November 14, 2017
Good Morning! In today’s eBlog, we consider the governance and federalism challenges in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Maria impact on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, where questions in a federal courtroom about the balance between Puerto Rico’s government and the federally appointed oversight board for Puerto Rico consider not just the Puerto Rican government’s authority—but also that of the Congress.
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U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain has denied the PROMESA Oversight Board’s request to deny the request to appoint Noel Zamot as the Transformation Officer (CTO), noting that the powers granted to the special panel by Congress are insufficiently broad to limit the actions of the government of Puerto Rico, holding that the Puerto Rico Oversight Board lacked authority to replace the leader of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). The Board had requested the Judge to confirm its appointment of Noel Zamot as PREPA’s Chief Transformation Office—a position comparable to CEO. Instead, Judge Swain called on the Board and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to work collaboratively to address the U.S. territory’s problems—a call, in response to which, Gov. Rosselló responded by noting: “We are very pleased with the decision issued today by Judge Laura Taylor Swain, since it reiterates our position regarding the limit of power of the Financial Oversight and Management Board.…It is clear that the Financial Oversight and Management Board does not have the power to take full control of the government or its instrumentalities…We recognize that the reconstruction and recovery of the island requires a union of wills; therefore, we welcome any collaboration or technical support that the Board wishes to offer to the government elected by Puerto Ricans to ensure the best interests of the people of Puerto Rico.” Judge Swain noted that Congress could have eased the governance role of the oversight board if it had given the Board direct authority over Puerto Rico’s government and public entities; however, as she noted: it had not—instead it deliberately split power between the federally appointed oversight board and the government, adding: “I urge you to work together,” in regard to the PROMESA Board and the Rosselló administration, noting that every moment spent on complicated and expensive litigation was time lost for the Puerto Rico people. Judge Swain noted that the Board has multiple mechanisms to discharge its functions without requiring its direct intervention after the Congressionally created public corporation, its governing board and its executive director, Ricardo Ramos, were unable to articulate and effectively implement a plan to restore the electricity grid after its collapse in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Nevertheless, Judge Swain also called on the government of Puerto Rico to address the situation of the island, noting that millions of American citizens remain in the dark and in a dangerous situation, while every controversy aired in court is “a minute lost” for the future of Puerto Rico.
Unsurprisingly, Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares responded he was pleased with Judge Swain’s decision, noting in written statements that the decision issued today by Judge Swain “reiterates our position on the power limit of the JSF: We have been clear from day one about the powers the [PROMESA] Board has, and those it does not have. It is clear that the (Board) does not have the power to take control of the government as a whole or its instrumentalities,” adding: “Our position is validated and it is recognized that the administration and public management of Puerto Rico remains with the democratically elected government…As Governor of Puerto Rico, I will defend the democratic rights of my people over any challenge and in any forum. We recognize that the reconstruction and recovery of the Island requires a union of wills, therefore, we welcome any collaboration or technical support that the Board wishes to offer to the Government elected by the Puerto Ricans to ensure the best interests of the People of Puerto Rico.”
The U.S. government yesterday filed notice it would defend the court supervised restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt against a constitutional challenge by an investor—with the filing coming in response to the Title III bankruptcy case related to Puerto Rico’s government debt to an adversary proceeding filed last August by the Aurelius Capital hedge fund. (Aurelius owned $473 million of Puerto Rico municipal bonds as of July.) The government argued that the Title III bankruptcy petition should be dismissed, because its filing had not been authorized by a validly constituted oversight board, whilst the fund asserted that the appointments clause of the U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, which empowers the President to appoint certain public officials with the “advice and consent” of the U.S. Senate was breached in appointing the board’s members: the Board was appointed under the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act to oversee fiscal and economic management in the territory and the restructuring of more than $70 billion of debt that the Puerto Rico government said could not be repaid under current economic conditions.
Aurelius claimed that the PROMESA Board is “unconstitutional,” and, because it is, its actions are “are void,” pressing Judge Swain to dismiss the case. In response, the Justice Department notified the court it would file a memorandum supporting PROMESA’s constitutionality on or before December 6th. Part of the dispute will relate to the process itself: the Board, as we noted initially, was named by the U.S. House and Senate Majority and Minority leaders, the Speaker and House Minority Leader, and former President Obama: neither U.S. Senate committees nor the Senate as a whole voted on the confirmations. Last Friday, the government of Puerto Rico, the COFINA Seniors Bondholders Coalition, the Unsecured Creditors Committee, and the Official Committee of Retired Employees of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico submitted memoranda against the Aurelius position, with the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico pressing the federal court to lift the stay on litigation outside of the bankruptcy process, arguing that Aurelius is seeking actions against the debtor and the Oversight Board outside the Title III process—something it asserts is barred by the PROMESA statute. In contrast, the COFINA Seniors argue that the Oversight Board’s membership is constitutional, because Congress’s power over the territories is plenary and not subject to the structural limitations of the United States Constitution, while the Unsecured Creditors argued that the “U.S. Constitution gives Congress virtually unlimited authority to govern unincorporated territories directly, or to delegate that power to such agencies as it” deems fit. This group said that there is precedent for the Board members’ appointment procedures, asserting the Board members are territorial officials and not U.S. government officials, as Aurelius claims.
Power to Puerto Rico. On a separate front, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico notched a significant win in court yesterday when Judge Swain rejected the appointment of a former military officer to oversee the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), after the PROMESA Board had sought to appoint retired Air Force Col. Noel Zamot to supervise the reconstruction and operations of PREPA in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation of the U.S. territory’s utility and the subsequent territory-wide blackout on September 20th—an inability to restore service since has led to accusations of mismanagement, especially as, PREPA, two months after the hurricane, is generating only 48 percent of its normal output. Thus it was that Judge Swain ruled that the PROMESA Board may not unilaterally seize control of the U.S. territory’s government agencies—a signal legal victory for the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and others who have argued that no independent official should oversee a local government agency—or, as the Governor noted: “Our position has been validated and it has been recognized that the administration and public management of Puerto Rico remains with the democratically elected government.” PREPA is $9 billion in debt and continues to face scrutiny after signing a $300 million contract with Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings—a contract cancelled at the end of last month at the Governor’s request, but which is now undergoing federal and local audits. Both Gov. Rosselló and PREPA Director Ricardo Ramos are scheduled to testify this morning in Washington, D.C. before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.