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‘Abandon bill clarifying casino panel powers’

AG cites over 30 ‘problematic’ provisions
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The Office of the Attorney General strongly opposes legislation that seeks to clarify the functions and authority of the Commonwealth Casino Commission, saying it would instead exempt the commission from several laws.

In a letter dated May 25, 2018, that Saipan Tribune obtained only yesterday, Attorney General Edward Manibusan strongly opposed Rep. Joseph Deleon Guerrero’s (R-Saipan) House Bill 20-82, which attempts to clarify and reinforce the authority of the casino commission for its oversight over the casino industry in the CNMI.

Manibusan cited 30 “problematic” sections of the bill, including provisions that partially exempts the casino commission from the Open Government Act, Administrative Procedures Act, and the Government Liability Act.

“…CCC and its employees and agents are made completely sovereignly immune from suit without any explanation. If the bill is to go forward, the findings must be seriously supplemented so as to specifically address the reasons for the radical departures from established legislative policy to aid the courts in interpreting the bill should it become law,” he wrote.

Manibusan cited over 30 reasons to kill the bill, some of which include the bill’s provision to provide sole regulatory oversight over the casino.

“The…language is too broad and could be construed as limiting even the [Department of Finance’s] tax authority and other regulatory agencies such as the Alcohol Beverage Control Board and Department of Public Health Sanitation Bureau,” he wrote.

He added that a separate provision that would make CCC responsible for judging whether or not documents, data, or information on licenses provided by the commission are “suitable for public inspection” is also problematic.

“This [provision] makes the CCC the guardian and judge of all of the information it possesses. There is no judicial oversight to this provision. Taken together, this provision is extremely overbroad and basically exempts all CCC information from disclosure,” he said.

A separate provision in the bill also allows the CCC to conduct hearings and meetings “with or without public notice, at such times and places, within or without the Commonwealth, as may be convenient.” Manibusan opposed this provision, which also included the provision that the casino commission may have a working meeting and meet in an “open or closed meeting, with or without notice, within or without the Commonwealth, to discuss and deliberate about any matter over which the commission has jurisdiction.”

“This would essentially remove the CCC from the Open Government Act and Open Meetings Act. This is an extreme measure that would allow the CCC to essentially operate in secret. …The provision empowering the CCC to meet outside the Commonwealth, to meet without notice to the public, etc. are extremely troubling,” he wrote.

In an Aug. 6, 2018, letter to Senate Gaming Committee chair Sen. Justo S. Quitugua (Ind-Saipan), the clarification is ostensibly necessary for CCC to “conduct its operations in the most effective and efficient manner.”

“Included in [the bill] are appropriate authorities such as funding mechanism, law enforcement authority for the CCC’s Division of Enforcement & Investigations, which resembles other gaming jurisdictions such as Nevada, Massachusetts, New Jersey, to name a few,” wrote commission chair Juan Sablan.

“I understand that the OAG issued its opinion regarding [the bill], but most of what he stated bear no legal analysis, rather only his personal policy preferences. It is your decision as a policy-making body to pursue the passage of [the bill] as it address the efficient and effective operation of CCC, the protection of the Commonwealth government and its people, protection of the gaming industry and its patrons, and so much more,” he added.

Quitugua, in an interview with Saipan Tribune yesterday, noted that the gaming committee in their meeting yesterday did not act on the bill. However, he believes that the CCC should be holding some kind of authority to properly oversee the casino to allow them to “exercise and do their jobs diligently as authorized by law.”

“They have been in existence for a few years already, so they have implemented and enforced the existing statute. Through their experience as a regulatory body, they are now seeing the need to amend the law so that they can do their job much better,” he told Saipan Tribune.

Commenting on the AG’s letter, Quitugua noted that the committee met with the casino commissioners yesterday to be “clearer and more specific” as to why they want the expanded authority.

“We might be making some changes to improve the bill because we also want the commission to do their job diligently as provided by law. If…the existing statute hinders their ability to regulate the sole casino, then it is our duty that such an authority is given to them so that they can do their job accordingly. We will be reviewing everything submitted, including the AG’s opinion,” noted Quitugua.

Erwin Encinares | Reporter
Erwin Charles Tan Encinares holds a bachelor’s degree from the Chiang Kai Shek College and has covered a wide spectrum of assignments for the Saipan Tribune. Encinares is the paper’s political reporter.

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