CNMI Governor Can Renegotiate Court Judgment: Counsel

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Government needs to pay off about $27 million in judgments

By Alexie Villegas Zotomayor

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Dec. 13, 2013) – Despite the bill, the governor of the CNMI has the authority to waive appropriation requirements to negotiate a court judgment.

This was clarified by House of Representatives legal counsel John Cool during a House committee review of Senate Bill 18-26 this week.

Senate Bill 18-26 authorizes the governor to negotiate a settlement and resolution of the judgments entered against the CNMI government.

This bill was passed by the Senate by a unanimous vote on Aug. 29.

"Under the existing law, even though it requires the Legislature to appropriate funds for judgment, the governor has the authority today to waive that provision," Cool told the lawmakers.

Present at the committee review were House Speaker Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero, IR-Saipan, Rep. Antonio P. Sablan, Ind-Saipan; Rep. Mariano Taitano, Ind.-Saipan; Rep. Ramon A. Tebuteb, Ind.-Saipan; Rep. Ralph N. Yumul, Ind.-Saipan; and Rep. Christopher D. Leon Guerrero, Cov.-Saipan.

When asked by Taitano if the governor could renegotiate a court judgment, Cool responded, "Yes he can do that. He has the authority to waive the requirement of appropriation. He can negotiate a debt."

However, he said that Governor Inos has not invoked this authority and neither did previous governors.

Cool also said, "They always use the absence of an appropriation as a justification or excuse for not paying."

The Senate bill recognizes that the government has yet to pay 17 judgments amounting to over $27 million with $34,250 as the lowest judgment and $5,919,849 as the highest judgment.

It also noted that not all accrue interest but those that do, continue to add to the government’s debt.

Given the government’s $123.4 million fiscal year 2014 budget, the bill pointed out it would be unlikely to satisfy existing judgments.

The bill proposes that in lieu of cash, claimants should be provided the opportunity to consider other methods of judgment satisfaction other than cash.

This may mean they can get offset credits on any tax obligations.

Taitano expressed his concern that this may open the floodgates for these claimants to seek redress in federal court.

He said, "It sounds scary. These people may all get together and bring matters before the federal court. Here we go again another settlement fund case dilemma the CNMI government may be faced with."

Cool said that is what they are trying to do now — trying to find some federal basis or federal connection to bring the matter to federal court where they can enforce the judgment.

Cool said with the government’s not paying its obligations could also be the reason that those who owe the Scholarship Fund don’t pay.

He said this could become an excuse by some not to pay their taxes because the government does not honor its obligations.

The committee decided to refer the Senate bill to a full House vote.

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