Port advised to anticipate millions in back pay

RESPICIO: Rory Respicio, general manager of the Port Authority of Guam, addresses the port board during a Jan. 8 meeting in Piti. Respicio has been advised to prepare for the potential payout of millions of dollars in back pay for seven employees who were fired in 2012. Post file photo

Port Authority of Guam General Manager Rory Respicio has been advised to budget for the possibility of awarding back pay to seven former port employees who were fired on Dec. 6, 2012.

The cost of covering more than six years of back pay and benefits for the employees could be more than $3.2 million.

Respicio said that two weeks ago he met with Public Auditor Benjamin Cruz, who “made it very clear” that the port authority must identify that possible liability in its financial statements and plan for the prospect in its budget requests.

“If we have to settle with all these employees and reinstate them, we have to identify that contingency and quantify it,” Respicio said.

The seven employees were terminated over an allegedly fraudulent workers' compensation claim filed by former PAG Marketing Director Bernadette Meno.

Josette Javellosa, Francine Rocio, Frances Arriola, Jose B. Guevara, Vivian Leon and Meno herself have all filed separate appeals that are at various stages in different venues.

Five of the seven, including Meno, have won decisions from either the Civil Service Commission or the courts.

Guevara took his appeal to the Supreme Court of Guam, where he won reinstatement. So far he is the only one of the seven who is back on the job at the port. His appeal for back pay is still pending.

“Past management has refused to acknowledge those decisions,” Respicio said. “They just kept filing appeal, after appeal, after appeal. That’s why there’s been a six-, seven-year lag.”

Respicio has created a task force led by Deputy General Manager Connie Shinohara, which will re-examine the cases against the seven port employees, and others, who faced adverse action during the prior administration.

“Connie will be looking at all the cases, not just the port seven,” Respicio said, referring to the seven port employees who were fired. He said there are about 13 cases in all.

In order for Shinohara to conduct that review, Respicio issued a memorandum two weeks ago lifting the restrictions on the seven port employees, including the ban barring them from coming onto port property.

“I just issued a directive saying that these employees are allowed to enter the port for the purpose of having meetings necessary by the deputy GM regarding the task force I’ve created,” Respicio said.

In response, PAG former General Manager Joanne Brown said, “There’s a reason why we prohibited those employees from coming back into the port and engaging with employees, primarily because of what they were accused of.”

Brown acknowledged that some appeals have been won – on a “technicality,” she said, not on the merits.

In Guevara’s case, Brown pointed to the Supreme Court ruling in favor of reinstating him. The court found that the adverse action against Guevara was taken on the 62nd day. That violated the rule that requires notice be given to an employee within 60 days after management learned of the alleged offense.

“They didn’t reinstate him because he was innocent and he didn’t do what he was accused of doing. He was accused of certifying funds that were not authorized,” Brown said.

“While it’s not the same as walking into a store and stealing money directly, that’s exactly what the intent was with over $70,000 of port money,” Brown said.

The $70,000 is the amount in workers' compensation filed by Meno for injuries she says she sustained during a slip and fall in the women’s bathroom at the port. The claim was never paid.

“Those (seven) employees were involved in processing the paperwork” for that claim, Brown said. “Documents that they claim are official were generated after the board started its investigation into this matter.”

“Any lawyer will tell you that a win is a win,” said Respicio. “From the moment that the port lost their case on the grounds of the 60-day rule, the port had no grounds appealing to the Superior Court and appealing to the Supreme Court.”

The result so far has been legal fees far in excess of the original $70,000 worker compensation claim, said Respicio.

Following the first port board meeting on Jan. 8, Respicio said, "In the case of the 'Port Seven,' I maintain that it's truly politics that cost them their jobs.

"If it's politics that caused these employees to be terminated, it cannot be politics that brings them back," he said last week.

“The intent is to pay these people out; there’s no doubt in my mind,” Brown said.

“His intent is to reward people who’ve brought harm to the port and all this is going to do is demoralize the hardworking employees at the port.”

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