In MV Luta lawsuit, judge sets final pretrial conference for Feb. 8

SUPERIOR Court Presiding Judge Robert Naraja has scheduled a final pretrial conference for Feb. 8, 2019 at 1:30 p.m. regarding the CNMI government’s lawsuit seeking the recovery of $400,000 in public funds loaned to Luta Mermaid, the registered owner of the shipping vessel MV Luta.

 Judge Naraja said a final pretrial order will be issued on Feb. 13, 2019. Before Typhoon Yutu hit the island, he had set the bench trial for Oct. 29, 2018 at 9 a.m.

In Feb. 2017, the Office of the Attorney General, on behalf of the Department of Finance, filed a complaint against Luta Mermaid LLC, whose officials are Abelina T. Mendiola, Deron T. Mendiola, Fidel S. Mendiola, and Fidel Mendiola Jr.

They were accused of receiving public funds without authorization, wrongful retention of public funds, unjust enrichment, and using public funds for personal use.

 The government is seeking the recovery of $400,000 from Luta Mermaid.

Judge Naraja ordered that all discovery motions “be filed by Dec. 14 so as to be heard on or before Jan. 9 at 1:30 p.m.”

The judge set the cut-off date for filing dispositive motions and motions relating to experts on Jan.11, adding that they will be heard on or before Jan. 31 at 1:30 p.m.

 The judge also ordered the parties to exchange witness and exhibits lists, with copies of the actual exhibits to be used at trial, and submit the same to court in electronic format by Feb 8, 2019.

On March 20, 2015, the Rota Legislative Delegation adopted Resolution 19-3 which “authorized the secretary of Finance to pay for fuel, lubrication and costs necessary for the maiden voyage of MV Luta from Louisiana to its new home port at Rota and to provide for the personnel and operational costs of the Office of the Mayor of Rota.”

The AG’s office said it is entitled to a judgment because the defendants had admitted to the following:

1) On or about March 27, 2015, Finance remitted public monies in the amount of $400,000 from the general fund to Luta Mermaid LLC account.

2) The funds were deposited on March 30, 2015 without an executed repayment plan.

3) The parties have not entered into contract for repayment of the funds.

4) The Finance secretary sent defendants a demand letter for repayment of the $400,000 on Jan. 17, 2017.

5) The Finance secretary received a letter from defendants on Feb.1, 2017 “where defendants admitted to receiving said funds.”

According to Finance, Luta Mermaid has “converted and continue to convert said funds to Luta Mermaid’s own use and has refused and continue to refuse to return the funds.” 

Abelina Mendiola, president of Luta Mermaid LLC, said they were “shocked” by Finance’s demand for payment, saying “they don’t have such understanding.”

Luta Mermaid is  represented by attorney William Fitzgerald.

 Last October, Judge Naraja ordered the Office of the AG to look into a possible conflict of interest, noting that Fitzgerald filed a lawsuit on behalf of Judge Naraja’s wife in another case.

Judge Naraja wants a determination from AG’s office on whether he has to recuse himself from hearing the case.

MV Luta, which now has a new owner, has been relocated to Guam.

Source: Marianas Variety :

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