Larson’s motion to disqualify Manibusan is denied
Finance Secretary Larrisa Larson’s motion to disqualify Attorney General Edward Manibusan from being as counsel or a party to Manibusan’s lawsuit against her that challenges the salary increases the Legislature had approved for some elected officials was denied yesterday.
In a 12-page order, Superior Court Presiding Judge Roberto C. Naraja ruled that barring Manibusan from even being a party to a suit against Larson is inappropriate because the AG had appointed an independent counsel, which alleviates the conflict of interest concern.
Naraja said that Office of the Attorney General civil division chief Christopher M. Timmons should also not be disqualified because he has not been exposed to confidential information and the OAG has a conflict wall in place, which ensures that Larson’s confidences are protected.
At this time, the judge pointed out, it appears that Manibusan and his office have struck an adequate balance between the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and NMI Constitution Article III, section 11’s mandate.
Article III, section 11 provides that “the attorney general shall be the chief legal officer of the Commonwealth government and shall be responsible for providing legal advice to the governor and executive departments (including public corporations and autonomous agencies), representing the Commonwealth in all legal matters, and prosecuting violations of Commonwealth law…”
However, Naraja reserves the right to revisit the issue should circumstances change and/or if new information should come to light.
Last Feb. 9, Manibusan filed the lawsuit against Larson, claiming that she should be stopped from distributing any pay raises pursuant to Public Law 19-83.
On that same day, Manibusan sent a letter to Larson, informing her that he was suing her in her official capacity. The letter also notified the Secretary that since she is an OAG client, she was entitled to seek independent legal representation for this case since the OAG would be unable to provide her with conflict-free counsel.
However, the OAG would continue to provide her with representation in all other matters.
Larson later retained Kimberlyn K. King-Hinds and Matthew T. Gregory. Larson then filed the motion to disqualify and the motion for summary judgment.
Naraja said his decision on the motion for summary judgment is in a separate order.
Larson, through counsel, contends that Manibusan should not be allowed to be a party in this case because Larson is a current client of the OAG, which is under the direction of Manibusan.
Larson argues that MRPC Rule 1.7 prohibits her counsel, Manibusan, from undertaking an action that is directly adverse to her.
Manibusan, through Timmons, responds that Larson misinterprets the application of the MRPC to the AG.
In denying Larson’s motion to disqualify, Naraja said that Larson’s argument that Manibusan cannot be a party to this suit, due to the MRPC, fails because the AG appointed an independent counsel to represent Larson, which comports with the spirit and purpose of the MRPC.
Naraja said Timmons’ representation to the court strongly support denying Larson’s motion because as an officer of the court he had represented that he has not been, nor will he be, exposed to confidential client information.
Naraja said Timmons has assured the court that the OAG will continue to have screening in place as long as the MRPC require it to do so.
“At this time, the court is satisfied that not only does the OAG have an adequate screening procedure in place [but] there has also been substantial compliance with the policy,” the judge said.
Naraja said the OAG appears to have taken its duty to put in place a conflict wall seriously.
“Disqualification of the OAG would be inappropriate because it has diligently labored to preserve client confidences,” he added.