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Government going after millions, land

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by Mindy Aguon

Guam - While hundreds of island residents have been waiting decades to be compensated for land that was condemned by the military, the Attorney General's Office is going after an estate that managed to get hundreds of acres of land from the Guam Ancestral Lands Commission's inventory. The AG's Office contends the estate, through three attorneys, managed to make millions of dollars that the government believes rightfully belongs to ancestral landowners.

$19 million is how much is at stake in the Government of Guam's case against Helene Torres, Evelyn O'Keefe and the estate of Jose Martinez Torres. The estate, its administrators and attorneys contend the money is rightfully theirs, while the AG's Office argues the land isn't theirs and that the money they made from selling the property belongs to ancestral landowners.

For the last three years, the Government of Guam has been pursuing a judicial review of a deed that was given to the estate of Jose Martinez Torres. The estate, through its attorneys managed to get more than 250 acres of land from the Guam Ancestral Lands Commission, claiming that the family's land had been unjustly withheld from them.  

"Their gripe was that they had an unjust court ruling back in 1914-1915," explained Assistant Attorney General Bill Bischoff. He said that the Ancestral Lands Act provided for landowners to be compensated for lands that were taken or condemned by the military after 1930. Torres, O'Keefe and the estate however allege that land had been taken prior back in 1914 and 1915. "It's real questionable whether they're entitled to it because their whole gripe, their whole complaint, is what they feel was a bad courtroom, bad courtroom rulings back in 1914-1915," he added.

Over the course of several years, the co-administrators and their attorneys - Joseph Razzano, Louie Yanza and Rawlen Mantanona - appeared before the GALC asking for their clients property to be returned. According to court documents during the September 2006 meeting, the board made it clear they would only approve a conditional deed as long as the estate went to the courts to review their claims about the past injustices.  Then-board member Mark Charfauros was quoted as saying "The court will make the final judgment on this claim...and understand that this is a conditional deed and if the court comes back and says that you have absolutely no claim to this property, this property comes right back into the inventory of the Ancestral Lands Commission."

Charfauros went on to reiterate, "It's up to the courts and if the court sees fit that this motion is inappropriate then the courts can rule against that and if the court sees fit that this claim is invalid, this property would come back to the inventory of the ancestral lands commission, but basically the court is going to be the final say so."

Bischoff claims the estate and the attorneys brought the deed to the Probate Court, which approved it as part of the estate. He contends the attorneys acted unethically by not following the conditions stated by the Ancestral Lands Commission to have the court review their claims. He continued, "The individual people in the estate they've done nothing wrong. They're not lawyers; I don't think that they understood all that was going on. But the lawyers did, they're lawyers. They knew what was going on.  It was the lawyers. The estate has the money. The lawyers of course would charge a big fee for what they've done for the estate and that's how they would profit from this."

Instead, the family sold 250 acres of land near Two Lovers Point to a Korean investor for $19 million.  The family managed to distribute six million dollars but the AG's Office learned of what happened and obtained a restraining order for the remaining $13 million. "That should have remained in the Ancestral Lands Commission's inventory and the proceeds from that land. For example, the $19 million at stake in this case will be used to give money to compensate ancestral landowners whose land it not being returned to them," Bischoff stated.

He contends the estate has received another $20-30 million worth of land under the same claim and he believes they've already sold the property and kept the money. The family was also able to obtain a small parcel of land approximately 87 square meters of land near the Micronesia Mall exit in Dededo, along Fatima Street. After receiving the land, the estate turned around and sued the government for having a utility pole on the property and sued the Micronesia Mall to block the exit. Bischoff contends the attorneys were able to get all of this land at a time when the Ancestral Lands Commission didn't have an attorney.

During a recent court hearing, attorneys in the case declined to comment, only stating to the judge that they don't believe any fraud was committed and they believe the lawsuit should be dismissed.

Superior Court Judge Arthur Barcinas has taken the defendants' motion to dismiss under advisement.

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