocog, for his part, said he acknowledges that DB members are now anxious about the disbursement of their contributions but there are other issues involved, including not always giving in to Johnson’s demands.

Hocog called for a 1:30pm meeting today between the Senate and the AG.

In a phone interview yesterday, Hocog said he might call an emergency session after the Senate’s meeting with the AG this afternoon.

But he said there is no telling what the Senate would do on the matter as of yesterday.

The Retirement Fund said it "will not—indeed, cannot—release disbursements until it receives notice that there has been ‘legislative action’ that conforms with the settlement agreement."

Disbursements of over $40 million in direct deposits and checks would have started yesterday. The Fund pointed out that it stands ready to release all disbursements via checks and direct deposits, pursuant to Public Laws 17-82 and 18-2.

During the settlement deal’s preliminary approval, some $10 million was disbursed.

The remainder, or $42 million, will be released after final approval of the settlement agreement and then after legislative approval.

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