Gov. Ralph DLG. Torres assured the federal court yesterday that his priority is not just to give retirees 75 percent of their benefits, but also the 25 percent payments owed them.
As this developed, Betty Johnson’s lead counsel, Margery Bronster, described as “simply unacceptable and wrong” for the CNMI government to say that the Settlement Fund is a component unit of the government.
Deputy attorney general Lillian Tenorio pointed out that, in a stipulation about the assets of the Settlement Fund in December 2016, the stipulation states that the Settlement Fund disagreed with the government’s determination that the Settlement Fund is a component of the government for tax purposes.
In the stipulation the government confirmed that the government and NMI Retirement Fund do not possess any interest in the Settlement Fund’s assets.
“We are not dealing with the Settlement Fund assets. We are interested only in the liability portion,” said Tenorio at the hearing.
Torres appeared in court yesterday for a status conference in Johnson’s class action, at the direction of U.S. District Court for the NMI designated Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood.
Torres told the court that he and Settlement Fund trustee Joyce C. H. Tang had a “very fruitful dialogue” on how they are going to move forward on the Johnson settlement agreement.
Saying the administration’s and the Legislature’s priority is not just to give 75 percent but also 25 percent of benefits payments, Torres said the government remitted to the Settlement Fun $15.1 million for fiscal year 2016, plus $13.5 million for the retirees’ 25 percent benefit payments.
The 25 percent benefit payment and bonus payment to retirees are voluntary payments from the government. They were not required under the settlement agreement.
Torres thanked the late governor Eloy S. Inos for settling the Johnson class action.
“Here we are. We just paid $7.5 million to the Settlement Fund a couple of weeks ago,” the governor said, adding that it is time for the administration and the Legislature to sit down in order to pay the obligations to the retirees.
“At the end of the day, we need to meet the obligations,” Torres said, adding that the government wants to give retirees tranquility.
“We’re good in our promises,” he said.
Tydingco-Gatewood said this type of case needs good governance from the administration and the Legislature and lauded Tang for being fair and aggressive in protecting the Settlement Fund.
She said the Torres administration is responsive and transparent in meeting its payments to the Settlement Fund.
“You make our job easier here in the Judiciary,” the judge told the governor.
“Governor, good luck to you and I hope that the CNMI will continue to prosper,” Tydingco-Gatewood added.
The judge said the CNMI is actually making itself a role model in the retirement fund community.
She commended Bronster, Tang, Inos, Torres, the Legislature, and others involved in the Johnson lawsuit.
Torres said later in an interview it is easier for the government to meet its obligations in the settlement agreement due to the Legislature’s priority and the fact that the CNMI’s economy is doing well.
“Every additional revenue as you have seen last year we gave a bonus to retirees,” he said.
Torres said they look forward to giving retirees a bonus again this year.
“It is our obligation make sure that we fulfill that obligation. That they can sleep at night, [knowing] that their retirement fund is not in jeopardy,” he said.
As the CNMI continues to get higher revenue, the government continues to give additional funds to the retirees, Torres said.
He said they gave the Settlement Fund $7 million a month ago and that they are looking at giving it another $11.5 million next year.
“We are meeting our projection. The fact that we are paying more than the settlement agreement means our economy is doing good,” Torres said.
On the issue of the government’s determination that the Settlement Fund is a component of the government, Bronster said it is because of the government’s audit, so such information was needed.
“This is not a simple information gathering. It has far-reaching implications. This is dangerous to the Settlement Fund,” said Bronster as she read the settlement agreement’s provisions.
Bronster said they don’t believe that the Settlement Fund can be a part or component of the government.
Tang agreed with Bronster.
Tenorio said they will discuss the matter with the auditors.