New Government Bill Gives Greater Control To CNMI Casino Commission

More jurisdiction over casino operations is about to be granted to the Commonwealth Casino Commission (CCC) of the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed legislation that gives further regulation of the casino industry to the agency, as well as power over gaming licences. Previously, the Commonwealth Lottery Commission granted such licences. Governor Ralph DLG Torres now just requires the CCC to sign the bill in order to become legal, and it will be fascinating to see what happens next with Imperial Pacific International (IPI).

Recently, IPI and its CEO, Donald Browne, were held in contempt of court for skipping a major court-ordered payment linked to an ongoing legal dispute between the developer of the casino and practically the entire CNMI. Although it is not clear if the new bill, House Bill 21-11, is a direct outcome of that battle, the CCC may have thought its hands were tied, preventing it from taking more drastic steps to get IPI to comply. The bill was overwhelmingly passed by members of the House which would allow the CCC a lot more flexibility about how it handles casino matters.

The CCC will also be able to set up and manage a new regulatory fee fund for the commission, in addition to taking over the licencing process. This fund was previously managed by the Secretary of Finance of the CNMI and IPI is far behind in its annual compulsory licencing contributions and other fees for its Saipan Imperial Palace casino. Edward C. Deleon Guerrero, Chairman of the CCC, points out that the new law has been tried for many years and says, “It would strengthen the casino commission’s ability to enforce the mandates of the original gaming law, [Public Law] 18-56. And would really clarify and remove some of the ambiguities,” adding, “We, the CCC, do not have the authority on quite a lot of areas that we are blamed for.”

Lawmakers are doubtful that when the laws are designed, the CCC can take care of its duties, but are prepared to bring pressure on the commission to ensure that it follows through. Representative Joseph Leepan Guerrero, who represents Saipan, wants the CCC to follow through on any notifications it issues and said,’ No more of this,’ We’re thinking of imposing fines.’ Impose it!  Put a lock on that casino if they are not in compliance.” That was a reference to the CCC threatening to boot IPI out at least twice, but still not following through on those threats.

Though IPI and Browne were held in contempt of court and it was proposed that Browne could end up in prison, part of the outstanding court-ordered payment was paid by the company, enabling him to stay free. This week, Browne told AG Brief that he believes IPI is close to finding some kind of financial rescue, but would not say how much money could come or win. So far, IPI is on the hook for licencing and government fees of at least $18 million, as well as several million more in private debt to building contractors and employees. For the first half of 2020, it also announced a loss of around $103 million.