Weno, Chuuk (The Kaselehlie Press) —On Feb. 14, the Chuuk State Supreme Court issued an order holding Chuuk Governor Johnson Elimo and his attorney Johnny Meippen in contempt of court for an executive order the governor issued to establish an interim Board of Directors for the Chuuk Public Utilities Corporation.
The executive order, it said, violated a verbal court order issued on Dec. 22, 2017 barring the Governor from interfering with the business activities of CPUC. The court also voided the governor’s executive order along with any actions the “interim board” might have attempted to take on behalf of CPUC.
Last year, Governor Elimo sued the Chuuk State House of Senate, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the CPUC Board of Directors. He sought a Temporary Restraining Order and summary judgement against appointments to the CPUC board that the House of Representatives had made.
The court denied the motion for the TRO pending further hearings.
At issue was whether or not the House of the Representatives had the right to appoint two new members to the CPUC board after the terms of two previous members had expired.
The Governor has argued that the legislative action usurps his right to appoint CPUC board members with advice and consent of the legislative bodies.
The plaintiffs have argued that according to the law establishing CPUC, the Governor has 45 days to fill any vacancy on the CPUC Board of Directors. If he doesn’t then the House of Representatives is authorized the fill the positions.
The two board positions the Speaker acted to fill on Oct. 20, 2017 were those of Elissues Akapito whose term expired on Oct. 4, 2016, and Rocky Inek whose three year terms had expired on Aug. 30, 2015. They argued that the Governor’s 45 days to nominate or renew a Board member for CPUC had long expired with no action.
The House nominated Inos Urumai and Keeper Lippwe to fill the vacancies left by Akapito and Inek and the Board members were confirmed by the House of the Senate.
The court also has to decide whether the imperfectly worded law that established CPUC includes an expired term of a board member as a vacancy on the Board that the House could act upon if the Governor does not make a nomination within 45 days. It also has to decide if the decision of the new board members the legislature appointed would have effect.
After the Chuuk State Legislative bodies confirmed the two nominees for the CPUC board, on Oct. 26, 2017, Governor Elimo filed suit for an emergency TRO and Petition for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief to bar the newly constituted CPUC board from meeting on Oct. 27, 2017.
The court denied the TRO. The issue of declaratory relief and injunction is still being decided. The latest hearing on that matter was held Feb. 21.
The CPUC board met on Oct. 27. One of its actions was to rescind the previous CPUC board’s resolution made on Oct. 16 authorizing CPUC to enter into a relationship with Earth Energy International Company, Limited. The resolution would have allowed EEI to set up a “public-private” business to build alternative power plants and provide that power on a wholesale basis to CPUC.
The court also has to decide whether the imperfectly worded law that established CPUC includes an expired term of a Board member as a vacancy on the Board that the House could act upon if the Governor does not make a nomination within 45 days. It also has to decide if the decision of the new board members the legislature appointed would have effect.
According to court documents, the Governor, Akapito and Chuuk Attorney General Sabino Asor wrote several letters and legal opinions that the newly constituted CPUC board was invalid and that the decisions they had made were invalid. The Governor wrote in a letter to CPUC CEO Mark Waite did not have the right to pick and choose which board he would work with.
Meanwhile, the Governor claimed CPUC board chair, Akapito allegedly had attempted to execute a bank transaction on behalf of CPUC regarding the EEI agreement despite the fact that the court had not yet ruled on the Governor’s civil action.
After CPUC filed their first motion for the Governor to show cause why he should not be held in contempt of court, the court issued a verbal ruling barring the Governor from impeding the business transactions of PUC.
Still, on Jan. 8, 2018, “upon advice of his new counsel (Johnny Meippen)” the Governor issued an Executive Order (2018-01) establishing an Interim Board of Directors of CPUC. Two days later, Chuuk Attorney General Sabino Asor withdrew as the Governor’s counsel after he learned of the Executive Order that Meippen had advised and drafted for the Governor.
The court initially found Asor guilty of contempt but reversed its verbal ruling in the written ruling saying that it could not find “on the preponderance of evidence that the Attorney General failed to communicate the court order to the Governor or that he avoided attempts by present counsel to contact him regarding the history of the case—which resulted in the injunction’s violation.”
The court found that whether or not Governor Elimo knew about the Dec. 22, 2017 ruling barring him from interfering in the business transactions of CPUC he had clearly gained knowledge at a later date but took no action to adjust his conduct after he learned about it in order to comply with the injunction.
It ruled that the act was an intentional violation and that disagreeing with a court order is not a legal remedy for violating a court order. In his brief to the Court, Meippen argued that he believed that the Court’s injunction infringes on the right of the executive branch in the fulfillment of its duties. The court ruled that disagreement with a court ruling is not sufficient cause to disobey a court ruling.
The court ruled that even though Meippen had notice of the injunction intentionally advised his client, the Governor, to violate the injunction. “Even if Mr. Meippen had lacked full knowledge as to the wording of the injunction, he could have inquired from the Attorney General—who would have been required under the rules of ethics to disclose the full nature of the oral order to the new counsel for the Governor.
However, Meippen proudly stated that he never consults with lawyers previously representing his clients,” the ruling said. “... this was clearly an intentional and wanton disregard for the court’s injunction.”
The ruling held Governor Elimo in civil and criminal contempt but also said that as a mitigating factor, it was convinced that he would not have issued the order “but for his counsel’s blatant misconduct and poor legal advice.
As such, the court, in its discretion assigned a fine of $500 for the criminal contempt that must be paid by Feb. 28.
The court ruled Meippen’s actions to be in Civil Contempt and has scheduled an additional hearing for March 22 for Meippen to show cause for why he should not also be held in criminal contempt.
The court ruled that Governor Elimo and his counsel Johnny Meippen are “jointly and severally liable” for CPUC’s attorney’s fees for the two “show cause” ...Elimo Continued from front page motions it submitted to the court. It has directed CPUC to submit an itemized list of attorney’s fees and expenses related to pursuing those motions.
“Mr. Meippen’s actions raise serious questions as to his ability to comply with the Chuuk State Rules of Professional conduct, which leaves this Court no other than to refer this matter for a disciplinary action hearing on the matter of Mr. Meippen’s conduct in this case,” the ruling said.
Governor and Meippen have filed motions for the court to reconsider the contempt ruling. CPUC, and the legislative bodies have until Monday to the respond to those motions. If the motion to reconsider is denied, Governor and Meippen have the option to file an appeal to the decision. CPUC CEO Mark Waite said that though he has submitted notice of resignation with his last day on March 31, his decision was not at all based on the current turmoil.
“My decision is not directly related to external interference in CPUC – I have been quite forthright in the defense of CPUC against this,” he wrote in an email. “I have an opportunity to move on that is of long term interest and I have decided it is time to move aside and let someone else pick up the torch.”