Commonwealth Retirees Association chair Larry Cabrera expressed concerns yesterday about the large bill presented by the lawyers of Betty Johnson—initially amounting to more than $30 million—that, if court will approve, will be paid by the CNMI government.
Although he was not surprised by the huge amount, Cabrera said that many factors need to be looked at before a final decision is made on the request.
Based on the settlement order issued by the court, legal fees will be collected and paid for by the government—not the Retirement Fund. No final figure has been approved yet by the settlement judge.
This early, Cabrera is concerned about the “burden” and “impact” the requested amount will have on taxpayers if approved by the court.
As a taxpayer in the CNMI, Cabrera said he plans to write to the settlement judge to urge her to carefully assess the lawyers’ proposal, saying it would be unfair to each and every taxpayer to pay for what he believes is a “humongous” amount.
Cabrera said he expected the legal fees of Johnson’s attorneys to reach some millions but not the very high amount they are asking for.
“Before any consideration to pay that [request], the taxpayers’ concerns must be heard. As an individual taxpayer, I will write to the settlement judge to air my serious concerns on this issue,” he told Saipan Tribune yesterday.
The settlement judge will make the final decision on legal fees.
Cabrera is encouraging all retirees and members to participate in an assembly on Friday at the Marianas High School Gymnasium to discuss this latest occurrence.
For retiree Sapuro Rayphand, the only question of whether or not the attorneys’ fees are excessive will be decided by the court based on the points of legal authorities presented by the attorneys for the defendant and plaintiff.
But in his personal view, the fees being demanded by Johnson’s lawyers are reasonable.
“Personally, I feel the attorneys’ fees are reasonable and should be paid by the CNMI government and not by the Fund. If the government cannot do so, then the government should sell its assets, including but not limited to government real property,” he said yesterday.
Rayphand acknowledged that the “CNMI is broke and it is incapable to settle it accounts and therefore cannot fully pay our pensions.”
“It is an established fact that the government has consistently failed to show good faith efforts to pay its debts, until or unless forced to do so by multiple lawsuits. In its effort to avoid its legal obligation, constitutional, contractual, fiduciary duty and responsibility, the CNMI wasted over millions of dollars to file for Chapter 11 to avoid paying anything to the [Retirement Fund]. What assurance do we have that it will be different in the future? This pattern of lying and false promises, besides failure to do the right thing, is also well established and will continue to be so long as we have the same people in the offices. Nothing will be different,” said Rayphand.
According to Rayphand, a former senator testified in court that the CNMI Legislature had never included appropriation bills to pay for the Fund, even though the issue was repeatedly discussed in the appropriation committee.
“This is a horrifying scenario that could happen and so I may never receive the remaining 25 percent in the immediate future because there is no money now or will there be any in the immediate future. Deferment is the popular euphemism for reduction for pension, which is unconstitutional, pursuant to Article 3 Section 20. And so, how could this illegal agreement be enforceable? In my humble, this agreement is void ab initio, thus unenforceable,” he added.
U.S. District Court for the NMI designated judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood preliminarily approved on Aug. 6 the settlement agreement in Johnson’s class action against the NMI Retirement Fund and the CNMI government.
A hearing on Johnson’s motion for final approval of the settlement agreement will be held on Sept. 30, 2013. The hearing on her petition for approval of attorneys’ fees and costs will be on that same day.