House passes AG bill

THE House of Representatives on Thursday passed a controversial measure that proposes to strip the attorney general’s power to review contracts and issue legal opinions unless asked by department heads and agencies.

By a vote of 11-8, House Bill 20-43 now goes to the Senate.

Voting in favor of the bill’s passage were Speaker Ralph Demapan, Vice Speaker Janet Maratita, House Floor Leader Glenn Maratita, Reps. Angel Demapan, John Paul Sablan, Greg Sablan Jr. Frank Aguon, Alice Igitol, Joseph Leepan Guerrero, Edwin Aldan and Ivan Blanco, the bill’s author.

Ivan Blanco

Those who voted no were House Minority Leader Edmund Villagomez, Reps. Donald Barcinas, Jose Itibus, BJ Attao, Edwin Propst, Vinnie Sablan, Larry Deleon Guerrero and Frank Dela Cruz who authored the legislative initiative that made the AG an elected official.

Dela Cruz said the bill will make the AG’s office useless.

There was a lengthy discussion prior to the roll call vote. Blanco offered a floor amendment to add Subsection K to the bill: “The failure or refusal of the AG to abide by the direction of the commonwealth government in any representation shall be deemed as termination of the representation and a grant of authority to the commonwealth government to engage outside counsel for purposes of such representation.”

The amendment was approved by a vote of 11 to 8.

Rep. Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero was off island during the session on Thursday that started at 1:30 p.m. and adjourned at 6 p.m.

During the deliberation, Blanco said the AG last week pre-empted the governor and the Commonwealth Election Commission’s appeal of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling on the John Davis lawsuit regarding Article 12 voting rights.

Blanco said the AG, Edward Manibusan, sent a letter to the U.S. Supreme Court “denouncing” the governor and the election commission’s authority to appeal the Davis case.

“Essentially the letter stated that the governor and the election commission elected to appeal the case and that the AG refused to abide by his clients’ wishes and therefore they do not have the authority to appeal the case,” Blanco said.

He said the AG in the past year or so also refused when the governor and the election commission decided to appeal the Radich gun law ruling which found the local ban on handguns unconstitutional.

“The AG’s refusal to appeal the Davis case which struck down a part of our Constitution which the AG swore to uphold forced the governor to pursue the appeal with outside counsel,” Blanco said.

“We need to make it clear that the governor has the right to do this if necessary so that there is no doubt or confusion in moments of crisis. If the AG is not going to defend our Constitution or laws, then someone else has to do it. We cannot just let them go undefended simply because the current AG may personally disagree with them. We cannot just wait to elect a new AG because, by that time, the decision will already be final and it will be too late to appeal it.”

Blanco said the notion that his bill will weaken the AG’s power is subjective and hypothetical.

Rep. Frank Dela Cruz said the amendment offered by Blanco is “basically the icing on the cake.”

“Why not just abolish the AG’s office or have his position appointed again? Why do we have to cripple him and make him useless by not allowing him to review contracts of the government?” Dela Cruz said.

“We have had enough of appointed AG’s — they became someone who tweaked the law so they could have it their way. Let us not burn down the house just because a mouse is inside. We, the Legislature, are to be blamed for this because we are not doing our job to get to the bottom of this. We should have summoned the AG and asked him why, for example, his office is charging departments and agencies fees for legal services. There is much talk but no evidence to prove them.

“Are we doing it just because the AG is blocking the salary increase for officials that we’ve been all waiting for? Crippling the AG’s office is troubling and a very big concern for me. It’s a policy call, and I hope the members can understand that this is a very big issue before us. I hope it’s clear what we are trying to accomplish here.”

Rep. Angel Demapan said the AG was consulted but declined to represent the governor in many cases.

Demapan also questioned the AG’s charging fees when funding is appropriated for the office’s operation.

He said the Legislature is just doing its job and that’s why they are now questioning the AG for declining to represent the CNMI government and for charging fees.

Dempan said this issue was revealed during budget hearings after department heads disclosed they had spent money to pay for the AG’s services.

DPL, he added, provided documents indicating that it paid the AG’s office some $70,000 for legal services.

“Every time the AG says no and declines to represent the CNMI government, who will stand up for the people? Where’s the justice there?” he asked.

Rep. Edwin Propst said if the “problem” is the AG why penalize the office?

He said stripping the AG of the power to review contracts goes against the wishes of the 9,000 voters or more than 80 percent of the electorate who voted for an elected AG.

Propst said the people want an elected and independent AG to help prevent corruption in the government and to provide checks and balances to ensure that everything is done right, especially when it comes to government contracts.

He said the measure has many flaws that need to be addressed first instead of rushing its passage.

Rep. Leepan Guerrero said the AG’s office showed no respect for the government when it refused to represent the executive branch.

Rep. Alice Igitol said she finds it odd that the AG filed a lawsuit against the secretary of Finance over the payhike law even though the secretary is supposedly a client of the AG’s office.

On March 17, 2017, the attorney general sent a letter to Rep. Ivan Blanco regarding H.B. 20-43.

The AG said Section 3 of the bill interferes with the attorney general’s constitutional duties, and Section 2 prevents the AG from the effective risk management of the commonwealth’s obligations.

Also on Thursday, the House adopted House Resolution 20-6 which expresses support for the governor and the election commission’s appealing the Ninth Circuit ruling on the John Davis case.

Moreover, the House passed House Bill 20-2 to increase the excise tax on the importation of betel nut into the commonwealth, and House Bill 20-68 which will require non-immigrant workers in the CNMI to register with the local Department of Labor and obtain a worker identification card.

Both bills now go to the Senate.

Source: Marianas Variety :

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