Court stays decision on Mafnas’ motion for TRO
The Superior Court has held off deciding on the request of former Division of Customs and Biosecurity director Jose Mafnas for a temporary restraining order against the Department of Finance and its chief, David Atalig.
Instead of ruling on Mafnas’ motion for a TRO that would prevent his reassignment to the Department of Commerce pending judgment, Superior Court Associate Judge Joseph Camacho decided to set the matter for a status conference on Aug. 9, according to his order yesterday.
“Based on the filings, the court stays any decision on whether to grant a TRO/preliminary injunction at this time,” the order stated. “The court sets a status conference on Aug. 9, at 2:30pm. All parties are ordered to appear. Plaintiff shall serve the defendants a copy of the motion for temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction and the verified complaint and other pleadings well as a copy of this order on or before Aug. 5. Proof of service shall be filed with the court. The parties shall come prepared to discuss deadlines for opposition and reply and hearing dates.”
According to the complaint Charity Hodson filed on behalf of Mafnas, she noted that on the afternoon of July 21, Mafnas was given a memo by Atalig, which purported to “reassign” him to the Department of Commerce as “director of Export, Importation, and Public Outreach” and to report to the Secretary of Commerce. However, after contacting the Office of Personnel Management for information on this position, Mafnas learned that no such position exists, she added.
The Department of Commerce is not a division of the Department of Finance; instead, the Department of Commerce is a separate government agency of the Commonwealth government established within the Executive Branch and headed by a director of Commerce, she said.
Mafnas, through his attorney, argues that the reassignment was illegal and was not motivated by the Department of Commerce’s need of his expertise, but instead had everything to do with the political party he aligns himself with.
“It is no secret that Mafnas is a supporter of the independent Palacios-Apatang gubernatorial ticket for the CNMI November 2022 general election, which ticket is running against the incumbent governor. Mafnas’ constitutional right to vote freely and as he sees fit has been under fire for months, with a recent written communication/threat coming from the incumbent governor’s chief of staff to Mafnas’ niece on May 22, 2022, that if Mr. Mafnas is with the governor, in terms of the vision, then ‘it is all good’ and that the chief of staff, apparently speaking for the governor, sees no ethical conflict in removing a person who is ‘unwilling or incapable of executing the executive direction,’” Hodson said.
In addition, Mafnas’ lawyer also alleged that Torres verbally instructed her client on at least three different occasions,to purchase a multi-million-dollar x-ray machine for Customs, but to “run it through [the governor’s] brother.”
“However, this was another executive directive that Mafnas refused to participate in and, instead, Mafnas relayed his concerns to his then-supervisor, the secretary of Finance, and the machine was not pursued under those terms. Mafnas expects that this continued muzzling of his First Amendment rights and the retaliation against Mafnas’ assertions of his freedom to vote as he chooses and not as he is told will continue into his ‘reassigned position’ at the Department of Commerce,” Hodson said.
Mafnas started as a trainee with the Division of Customs in 1984 and has worked his way up within the agency. From 1998 to 2003, Mafnas served as the director of Customs, then from 2003 to 2013, he served as the director of Administration under the Department of Finance. Mafnas later returned to Customs and served as the director of Customs and Biosecurity from 2013 to July 21, 2022, when he was abruptly reassigned.