Rep. Joseph Lee Pan Guerrero (R-Saipan) has introduced a House of Representatives resolution to oppose the pay raise of NMI Settlement Fund trustee Joyce C. H. Tang and to request the CNMI government to act on the matter.
During Tuesday’s House session, Commonwealth Casino Commission commissioner Mariano Taitano expressed support for the resolution and urged that Tang be replaced with a Saipan-based lawyer. Taitano addressed the House mostly in Chamorro.
After Taitano, Guerrero also discussed his resolution in the same vernacular.
The House did not act on the resolution.
The resolution states that, given the COVID-19 pandemic situation, it is not in the best interest of the CNMI to be giving increases to any official who is being paid using taxpayer dollars.
Tang lives in Guam, which Guerrero believes adds costs to the Settlement Fund for travel, room, board, and transportation. As a cost-saving measure, he said, it would be appropriate to appoint a lawyer who lives within the CNMI.
“Such measure, as well as the additional pay raise, can lead to additional financial resources that can be used to aid those individuals who are earning less than other recipients,” he said.
U.S. District Court for the NMI designated Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood already approved on June 11, 2019, Tang’s pay increase from $250 an hour to $350 an hour. Tydingco-Gatewood further ordered the Settlement Fund to pay Tang $108,890, which represents 90% of the trustee’s professional fees and all expenses incurred in December 2019 through July 2020. As for the remaining 10% of the fees and expenses incurred, the judge ordered an additional sum of $11,525 to be paid to Tang. Tydingco-Gatewood also ordered the Settlement Fund to pay Tang $7,397, which represents 10% of the retainer withheld from invoices from May 2019 through October 2019. The judge gave a 10-day period for Betty Johnson and her counsel, and the counsel for the CNMI government to state any objections.
Guerrero said that Tang’s justification for her increase is solely based on the positive growth of the stock market at that time. He noted, though, that the growth is not attributed to Tang’s legal services to the Settlement Fund.
He said pay increases are highly unfeasible at thid time as the CNMI faces this “intangible force that seems to affect the entire world in one way or another.”
Rep. Tina Sablan (D-Saipan) said they should see first the court records to understand the work that Tang did on behalf of the Settlement Fund before they rush to make statements that could be seen as political interference.
Sablan said she is also concerned about Tang’s request to raise her fees, but that she does recognize that the court has already approved those fees and found them to be reasonable.
As to the issue why a Guam attorney is serving as trustee ad litem for the Settlement Fund, the lawmaker said this is an issue the arose years ago when this class action lawsuit was first filed by retirees in federal court. At the time, there was no local attorney or no Saipan attorney that did not have some kind of conflict of interest, she said.
“The fee increase has already been approved. I would be really wary of appearing to interject too much politics in court proceedings,” Sablan said.
She noted that there are some provisions in the resolution that she believes are misunderstandings of fact. Citing an example, Sablan said a provision in the resolution doesn’t just object to the fees but is also about proposing to rewrite the whole settlement agreement in Betty Johnson’s class action.
House vice speaker Lorenzo Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan) said there is no politics, but a matter of what is right.
Guerrero said this is just for introduction purposes and that his statements are clarification of the resolution.
“There is no politics in here,” Guerrero added.