CONTROL BOARD WATCH

Monday Update –September 18, 2017

 

 

Welcome to your weekly Title III update for September 18, 2017. As Hurricane María bears down on Puerto Rico, we should recap several important things from the past week. Judge Swain denied the PREPA bondholders’ request to lift the stay to request the appointment of a receiver. Interestingly, the Court based its decision on only one of the Board’s arguments, making it clear that Judge Swain knows who the boss in these Title III cases is. At page 10 she stated:

 

“Section 305 of PROMESA provides that, “notwithstanding any power of the court, unless the Oversight Board consents or [the debtor’s Title III] plan [of adjustment] so provides, the court may not by any stay, order or decree, in the case or otherwise, interfere with – (1) any of the political or governmental powers of the debtor; (2) any of the property or revenues of the debtor; or (3) the use or enjoyment by the debtor of any income-producing property.” PROMESA § 305. The Debtor here, PREPA, is a government instrumentality of the Commonwealth, exercising governmental powers in providing electrical service to the inhabitants of the Commonwealth, using its property to generate that power and deriving income from the sale of the power so generated. The rates it charges for its services define the magnitude and impact of its principal revenues. The relief that Movants seek – permission to require the appointment of a receiver to manage PREPA’s operations and seek the approval of rates higher than those PREPA has thus far chosen to charge – is facially inconsistent with Section 305 of PROMESA. Section 305 bars the Court, “notwithstanding any power of the court,” from using “any . . . order or decree, in the case or otherwise,” to interfere with such basic functions and assets of PREPA absent the Oversight Board’s consent, which has not been given here.” (underlining added)

 

At page 13, she made the most important point of the opinion:

 

“Congress, similarly, denied the Title III court power to displace PREPA’s management, even for misconduct, by omitting Section 1104 of the Bankruptcy Code, which provides for the appointment of a trustee or an examiner in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy case, from the Bankruptcy Code provisions incorporated into PROMESA’s statutory scheme. Instead, Section 301(c)(7) of PROMESA specifically designates the Oversight Board as the sole “trustee” under PROMESA. See PROMESA § 301(c)(7).” (underlining added)

 

Anyone familiar with a Trustee in bankruptcy knows that when one is appointed for a debtor, she is the one who calls the shots. Hence, Judge Swain has made it clear that the Board, and not Puerto Rico’s elected officials, are in charge of the management of PREPA and the rest of the entities in Title III. Very telling. Board 2, Bondholders 0, but PREPA bondholders have vowed to appeal the decision. Peaje has already filed its notice of appeal.

 

Also this week, the COFINA agent answered the UCC’s complaint. As you remember from last week’s update, the UCC, as Commonwealth Agent filed a complaint against COFINA with 13 causes of action, including the unconstitutionality of the law. The COFINA agent came out swinging with a 71 page counterclaims, answer and defenses.

 

In addition to the oft repeated platitudes of legal opinions and legislative statements, COFINA’ First Cause of Action at page 29:

 

“[S]eeks a declaration that: (i) the statutes creating COFINA and directing transfer of the Pledged Sales Tax and the Dedicated Sales Tax Fund to COFINA are constitutional under the Constitution of Puerto Rico; (ii) the Pledged Sales Tax, including all Pledged Sales Tax revenue collected in the future, and the Dedicated Sales Tax Fund are the property of COFINA; and (iii) the Pledged Sales Tax and the Dedicated Sales Tax Fund are not “available resources” under the Constitution of Puerto Rico. In the alternative, Counterclaim Plaintiff seeks a declaration that: (i) COFINA has a perfected and unavoidable lien.”

 

Its Second Cause of Action states that Commonwealth actions violate the Takings Clause and Impairment of Contractual Obligations of both Constitutions. The Third Cause of Action that the Compliance law violates PROMESA, the Fourth Cause of Action that Act 84 violates PROMESA. The Fifth Cause of Action claims tortious interference with a contractual relation and the Sixth Cause of Action claims that if COFINA is unconstitutional, PR committed Fraud, which it likely did, since it should have known that the PR Constitution did not permit the surrendering of the power to tax and that GO’s had priority. The Seventh Cause of Action seeks an injunction but the Eighth Cause of Action claims that “GO Bonds, PBA Bonds and Other Debt Issued in Violation of the Debt Limit Set Forth in the Constitution of Puerto Rico Are Not Entitled to Priority Under the Constitution.”

 

The COFINA dispute promises to be an interesting slug-fest. The complaint was filed on September 8, but the UCC has already issued 22 subpoenas duces tecum including law firms, Banco Popular, Santander, Barclays and Moody’s, to name a few.

 

Also last week, Siemens Transportation Partnership, S.E., an HTA creditor, sought permission from the Court to conduct Rule 2004 discovery from the GDB, Carlos Vizcarrondo (GDB) and Hector Betancourt (AFAF). Ambac also sought leave to conduct discovery pursuant to Rule 2004 from the Board as representative of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Commonwealth; and AAFAF and other parties. More specifically, Siemens, at page 5 of its motions, states:

 

“Siemens files this Motion to obtain information about the account and the funds therein, including GDB’s funding of the account and any withdrawals or transfers, to determine whether and to what extent: (i) Siemens’ claim against HTA Authority may be paid from funds that are not property of HTA or GDB; and (ii) any third parties have received funds from the account, and if so, whether such transfers may give rise to a claim for fraudulent transfer, conversion or other action, such that Siemens may recover on account of its claim against HTA from parties or assets other than the HTA, which is a Debtor in the above-captioned proceeding, under Title III of PROMESA.”

 

On this same subject, the UCC reported to Judge Dein that the Board was not cooperating on the coordination of Rule 2004 discovery, which the Board confirmed saying:

 

“Based on the meet and confer and the Initial Work Plan, the Oversight Board proposes that the UCC’s motion be deferred, and that no decision be made on the UCC’s request to conduct an investigation at this time. The Oversight Board makes this proposal based on its belief that there is no need for the UCC to conduct a separate, potentially duplicative investigation at this time. It would be premature for the UCC to conduct its own investigation given the Independent Investigator’s commitment to maintain open lines of communication with the UCC, to solicit input from the UCC, and to seek documents, including but not limited to those already sought by the UCC. The Investigation should proceed as outlined above and, if there comes a time when the UCC is not satisfied with the speed or substance of the Investigation, it should make an application to the Court to pursue its own investigation on the specific matters on which it is not satisfied.”

 

Translation: The Board wants to be the only one conducting any investigation on Puerto Rico’s debt and wants no interference. The UCC, in my humble opinion, showed that the Board was conflicted and that it was dragging its feet, which lead Judge Dein to say coordinate because the discovery will be done. Let’s see what happens.

 

Also this week, PREPA filed a motion requesting an order establishing a procedure to reject power purchasing agreements, of which it states more than 60 exists. Pretty normal procedure in a bankruptcy, except that these contracts are for renewable energy. Why does the Board want to reject them? Is it, as I have been saying, to level the playing field to sell PREPA as free of encumbrances as possible? Is it preparing to sell only the generation part of PREPA? Questions, questions.

 

On September 11, 2017, Judge Swain listened to oral arguments in the Municipality of San Juan’s request for an injunction against the GDB RSA. Absent from the argument was any real proof of irreparable harm, which is essential to any injunction. In addition, Judge Swain seemed to believe that the monies deposited by the Municipality were a loan and hence could be altered via Title VI. Judge Swain took the arguments under advisement and will render her opinion soon. In the meantime, defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint and the one filed by the Municipality of Caguas. Given the Judge’s comments and the Federal Courts view of a municipality, they may be granted.

 

Finally, on Friday, Judge Dein heard arguments on the UCC’s renewed motion to intervene in the NY Mellon-COFINA bondholders dispute. The UCC has filed motion to intervene in most of the adversary proceedings filed in the Commonwealth and COFINA cases. Judge Dein seems baffled by the arguments and will have to further study them.

 

Before I leave I want to make one thing clear about these weekly updates. This summary is merely what I believe are the more salient motions and decisions in the cases. I receive an average of 20 filings each day so it would be impossible to summarize everything. If you have legal interest in these cases, I urge you to hire an attorney to represent you.

 

 

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The Oversight Board’s Chrysler Playbook

 

 

The second in a series on Puerto Rico’s pensions

 

On May 3, 2017, the Financial Oversight and Management Board filed the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s Title III petition. In the nearly four months since the filing, we have seen the Board develop a legal strategy that relies on elevating pensions over secured bondholders and invalidating contractual liens such as those held by pension obligation bondholders of ERS.   Each of these steps eerily echoes the legal strategy of used by the Obama Administration during the Chrysler Bankruptcy. But what does an automaker’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy have to do with Puerto Rico’s supposed insolvency you may ask? More than you would imagine, and it’s not confined simply to the court room, either, as we explore.

 

First, let’s discuss what happened in the Chrysler Bankruptcy.

 

The Chrysler Bankruptcy

 

By December of 2008, Chrysler, after years of decline, was in dire straits. It was bloated, inefficient and burdened by labor contracts and pension costs. The timing – during the midst of the Global Financial Crisis – could not have been worse. This confluence led Chrysler, along with General Motors, to then start pleading for greater federal financial assistance (i.e. – a bailout; sound familiar?), arguing that liquidation would mean the loss of thousands of good (meaning union) jobs.

 

In December of 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to bailout Chrysler, but the U.S. Senate voted it down. Then-President Bush proceeded to extend credit but when the credit ran out, then-President Obama intervened, forcing out Chrysler CEO Robert Nardelli and announcing that the federal government would provide additional funds to support Chrysler contingent on the completion of a merger with Fiat within 30 days.

 

After examining the restructuring plans, the Obama administration decided they were insufficient, thereby forcing Chrysler to file for bankruptcy in April of 2009. Within two months, Chrysler emerged as “The Chrysler Group,” owned by the United Auto Workers (55%), Fiat (20%), the US Government (8%) and Canada (2%). See, The Auto Bailout and the Rule of Law, by Todd Zywicki.

In the years leading to its bankruptcy, Chrysler had been unable to obtain financing and resorted to issuing secured debt to finance its operations. At the time of the filing, Chrysler owed around $6.9 billion in secured debt, but also $10 billion to an unsecured pension plan.

 

In a bankruptcy, secured debt has the first priority of payment and unsecured creditors get the rest in a pro rata basis. This general principal applies to all Bankruptcy Chapters and hence to Title III. Also, in a Chapter 11, the debtor prepares a Bankruptcy plan pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 1123 in which it classifies the claims in order of priority and the debtors whose claims are impaired, have a right to vote on the plan. This is the same procedure of a Chapter 9 and hence, of Title III in PROMESA.

 

In Chrysler, it was done differently. The U.S. Government created and funded a shell company that, through a § 363 sale, bought substantially all of Chrysler’s assets for $2 billion, giving the secured creditors a paltry return of 29 cents on the dollar. FIAT was brought in to manage the new firm and was given a slice of the new company’s stock. New Chrysler (formally: New CarCo Acquisition LLC) then assumed the old company’s debts to the retirees, most dealers, and trade creditors. The unsecured claims of the retirees’ benefits plan were replaced with a new $4.6 billion note as well as 55% of the new company’s stock. Assessing the Chrysler Bankruptcy, by Mark J. Roe and David Skeel at page 5.

 

How the Board is using the Chrysler Playbook in Puerto Rico

 

In Puerto Rico, the Board has told the Court that COFINA, Peaje (HTA), and Altair (ERS) do not have a lien – essentially ripping up binding contracts. The Board has also told GO bondholders that they do not have a priority in payment structure, evidenced by the elevation of pensions over their constitutional-backed debt.

 

At the same time, the Board has allowed the Commonwealth to pay 100% of pensions, which will total $2.5 billion a year, as well as pay all suppliers and tax refunds. The Board will ensure a modest haircut of 10% on these pensions at some point in the future, although the details are vague and applies to only certain pensioners. Even this move by the Board has met resistance from the Rosselló administration, who has rejected any claims that say they will not pay pensions in full.

 

As we can see, the Board is trying to deprive secured creditors of their security so their claims can be deeply cut while at the same time, favoring non-secured pensions to be paid. Exactly like Chrysler.

 

Not wanting to waste time while the Title III proceedings unfold, the Board and the Rosselló administration are getting a jump start through legislative actions.

Together, these seemingly ‘opposing entities’ have jointly pushed through legislation in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives and Senate that codifies pensions as a higher priority payment than constitutionally-prioritized debt, and worse, crystallizes entitlements from the date enactment, instead of upon retirement, which essentially attempts to lock in pensions at current rates and not subject them to a restructuring on a pro-rata basis in Title III without creating claims, a flexibility that the Commonwealth might otherwise have enjoyed. At the same time, they do a farcical face-off about a 10% cut in pensions to give the impression there will be some pain.

 

 

 

 

This action underscores that neither the Board nor the government are just waiting for the courts to act, as was the case in the Chrysler bankruptcy, but rather enacting policies that will lay the groundwork for the outcome they want in court – to give themselves and pensioner’s protection and outright injuring the secured bondholders they owe.

 

The Link between Puerto Rico and Chrysler

 

Judge Arthur González is a member of the Board and without a doubt its intellectual leader. He is on the most important committees, attends Judge Taylor Swain’s hearings (an old colleague of his as they used to be bankruptcy judges in the Southern District of New York together) and most importantly, was the presiding Judge in the Chrysler bankruptcy. Moreover, Judge Gonzalez was president Obama’s choice for the Board – a telling sign.

 

Additionally, the information I have received is that Judge González was adamant on hiring the Board’s law firm of Proskauer Rose, whose principal restructuring lawyer is Martin Bienestock. According to the University of Michigan Law School bio on Mr. Bienestock, he “developed for General Motors the section 363 sale free and clear strategy that the United States Auto Task Force deployed for both Chrysler and General Motors.” As the saying goes, there is no such thing as a coincidence. It is all too true in the case of Puerto Rico.

 

One closing thought, what bewilders me is how the Board and government believe they can pursue a legal strategy that will simply invalidate liens and contracts, and elevate pensions above and beyond adequate funding as directed by Congress in direct contradiction with PROMESA and the Puerto Rico Constitution.

 

In the next installment I will discuss the critics of the Chrysler Bankruptcy in detail, including some that will surprise you.

 

 

 

The Coming Public Pension Fight

The first in a series on Puerto Rico’s Pensions

 

Last week, the Supervisory Board held its 9th Public Meeting in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. A key item on the agenda, “Discussion of Pension Reform,” was over-shadowed by the pending fight over furloughs, but is perhaps one of the most important items discussed.

 

As many know, one of the critical issues before the Supervisory Board is how to address the future of Puerto Rico’s public pension system and a $49 billion actuarial deficit. In fact, this is one of the reasons Speaker Ryan and the Congressional Republicans insisted on having an expert like Andrew Biggs on the Board. His knowledge of pensions ostensibly would help reform Puerto Rico’s public pension system to become a model for cities and states across the country.

 

What PROMESA Says the Board Must Do

 

Section 211(a) of PROMESA requires the Board, if it determines pensions are underfunded, to conduct an analysis prepared by an independent actuary […] to assist the Oversight Board in evaluating the fiscal and economic impact of the pension cash flows.” The Board hired Pension Trustee Advisors, Inc., a Colorado corporation, for this endeavor in February. To date, we have yet to see any documents or plans generated by this company or produced by the Board.

 

Instead, the government with the support of the Board moved first. Since February, Puerto Rico passed a law to convert the government and its component units into a single employer and although the Board instructed that pensions had to be cut by 10% by fiscal year 2020 in the Fiscal Plan, the Board green-lighted the government to move over $2 billion from the General Fund to the public pension system. At the same time, neither Governor Rosselló nor the Board provided any monies for debt service in FY18. This had the effect of elevating payment of public pensions above secured creditors.

 

Then, on May 21, 2017, the Board filed a Title III bankruptcy petition for the Government Retirement and the Judiciary Retirement Fund. Further, the government passed a measure to transfer $390,480,000 from the Central Government, Judiciary and Teacher’s retirement funds to the General Fund for the payment of pensions, known as RC 188.

 

All of this was done with the Board’s approval, but not without opposition from other stakeholders. On July 27, 2017, Altair Global Credit Opportunities Fund (A), LLC and others filed an adversary proceeding to challenge this action by the Puerto Rican Government. Altair & company claim they have a lien over Government contributions to the retirement fund and that RC188 is null and void; that they hold a secured claim to the full extent of their allowed claim against the ERS; that they hold a secured claim to the full extent of their allowed claim against the Commonwealth and that their lien continues in any Pledged Property transferred to the Commonwealth from the ERS. They also claim that the transfer of the Pledged Property from the ERS to the Commonwealth pursuant to Joint Resolution 188, on its face, constitutes an unconstitutional taking of private property without just compensation within the meaning of the U.S. and P.R. Takings Clauses; and that RC 188 substantially interferes with their contract rights with the ERS in violation of the U.S. and P.R. Contracts Clauses. Finally, they also ask for damages and that PROMESA does not preclude such claim. Since it was filed only recently, we have no idea how Judge Swain will handle it, except that it will be done swiftly.

 

Echoes of the Chrysler-UAW Pension Bailout

 

This strategy by the Board – elevating pensioners over secured bondholders – evokes memories of the Chrysler bankruptcy, which saw the Obama Administration support unsecured UAW pensioners become secured creditors – literally jumping the line ahead of actual secured creditors. The judge in that case was none other than Judge Arthur Gonzalez, the key architect behind the Board’s legal strategy.

 

Neither the Constitution nor PROMESA explicitly do not allow for the payment of public pensions to be put ahead of bondholders, which was the ultimate outcome in the Chrysler case. Now, the PR Supreme Court granted pensioners rights in Bayron Toro v. Serra, 119 D.P.R. 605, 608 (1987), stating that, “Once an employee is retired, when he has complied with all the conditions for his retirement, his pension is not subject to changes or impairments.” However, this precedent is subject to Article VI, Section 8 of the PR Constitution that states:

 

“In case the available revenues including surplus for any fiscal year are insufficient to meet the appropriations made for that year, interest on the public debt and amortization thereof shall first be paid, and other disbursements shall thereafter be made in accordance with the order of priorities established by law.”

 

While Section 201(b)(1)(C) of PROMESA states that the Fiscal Plan must provide adequate funding for public pension systems, Section 201(b)(1)(N) requires the Fiscal Plan to respect the relative lawful priorities or lawful liens, as may be applicable, in the constitution, other laws.”

 

Moreover, the Committee on Natural Resources Report on PROMESA states the following:

 

“The Committee acknowledges the concern as to the ambiguity of the language regarding the funding of public pension systems. To clarify, Section 201(b)(1)(C) tasks the Oversight Board with ensuring fiscal plans ‘provide adequate funding for public pension systems.’ This language should not be interpreted to reprioritize pension liabilities ahead of the lawful priorities or liens of bondholders as established under the territory’s constitution, laws, or other agreements. While this language seeks to provide an adequate level of funding for pension systems, it does not allow for pensions to be unduly favored over other indebtedness in a restructuring.

 

Realizing that creditors and Congress are onto them, the Board has attempted to mask their strategy.

 

In their latest document, Explanatory Memorandum on Pension Reform,” the Board claims, “expenditures are being reduced throughout the Commonwealth’s budget and holders of government bonds are not likely to be repaid in full. Retirement plan participants, like other unsecured creditors, will have a reduction in the amounts paid to them by the Commonwealth.” Board member Ana Matosantos went further, rejecting Christian Sobrino’s claim that Governor Rosselló will fund 100% of the public pensioner’s benefits, stating “honoring 100% of the obligations is not workable.”

 

The Board has shown its hand, and they will face a stiff test before Judge Swain. Congress was clear that funding pensions was important, but not equal to or above existing constitutional and lawful priorities. To date, the Board and Puerto Rico have decided unsecured pensioners have higher priority.

 

Why is the Board and the government putting payment of pensions before payment of public debt in direct contradiction of both PROMESA and the Puerto Rican Constitution? Why is the Board pursuing this legal strategy?

 

I will explore and hope to explain the reasons for this in my series on public pensions in Puerto Rico.