After lengthy discussions with Attorney General Joey Patrick San Nicolas before and during their back-to-back sessions, the House of Representatives and the Senate adopted Friday a new joint resolution that paves the way for the NMI Retirement Fund’s disbursement of over $40 million in remaining defined benefit plan employee contributions this week.
As of 7pm Sunday, the Fund had yet to issue an official statement as to the exact date for the release of checks and direct deposits but acting Senate president Victor Hocog (R-Rota) said it would be on Wednesday, citing his Sunday morning discussion with Fund administrator Lilian Pangelinan.
The disbursements were originally set for last week but a clause in the original resolution proved to be unacceptable to Betty Johnson’s lawyers.
That Senate-added clause to the House version essentially spells out that the Legislature retains its constitutional rights to sue provisions in the settlement agreement that it finds unacceptable, even as the deal had already been accepted by the federal court and all the parties to the settlement.
San Nicolas, after the Senate’s emergency session on Friday night, told Saipan Tribune that the new joint resolution without the unacceptable clause “makes it clear that the Legislature has acknowledged and approved the settlement agreement.”
The AG said the plaintiff’s counsels believe the clause in question “negates the legislative approval of the settlement agreement.”
The House passed Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero’s (Ind-Saipan) House Joint Resolution 18-11, House Draft 1 at 3:16pm Friday by a vote of 16-1.
Rep. Janet Maratita (Ind-Saipan) was the only one who voted “no,” maintaining that the settlement deal is “unconstitutional in the first place.
Rep. Ray Tebuteb (Ind-Saipan), one of the 16 individuals who opted out of the settlement class, voted “present,” while Reps. Richard Seman (R-Saipan) and Trenton Conner (Ind-Tinian) were absent.
The House immediately transmitted the resolution to the Senate, which was on standby for an emergency session at 3:30pm.
After more than two hours of yet another round of discussion and question-and-answer with the AG, the Senate adopted HJR 18-11, HD1 without amendment at exactly 6pm.
The Senate vote, however, was not via roll call but by voice vote.
Acting Senate vice president Victor Hocog (R-Rota) later told Saipan Tribune that at least two senators were poised to vote “no” had it been a roll call.
Hocog also said that prior to the emergency session, the Senate was already set to reject the new House joint resolution because senators believe that the original resolution that the Legislature approved already met the legislative action required under the settlement deal.
Sen. Pete Reyes (Ind-Saipan) and Senate floor leader Ray Yumul (Ind-Saipan) voiced out their concerns mainly on what they deem “dictation” and interference by outside counsels on CNMI legislative matters.
Reyes said he finds it “unusual” and “unheard of” that the lawyers for a plaintiff suing the CNMI government and billing it exorbitant fees would “dictate” what the Legislature can and cannot put in a resolution that is deemed meeting “legislative approval” under the Fund settlement agreement.
But Hocog said in the end, the Senate also acknowledged that proving their point to the plaintiff’s lawyers, the Fund, and the court could take time and further delay the disbursements of DB funds to employees.
During the House session, the vice speaker said the Senate amendment to the original resolution, HJR 18-10, HD1, “basically killed” that same resolution.
Dela Cruz said the problematic clause from the Senate says the Legislature is basically approving only a part of the settlement agreement and reserves the right to sue the parts it disagrees with.
“That’s why plaintiff’s counsels said ‘you’re not acting in good faith,’” Dela Cruz said, adding it was not also clear which parts the Legislature, particularly the Senate, disagrees with.
Prior to the House session originally set for 2pm, the House and Senate jointly held a meeting with the AG. After that, the House proceeded with its session and senators once again held a closed-door meeting with the AG. On Thursday, the Senate also met with the AG on the same issue.
During its emergency session, the Senate dissolved into a committee of the whole to continue discussing with the AG their concerns with the original resolution and the new one.
Adela Capati, a government employee who is waiting for the disbursement of the remainder of her DB contribution, patiently attended the House and Senate sessions, hoping that the Legislature would help ensure the disbursements will not be further delayed.
“Life is too short. All we ask is that we be given the money we worked for. It’s enough that we’re not getting the interest, why does the Legislature have to further delay the release of our own money?” Capati asked.
Meanwhile, Hocog said yesterday that based on information from the Fund, disbursements could begin as early as Wednesday. This is both direct deposit and release of checks on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota, he added.
Hocog said he discussed the matter with Retirement Fund’s Pangelinan on Sunday morning.
He said Fund representatives will be on Rota, for example, this morning to Wednesday, “and with the refund checks to be secured first with the Bank of Guam.”
“The reason being is that the U.S. Federal Treasury is still closed to upload the funds due that our Monday here is their Sunday in the U.S. Meaning that the time the recipients will definitely receive their refund is Wednesday,” Hocog added.
He asked for the public’s patience and to allow the administration and the Legislature to work together to find additional sources of revenue to pay the interest on the contributions.