PR Debt Crisis

GRIJALVA’S AMENDMENTS TO PROMESA

 

 

The Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, in cahoots with Nydia Velázquez, have introduced a bill on May 21, 2020 for the purported purpose of amending PROMESA. With the 2020 November election looming large, it is highly unlikely that the House, much less the Senate, will have the time or the inclination to evaluate such an important legislation, much less approve it, this year. In reality, the Bill is nothing less than an attempt to please the Puertorrican “diaspora” in NYC, without in reality making any meaningful changes. I will attempt to explore this Bill, examining its salient points.

 

Section 3 of the Bill, quite correctly, prohibits those who issued debt in the past for the territorial government, its corporations or who was a part of the financial entities who purchased or insured the bonds, from serving as Board members, Executive Directors or Staff. It also forces the Board to create an Ethics Board within to consider its compliance with “applicable Federal laws regulating the conduct of the Oversight Board, including conflict of interest, financial disclosure and open government laws.” Problem is, this section does not explain what this Committee may do about said violations. Total waste of time.

 

Section 3(c)(there are two c’s in section 3), limits the total cost of the contracts entered by the Board for any fiscal year to 5%  of the operating budget. In other words, if the Board has a $60 million budget, it cannot enter into contracts above $3 million, which would immediately eliminate its lawyers, to say nothing of all other experts. You may argue that the Board has spent too much on lawyers and experts but on the other hand, restructuring $72 billion in bond debt, another $45 billion in pension debt and a few other billions in unsecured debt cannot be done on that budget.

 

Section 3(d)(and another c) requires that each individual Board member or potential Board member do the following before serving:

 

‘‘(1) has issued a formal statement regarding  that individual’s past and present compliance, and intent of future compliance with all applicable Federal laws regulating the individual’s conduct, including conflict of interest, financial disclosure, and open government laws; and

 

‘‘(2) has committed in writing to strictly abide by section 208 of title 18, United States Code, and other applicable Federal laws regulating their conduct, including conflict of interest, financial disclosure, and open government laws.

 

How can an individual certify compliance with past federal laws that did not apply to him? Why does he have to certify compliance with federal laws that apply to him since he has a legal obligation to do so  anyway. This is something that has no value except to make sectors of the “diaspora” feel empowered. There are other ethical requirements which are good ideas that won’t make a real difference if members want to lie, but there is a requirement of an annual ethics report to the President and Congress. Don’t see the use of it either.

 

Section 4 requires federal appropriations for the Board, which Congress will never approve. Section 5 requires that essential services be fully funded, which is no real change since the Board is the one who determines what this means in the Fiscal Plan and it cannot be reviewed by the District Court until the plan of adjustment, if at all. This section also includes public education, public safety, public health and pensions purportedly as essential services. Are pensions an essential service? Who does paying pensions serve? Not general public for sure.

 

Section 6 adds a list of other things in which the Fiscal Plan must provide as investment, which is fine, but again, it is determined by the Board and is unreviewable.

 

Section 213 is new purports to give back the UPR its previous funding but in a dwindling student population, does this make sense?

 

Section 318 is amended to include important disclosures by professionals employed by Court order, which is a good idea. Problem is that this is required retroactively by section d and this may be problematic.

 

Section 319 is added requiring disclosures by professionals hired by debtor, which is also a good idea, but 319(a) at the end  requires that the  professional disclose individual connections with debtors, creditors, etc. Problem is, what does connections mean? If I went to high school or played little league as a child with the person, does this count? Further refining is needed. Also, section 319(b) prohibits the claim of privilege in this endeavor, defeating federal and state public policies. Makes more sense to limit it to certain privileges such as deliberative process or maybe business secrets. Or it should be left to the discretion of the Court to decide in a balancing of interests. Another example of this Bill not been thought through but rather one that is to please certain constituents. Also, the disclosures are retroactive to June 30, 2016, when PROMESA was originally enacted.

 

Section 320 is new and requires that public information be readily available. Being one of the persons that objected to the secrets in the PR bankruptcy, this is a good idea. Section 110 is added requiring the Comptroller General of the United States to report to the President and the House Natural Resources Committee on an audit on the use of federal funds etc. Not a bad idea. Also, a good idea was the repeal of Title V of PROMESA, the Puerto Rico Infrastructure Revitalization which has been totally unproductive to date.

 

Title VIII is added for allegedly Territorial Relief, in other words, a non-Court centered way in which the territory can get rid of debt. When you read it, however, you see it is not as terrible as it seems. It only applies to non-secured financial obligations (security or loan, swap, repurchase agreement, guaranty). It does not apply to claims by vendors, service providers, employees, pending tax refunds or credits. In essence, the procedure would relieve the Territory of this debt (small as it would be) once every 7 years, a territorial Shemittah. If you give this power to politicians, do you have any doubt they will use it? Of course, it can only be used for small amounts of money in practical terms, but it is still something ripe for abuse. Also, only a territory whose population has decreased by 10% in a 10-year period or has received major disaster assistance via the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act during the 5-year period ending on the date of the discharge and that has a per capita debt greater  than $15,000 (as defined by the section). What a coincidence that PR qualifies in all of them. This discharge requires the vote of both over 50% of both houses of the legislature and the signature of the Governor and works similarly to a bankruptcy discharge. According to section 802(c):

 

Notwithstanding any other provision of Federal, State, or territorial law, the ability of a qualifying territory to obtain a discharge under this title shall not be stayed, avoided, or otherwise limited by operation of any provision of law or by order of a court, an Oversight Board, or an administrative agency in any proceeding.

 

In other words, only future Congressional law will prohibit this practice, which again, will affect an infinitesimal amount of the Territories debt and will only affect bondholders. Talk about discrimination.

 

Section 804(a) reverses the general presumption that all transactions have been conducted in a lawful way by stating that:

 

Any financial obligation is conclusively deemed to be an unsecured financial obligation except to the extent that the holder of that obligation proves that the financial obligation is a secured financial obligation in an action for a declaratory judgment that is filed—

“(1) in—

 

‘‘(A) an appropriate territorial court of the qualifying territory; or

   (B) a district court of the United States  in the qualifying territory; and

 

2) not later than 180 days after the date of  a discharge under section 802.

 

Hence, after the Territory conducts its unilateral discharge of said debt, the affected party has only 180-days to rush to Court and object and can go to federal or territorial court. In addition, section 804(b) changes the burden of proof of the person challenging the unilateral action of the Territorial Government, used in both federal and territorial courts in civil cases, from a preponderance of the evidence (50+1) to clear and convincing evidence (probably between 65-70% probability). Talk about empowering the Government. Moreover, section 804(c) provides:

 

Notwithstanding title 28 [Federal Court Jurisdiction and Venue statutes], United States Code, a court described in subsection (a)(1) shall have exclusive jurisdiction over an action involving, arising from, or related to the status of a financial obligation as a secured or an unsecured financial obligation under subsection (a), including—

 

‘‘(1) any action asserting a taking under the fifth article of amendment to the Constitution of the  United States; and

   (2) any action for declaratory judgment.

 

Therefore, if a party sues to question the discharge and has to include as defendants others who are indispensable parties (legalese, trust me on this), those parties, if sued in territorial court, could not remove the case to federal court. Also, if one party goes to territorial court, can another go to federal court or is it prohibited by this section. Very unclear.

 

Also, section 804(h) provides the territory with a procedure for avoidance of security interests as if it were a Trustee in a Chapter 7 case. So now we have Title III, a bankruptcy like procedure based on Chapter 9 and this avoidance based on Chapter 7. The  territory has two years after the date of the discharge in 804 to do this and can file in territorial or federal court. Most territorial courts, however, have no idea how bankruptcy law works so filing there may be an enormous headache.

A very  important limitation is contained in Section 806. This Title does not apply to American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana, Guam or the Virgin Islands. Considering that the United States has only 5 permanently populated territories, this means that Title VIII applies only to Puerto Rico, violating the doctrine of Railway Labor Executives’ Assn. v. Gibbons, 455 U.S. 457 (1982). In that case, Congress passed a bankruptcy law that would benefit only one railroad and the Court decided this violated the provision of the Constitution where Congress could enact “uniform” bankruptcy laws, and this was not uniform. To the argument of Congressional power over interstate commerce, the Court scoffed at the idea that Congress could use one power to defeat limitations of said power. As it is, this section is probably unconstitutional but even if applied to all territories, this bankruptcy like procedures seem to violate the uniformity clause. As some bondholders have told me, PROMESA is likely unconstitutional for the same reason, although until this date, no party has actually filed such challenge. But as Curly in City Slickers said “Day ain’t over yet.”

Finally, we come to one of the “diasporas” most cherished ideas, “The Puerto Rico Credit Comprehensive Audit Commission.” In spite of the Kobre & Kim Report on the debt and many (including myself) mentioning that all politicians since 1974 are responsible for the debt, the “diaspora” (and the Puertorrican left) have wanted a Commission would audit the debt to discover who is responsible for it and what debt is illegal. Congresspersons Grijalva and Velázquez heeded their cries with this section. The Commission would be part of the Puerto Rico Government and proceed to:

‘‘(1) order a comprehensive audit of all public debt of Puerto Rico and its instrumentalities, in conformity with the Government Accountability Office’s Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards (also known as the ‘Yellow Book’); and

‘(2) audit all public debt issued during the period beginning on the first day of fiscal year 1972 and ending on the date of enactment of this section, including—

 

‘‘(A) a current and complete accounting as to the amount of outstanding indebtedness as of the date of the enactment of this section;

‘‘(B) an analysis of the sustainability of outstanding debts;

‘‘(C) an assessment of how rules, policies, and controls over the use of debt can be improved upon to ensure that in the future Puerto Rico’s debt load is sustainable and issued in a manner that effectively protects the legal and financial interests of the Government of Puerto Rico; and

‘‘(D) an investigation into any irregularities, apparent or alleged, wherein probable cause of malfeasance or misfeasance is found.

 

The Commission would be comprised of individuals from the unions, cooperativists, economics, finance, accounting, statistics, law, sociology (I am sure a certain professor of sociology in NYC was instrumental in this) professors from a university in PR, a business community representative, preferably small business and a certified translator. They will be appointed by the Governor no later than 360-days after the amendments are approved and if the does not act, the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House shall jointly appoint them. The Bill requires that there be sufficient funding but does not say who had to fund it or if its members will be compensated. Give the duties and responsibilities they are entrusted with, not many will accept this appointment.

 

There are several problems with this section. What does probable cause mean? Rule 6 of the Puerto Rico Rules of Criminal Procedure  or Rules 5.1 or 41  of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure? Moreover, much of what the Bill requires was done by Kobre & Kim, so why do it again? Also, much as I would love to  put the culprits behind bars, the 5-year statute of limitations of both Puerto Rico and Federal Criminal Codes have long expired. What would a declaration of a Commission of this nature do? What weight would it have? Who will pay for it? How much will it cost? Finally, by the time the persons are appointed, and they have done their duty, the Puerto Rico Title III cases will have been completed or the cases dismissed.

 

Also, nothing is done in this Bill about the Puerto Rico’s Government’s objections to PROMESA, to wit, the Board’s control over it. It does nothing to weaken it or strengthen it. It provides no funding for PR except to say that the Federal Government will pay the Board’s expenses. It is not, like a local politician dubbed it, “a step in the right direction.”  Why do all this, then? To please the NYC Puertorrican “diaspora,” nothing else. The Bill is not even to get serious consideration given the time constraints. This is not the purpose of  Congress.

 

 

 

 

 

LA TRIFULCA VENIDERA

 

La Junta de Supervisión Fiscal nos ha dicho que va a certificar un plan fiscal para el ELA para el 30 de marzo del corriente. La Junta revisó el plan fiscal que el Gobierno le entregó el 24 de enero y solicitó cambios;  entre ellos más reforma laboral, reforma fiscal, y muchos otros. Específicamente, la Junta requirió que aquellas pensiones donde el pensionado recibe del gobierno y Seguro Social más de $1,000 se reduzca en 25% para una reducción que sume el 10% del Sistema. En cuanto a los empleados públicos, la Junta requiere “that the Proposed Plan include specific reference to services that can be reduced, eliminated, externalized, or taken over by other entities, as well as which types of employees are currently fulfilling those services. Further, the Proposed Plan must include a specific implementation plan and timeline for such agency rightsizing.”

Como era de esperarse, el plan fiscal que envió el Gobernador a la Junta carece de todos estos elementos por la obvia razón del costo político de cumplir con la encomienda. ¿Que hará la Junta? Con toda probabilidad anunciará el 30 de marzo que el plan fiscal del gobierno no cumple con lo que ha requerido y certificará su propio plan fiscal que incluirá lo antes mencionado. ¿Que hará el Gobierno de Rosselló? Argumentará que no hay que hacerlo, que hay los fondos, se rehusará a cumplir con una retórica que haría orgulloso a Rubén Berríos. La Junta tendrá que demandar a Rosselló como ya lo hizo y solo otro huracán salvará al Gobierno de tener que cumplir con lo indicado en el plan fiscal impuesto por la Junta.

Ya la Juez Swain ha indicado que carece de jurisdicción para revisar el plan fiscal aprobado por la Junta. Más aún, cuando Martin Bienestock comenzó su argumento oral para imponer a Noel Zamot como CEO de la AEE, la Juez Swain le preguntó si era su contención que esta última no estaba cumpliendo con el plan fiscal. Bienestock dijo que no y lo demás es historia. Si la Junta incluye reducción de jornada y de pensiones en el plan fiscal, no me cabe duda que la Juez Swain los va a hacer cumplir. Recordemos que en la quiebra de Detroit también se redujeron las pensiones en 10% y en Chrysler se redujeron mucho más.

Quiero mencionar un detalle del plan fiscal de la AEE y la AAA, ninguno de los cuales ha sido hecho público por el “Gobierno de la Transparencia”. He mencionado en las redes sociales que el Proyecto de ley para la venta de la AEE es sumamente escueto sobre los asuntos importantes de la venta y el Gobernador y algunos senadores indican su preferencia por alianzas público privadas. Por el otro lado, el Sr. Carrión ha sido muy claro al indicar que la AEE se debe vender, algo con lo que concuerdo. ¿La pregunta es si como probablemente ocurra con al plan fiscal del ELA, la Junta impone el suyo en la AEE y éste requiere la venta de la misma, ¿si esto hace el Proyecto superfluo? Esto definitivamente traerá malestar entre la Junta y el ELA, aumentando enormemente los gastos en el caso de la quiebra de PR. Como le indiqué a todos lo que clamaban porque se radicará el Título III y ahora se quejan del costo, be careful what you wish for, you may get it.

Finalmente, y hablando de gastos, quiero mencionar el pleito radicado por la Comisión de Energía contra la Junta para que no pueda certificarse plan fiscal de la AEE sin la aprobación del ente regulador. Resulta que los abogados de la Comisión de Energía, que incluye a uno de USA, Scott Hempling, los abogados de la Junta, de AFFAF y del UCC, TODOS son pagados por lo contribuyentes de PR. Para colmo de males, nada de lo que se esta litigando tendrá utilidad alguna para los contribuyentes, aún si gana la Comisión. Es todo un “pissing contest” sobre quien determinará la transformación de la AEE. Pérdida de tiempo y de recursos que demuestra que los que clamaban por la quiebra de PR, que nunca han visto un caso, mucho menos uno federal o un caso de quiebras, no sabían de lo que hablaban.

BONDHOLDER NEGOTIATIONS AND THE ROAD TO NOWHERE

The Negotiation Farce

We are now in April and, come May 1, the PROMESA stay on litigation expires. Where are we on bondholder negotiations? What happens if there is no Title VI restructuring?

It looks like the answers to those questions might be “nowhere” and “we’re about to find out,” respectively.

Last year, the Oversight Board announced with great fanfare the start of bondholder’s negotiations set for December 19, 2016, but aside from a meet and greet session, nothing happened. And that has remained the case even after the board certified Governor Rossello’s second fiscal plan last month.

After certifying the plan, the board requested that the two senior-most bondholder groups, General Obligations and COFINAs, enter into private mediation to settle their ongoing dispute.

This request kicked off a flurry of letters from creditors, including joint letters authored by holders of some $13 billion of both GO and COFINA debt, which outlined numerous criticisms of the fiscal plan. The letters also asked the government to commence negotiations with bondholders immediately, arguing that the stay expires too soon to waste time negotiating a creditor dispute rather than negotiating with all bondholders.

Despite these overtures, however, the Puerto Rican Government and the Board have not moved onto negotiation, and have instead pushed forward with the mediation process, assigning Judge Allan Gropper to serve as mediator in talks reportedly starting tomorrow and lasting through the end of the week.

Why? To Sow Confusion

It appears that the Oversight Board and the Government are intentionally conflating mediation between two creditors in active litigation and actual negotiation with creditors.

It is impossible that a real solution to the GO/COFINA dispute will be brokered over a mere 48-72 hours, especially given the numerous, unaddressed problems that parties on each side have with the fiscal plan. Moreover, even if a settlement was reached, there will be only two weeks for real negotiation to occur after the mediation ends.

But the Board does not appear genuinely interested in a resolution to the dispute or conducting serious negotiation talks. Rather, I think the board is intentionally confusing the issue with the hope of stalling for Title III.

Once the stay runs out, the Board will most likely say that the mediation proceedings themselves actually qualify as a good faith effort toward reaching a consensual agreement under Title VI of PROMESA, and will use that to justify throwing the entire process into a Title III restructuring.

Will Mediation Count as a Good Faith Effort at Negotiation?

Mediation is a type of alternate dispute resolution where a supposedly neutral person helps the parties involved to resolve their disputes. It is not the same thing as a negotiation, especially when some of the parties say they don’t want to participate in the process.

Section 206 of PROMESA requires the entity (PR) to make “good-faith efforts to reach a consensual restructuring with creditors” before the Board issues a certification for Title III. Good faith negotiations is part of Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code, but the section that deals with it, 109(c), was not adopted by PROMESA. Nevertheless, it is a requirement and likely bankruptcy law precedents will be used by the Courts to determine if there have been any.

To be sure, bondholders will raise this point in court. While we often hear from Oversight Board members and Commonwealth leaders that this process is not subject to judicial review – and while that also seems to be the intellectual opinion of Judge Gonzalez and Marty Beinenstock – I don’t think any judge appointed to oversee the Title III process will just let such a crucial issue like this go unquestioned.

Thus it seems very unlikely that a judge will agree with the Board that its attempts to force bondholders into mediation will satisfy PROMESA’s requirement of a good faith effort at a consensual negotiations.

 

Has the Board or the Puerto Rican Government Provided Sufficient Information for Good Faith Negotiations to Commence?

In the Detroit litigation, the Court determined that the city had not negotiated in good faith for failing to provide sufficient information to make counterproposals and that there was not sufficient time to do so. In this case, negotiations started on June 14 and bankruptcy was filed on July 18. See In Re Detroit, 504 B.R. 97, 175 (E.D. Mich. 2013). As I said earlier, after the conclusion of mediation proceedings on April 14, there will be only 16 days until the end of the stay. Even in the unlikely event that mediation is allowed to constitute part of a negotiation process, there will still only be 18 days between April 13 and the end of the stay.

The issue of sufficient information is important with respect to Puerto Rico’s financial statements, since sec. 206(a)(2) requires PR to adopt   procedures necessary to deliver timely audited financial statements; and . . . made public draft financial statements and other information sufficient for any interested person to make an informed decision with respect to a possible restructuring.

Since the Board’s report by Ernst & Young, at pages 5, 9-10 and 16 states that the financial information it used (provided by the PR Government) is poor, it can hardly mean that it is sufficient for any interested person to make an informed decision with respect to a possible restructuring.

Hence, the way in which these negotiations are conducted and the information provided is of paramount importance for the Title III petition not to be dismissed by section 304 of PROMESA. As of yet, it does not appear that the government has submitted sufficient information for real negotiations to occur.

Does the Fiscal Plan Satisfy Requirements in PROMESA?

It is my belief the Court may review the fiscal plan to determine whether it complies with PROMESA in the intersection of sections 201(b)(1)(N) and section 314(b)(7). Section 201(b)(1)(N) requires that the Fiscal Plan “respect the relative lawful priorities or lawful liens, as may be applicable, in the constitution, other laws, or agreements of a covered territory or covered territorial instrumentality in effect prior to the date of enactment of” PROMESA.

The Fiscal Plan as approved, however, does not do this in any of it sections. In fact it states, at page 6 that it does not determine, inter alia, “the scope, timing or specific use of revenues to be frozen or redirected as ‘claw back’ revenue, the value, validity and/or perfection of pledges or whether any particular bond or debt issuance may have been improvidently issued” Since the Bankruptcy plan, pursuant to section 314(b)(7), must be “consistent with the applicable Fiscal Plan certified by the Oversight Board under title II” one can argue that any Bankruptcy Plan based on a deficient Fiscal Plan is invalid and hence the Court would have to make said review of the Fiscal Plan. Moreover, the Fiscal Plan cannot violate the US Constitution and bondholders seem poised to make that challenge.

What if the Court were to find that the Bankruptcy Plan is not consistent with what should be the Fiscal Plan? Pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 930 (adopted in PROMESA by section 301), if the Court could determines that the Bankruptcy Plan could not be certified, it can dismiss the proceeding and PR would not have the protection of the automatic stay.

Or is the Strategy to File for Title III, then Negotiate?

Given all of these obvious shortcomings of an impending Title III petition, it’s worth asking why the Board would file for Title III and risk having it dismissed. The answer likely lies in Section 304(b) of POMESA, which does not allow the dismissal of a Title III petition during its first 120 days.

Therefore, the Board could use this window to negotiate AFTER filing Title III (including Court mandated mediation as in Detroit) and then claim that it negotiated in good faith. It could then aver that it would be a shame to dismiss the claim after all this time. Essentially, the board could file for Title III with full knowledge that its petition will most likely be rejected, if only to buy itself four more months.

Let’s see.