The Tinian Casino Gaming Control Commission, its executive director, Lucia L. Blanco-Maratita, and commission inspector Lisa-Marie B. Aguon sued Tinian Mayor Joey P. San Nicolas and municipal treasurer Charlene M. Lizama yesterday for allegedly refusing to pay them the salaries that the commission increased in December.
TCGCC, Blanco-Maratita, and Aguon, through counsel Robert O’Connor and Rosemond B. Santos, alleged that beginning with the fourth pay period for fiscal year 2015, acting on San Nicolas’ instructions, Lizama refused to issue paychecks to them and other affected employees in the amounts certified by the commission.
They alleged that Maratita, Aguon, and the other affected commission employees were paid only the amounts set forth for them in the Budget Act.
They asked the Superior Court to compel San Nicolas and Lizama to pay them and other affected employees their full salaries.
They also asked the court to invalidate three Tinian local laws that were enacted by the Tinian Legislative Delegation since 2004. Those three local laws are Tinian Local Law 14-1 enacted in 2004; Tinian Local Law 18-5 enacted in 2013; and Tinian Local Ordinance 18-3 enacted in 2014.
O’Connor stated in the complaint that Tinian Local Law 14-1 asserted the Tinian delegation’s authority to amend the Tinian Casino Gaming Control Act—an initiative enacted by the people of Tinian—by local law.
O’Connor said Tinian Local Law 14-1 purported to amend portions of the Act relating to the minimum size of hotels (which was reduced), the minimum age of casino employees (which was lowered), the amount of the casino license application fee (which was lowered by 97.5 percent from $200,000 to $5,000), the amount of penalties for late fees and taxes (which were lowered and made waivable), and the availability of credit wagers (which were changed from prohibited to permitted).
With respect to Tinian Local Law 18-5, O’Connor said it was purported to amend the casino taxes by eliminating the 1 percent monthly gross revenue surtax on each license, and replacing the former 12 percent gambling revenue tax with a two-tier tax rate of 5 percent on revenue from “high rollers” and 15 percent on revenue from lower-stakes gamblers.
The Tinian Local Ordinance 18-3, O’Connor said, is the Tinian municipal budget for fiscal year 2015, which establishes a total budget of $781,902.42 for compensation of commission employees.
The lawyer said the budget also establishes a specific annual salary for each commission employee (including currently vacant positions) and prohibits the commission from increasing any such employee’s salary, regardless of whether the total amount of compensation paid to commission employees remains within budget despite an increase.
O’Connor said that in December 2014, the commission determined that it was necessary to raise the salaries of Blanco-Maratita, Aguon, and seven other employees for fiscal 2015. Yet the increased amounts were reflected only in the first three pay period of fiscal 2015, he said.
In plaintiffs’ press statement, O’Connor said the lawsuit was filed in an effort to reassert TCGCC’s independence and power to effectively regulate casino gaming on Tinian.
O’Connor said the lawsuit asks the court to declare that recent local laws enacted by the Tinian delegation attempted to amend the Tinian Casino Gaming Act in ways that would impair the power of commission to oversee gaming on Tinian and are either invalid or unconstitutional.
“The Tinian Gaming Act was designed to give to its commissioners independence from political interference and influence,” said O’Connor, who is also the author of the Gaming Act back in 1987.
The lawyer said this is the reason why the Act gave the commissioners high salaries, limited each of them to one six-year term, and protected them from being fired or removed during their tenure.
“We wanted independent commissioners free from political pressures. Commissioners do not need campaign contributions for their next campaign,” he said.
What is happening now, O’Connor said, is applicants for licenses and licensees who cannot convince the commission on the merits of their proposal are instead going to the elected officials on Tinian and asking them to use the legislative process to force through changes the commission feels are unwise or inappropriate.
“Their recent Budget Act even attempts to tell the commissioners how much to pay each employee, whether to give them raises or not, and how much to pay their executive director. This is an indirect way to try and influence commission behavior,” O’Connor said.
One result of the undermining of the commission, he said, is that the Tinian Dynasty Hotel & Casino is currently not compliant with the Gaming Act to such an extent that Deloitte & Touche has been unable to complete a required annual audit of its financial situation.
The audit was due last July.
O’Connor said local laws passed by the Tinian delegation are directly responsible for this noncompliance because they passed laws changing the tax structure by taxing premium players at a 5 percent rate instead of the Gaming Act’s 12 percent rate without properly defining premium players or gross revenue.
He added that the delegation passed a local law to allow gambling on credit without properly providing for how to trace back who got credit and whether they paid their debt or not.