Senate floor leader Ray Yumul (IR-Saipan) and Rep. Ray Tebuteb (Ind-Saipan) opted out of the settlement agreement between the NMI Retirement Fund, the government and plaintiff Betty Johnson, joining 14 others who also opted out as of Friday.
A third lawmaker—Sen. Joaquin Borja (Ind-Tinian)—had “considered” opting out but did not do so by 5pm Friday. Despite not opting out, Borja said his concerns about the settlement deal remain.
Senate Vice President Victor Hocog (R-Rota) and Sen. Pete Reyes (Ind-Saipan) also did not opt out as of the Sept. 20 deadline to do so.
Gov. Eloy S. Inos, meanwhile, said on Friday that those who opted out are “not more protected” than those who have remained in the settlement class.
Moreover, Inos said he understands that many of those who were planning to opt out or already opted out as of late Friday morning were only against the “beyond reach” plaintiff attorneys’ fees and costs, estimated at over $40 million as of last week, and not the “substance” of the settlement deal.
“They are not any more protected than the folks in the settlement class. To get the benefit of that protection [under the Constitution], they have to assert their rights through a different venue; for example they have to assert their claims individually. They won’t be entitled to representation by class attorneys. What that means is if they need representation, they would have to do that on their own. Those are the things they should have thought about before opting out,” Inos told Saipan Tribune.
Inos said the government and the Fund, with the support of lawmakers and others, are opposed to the high cost of plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees and they have faith that the court will not approve these fees as currently proposed.
Yumul and Tebuteb—with their individual letter addressed to Fund trustee ad litem Joseph C. Razzano in tow—opted out of the settlement deal around noon on Friday, in the presence of reporters on Capital Hill.
“I agree with the NMI Retirement Fund and you as trustee ad litem dated September 12, 2013 that because of the sheer size of the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees awards, the lack of supporting records to justify them, and the undue burden the requests places on the NMI Fund members and the CNMI government whom the source of funds are needed to ensure all retirees are paid, if approved will hurt every resident and will undoubtedly cripple and impact our ability to ensure the CNMI government’s continued funding of public safety, education and public health,” Yumul said in his one-page letter to Razzano.
Yumul said he is also concerned that his “constitutional rights to not be able to have a voice as only active retirees who constitutes 10 percent of more as opt-outs can render this settlement as null and void.”
“I am therefore excluding myself from this settlement agreement as stated above,” Yumul told Razzano.
Tebuteb, for his part, said although he generally does not agree with the settlement agreement in the Betty Johnson case, he is “appalled” at Johnson’s attorneys’ proposed fees.
Tebuteb said the proposed attorneys’ fees are “outrageously high.”
“I am aware of people who do not necessarily understand the terms of the settlement agreement and therefore any waiver of their rights may be unconstitutional. I am therefore exercising my right to be excluded from this settlement,” Tebuteb told Razzano.
A hearing for the settlement agreement’s final approval is expected to proceed.
Hocog, in a message to the public through social media, said those who opt out do not have a guaranteed payment of at least 75 percent of their regular pension once the court approves the settlement agreement.
“For those individuals who will no longer be recipients of the settlement agreement, I send you this message not to panic for I am very certain the Administration and the Legislature will not abandon your constitutional rights and protection from the Constitution of the Northern Mariana Islands. In advance, I will continue to seek and ask for your patience as you will give us time to weather out resolutions to address the choice you have made,” Hocog said.
Fund resolutions, initiative
In today’s Senate and House sessions, lawmakers are poised to introduce and/or act on measures related to the Fund settlement agreement.
In the Senate session calendar this morning are a House joint resolution requesting the governor to object to the over $40 million attorney’s fees proposed by Betty Johnson’s lawyers, and a Senate resolution supporting retirees who opt out of the settlement deal.
During a House session this afternoon, Rep. John Paul Sablan (Cov-Saipan) will be introducing a legislative initiative proposing that 15 percent of the CNMI government’s budget be remitted directly to the NMI Retirement Fund.
Rep. Janet Maratita (Ind-Saipan) will be introducing her resolution urging the governor to reconsider and withdraw from the Fund settlement deal, saying that pursuing the terms that violate the NMI Constitution “clearly constitutes the impeachable offense of neglect of duty under Article 3 Section 19.”
House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan), meanwhile, will also be introducing a joint resolution acknowledging and approving the settlement agreement in the Johnson v. Inos case as required for the final disbursement of employee contributions under the settlement agreement.