August 31, 2006

The Kaselehlie Press

Local shipping agent Pohnpei Marine Services on Aug. 10 filed its fifth lawsuit in the last 18 months against the Pohnpei Port Authority.

Martin Jano, attorney for the litigious PMS, says he intends to continue filing suits - indicating he currently has at least 11 more - until appropriate relief is secured for his client.

The most recent complaint - already partially denied by the FSM Supreme Court - alleges PPA refusal of port entry to certain PMS client vessels and seeks remedy.

The string of lawsuits date back to early 2005, the first of which was spurred by PPA denial of entry to a vessel represented by PMS - similar circumstances to the latest case.

In that case - later dismissed - PPA barred entry to the vessel due to its purportedly unpaid fees.

What followed - and continues to the present - has been a succession of legal maneuvers and proceedings involving both the state and national courts, and leading to allegations of underhanded tactics from both sides.

The contentious relationship between the two entities appears to have even played some role in the PPA board's recent removal of two of its members.

Michael Sipos, PPA's attorney, expresses frustration over what has resulted from what he views as basically straightforward circumstances.

"We're doing what the law makes us do," he said.

According to Sipos, the lawsuits - thus far, all initiated by PMS - reflect an attempt to divert attention from PMS's mounting debts and possibly questionable business practices.

In an effort to curb what it views as PMS's ongoing and essentially harassing legal moves, PPA currently seeks penalty of PMS for the newest complaint, defining it as an "objectively unreasonable, unfounded and frivolous action."

Summarizing its unwavering stance, the motion states ". . .PMS has no present lawful grounds to seek relief against PPA designed to stop it from fulfilling its operational responsibilities."

PPA says PMS currently owes it in the neighborhood of $500,000 for outstanding vessel fees and charges including interest and penalty charges accrued to payments not made within 30 days.

The agency is entitled to deny entry to delinquent vessels. Port officials claim they have yet to exercise the option however. Gilbert Halverson, assistant seaport manager for PPA, says outstanding balances have led only to delayed vessel entry.

Though the courts have yet to issue a ruling that favors PMS, Jano maintains PPA's rigid enforcement of its fee regulations are damaging the reputation of his client and forcing them out of business. He points out that PMS is presently making regular payments to PPA.

Jano, who has published pieces of the ongoing struggles in his Da Rohng newspaper, claims all he seeks is flexibility of PPA's 30-day time limit on payments. According to Jano, requiring fishing vessels to remit payment within such a short period of time is unreasonable.

"All we want PPA to do is to extend the time and then everything will be normal," he said.

"What's sad is that PMS will have to divert vessels," he said. "The whole fishing industry will be affected." Jano sees PPA efforts as part of an overarching aim to inhibit the island's private sector development.

He said PMS intends to shift its operations to the Marshall Islands if it goes out of business in Pohnpei.

Joe Vitt, manager of Pohnpei Transfer & Storage - a Pohnpei shipping agent since 1983 - admits vessel payment can take up to several months. However, PT&S has avoided debt accumulation due to the inconvenience.

Behind the lawsuits remain two businesses. PMS was established in the last 5-6 years to provide services to fishing vessels in the area - an increasingly popular destination for international fishing companies.

Every vessel entering Pohnpei's port must have a local agent. Agents arrange for appropriate officials to meet and clear the vessel - such as customs, quarantine and the Environmental Protection Agency - as well as provision of supplies and cash advances.

PPA, was established in the early 1990s as a financially self-sustaining agency, free of any state subsidy. It remains attached to the state, however, via its board of directors, who are appointed by the governor.

Among other duties, such as oversight of the Pohnpei International Airport, PPA also regulates the port and imposes certain fees, for example, for docking and anchorage services as well as for piloting vessels into the port.

Each visit to Pohnpei's port costs a typical fishing vessel thousands of dollars for services rendered by its local agent and PPA. A listing of recent port charges indicates bills ranging from $1,000 to $16,000. PPA regulations require payment within 30 days.

Timakio Ehsa, owner of PMS, and PPA General Manager Ieske Ieshi were unavailable for comment.

Three of the five suits against PPA remain pending. A hearing date on a remaining matter contained in the most recent suit has been set for Sept. 12. PPA also faces an additional suit from former harbor pilots.

Pohnpei Gov. Johnny David has nominated Ricky Cantero and John Sonden to replace PPA board members Leon Senda and Robert Andreas. Their names currently remain pending before the legislature.