- By Emmanuel T. Erediano - [email protected] - Variety News Staff
BENIGNO Repeki Fitial on Monday became the first governor to be impeached in CNMI history.
By vote of 16 to 4, the House of Representatives adopted 13 of the 18 allegations in House Resolution 18-2 calling for Fitial’s impeachment for multiple counts of felony, corruption and neglect of duty.
Fourteen votes were needed to bring the resolution to the Senate where the 67-year-old governor will be tried, probably starting next week. He will be removed from office if six of the nine senators find him guilty of any of the charges.
Citing security reasons, Speaker Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero, IR-Saipan, said he did not want yesterday’s session to continue into the evening. Shortly after 5 p.m., he called for a recess until 9 a.m. today to adopt the remaining five articles of impeachment.
Yesterday’s session started at 9:33 a.m., and the first article was adopted at around 12 noon.
Those who voted yes to the impeachment resolution were Deleon Guerrero; Vice Speaker Francisco S. Dela Cruz, IR-Saipan; House Floor Leader Ralph S. Demapan, Covenant-Saipan; Reps. Ramon A. Tebuteb, IR-Saipan; Ralph N. Yumul, IR-Saipan; Trenton B. Conner, IR-Tinian; Mario Taitano, IR-Saipan; John Paul P. Sablan, Covenant-Saipan; Anthony T. Benavente, IR-Saipan; Antonio R. Agulto, IR-Saipan; Tony P. Sablan, IR-Saipan; Janet U. Maratita, IR-Saipan; Roman Benavente, IR-Saipan; Lorenzo I. Deleon Guerrero, IR-Saipan; and Edmund Villagomez, Covenant-Saipan.
Those who voted no were the governor’s allies: House Minority Floor Leader George N. Camacho, R-Saipan; Felicidad T. Ogumoro, R-Saipan; Richard B. Seman, R-Saipan; and Teresita A. Santos, R-Rota.
The House yesterday voted on Articles 1 to 12 and Article 16, and is expected to vote on Articles 13, 14, 15, 17 and 18 today.
The charges involved the release of a federal detainee to massage the governor at his house; the awarding of a $392,000 sole-source contract to his former Commerce secretary to perform tasks that the then-secretary was already performing as a cabinet member; the signing of the no-bid $190 million power plant deal with a shadowy firm — a contract described by a Commonwealth Utilities Corp. official as “disastrous” to the CNMI; the governor’s failure to sanction or discipline his then-Attorney General Edward Buckingham for organizing a partisan meet-and-greet gathering at Fitial’s residence — a violation of the Hatch Act; the governor’s allowing the Department of Public Safety and the ports police to facilitate Buckingham’s departure from Saipan and evade court jurisdiction in a criminal action; the governor’s failure to nominate members of the Civil Service Commission, the Commonwealth Public Utilities Commission and the Supreme Court; failure to appoint secretaries of the Department of Public Lands and the Department of Public Safety.
The votes on the articles were preceded by lengthy and intense debates between the House leadership and the pro-Fitial members who read a position paper they submitted, detailing their objections to the allegations against the governor.
They questioned Rep. Janet U. Maratita’s participation in the vote, saying she should recuse herself because of her involvement in the lawsuit against the $190 million power-deal controversy for which the governor is also being accused in the impeachment resolution.
But Maratita said she filed the lawsuit against Saipan Development LLC, with which Fitial signed a no-bid deal, as a taxpayer and utility rate payer.
She said she was participating in the House session as a duly elected representative of the CNMI people in Precinct 1.
The number of people in the House gallery and lobby was not as great as it had been when the first impeachment move was defeated in the 17th Legislature, which was controlled by pro-Fitial members, several of whom lost in the November elections.
There were a few cabinet members, department secretaries and directors who witnessed yesterday’s session, but only Department of Community and Cultural Affairs Secretary Melvin Faisao wore a red shirt. Red is the Republican Party’s “color.”
Pro-impeachment members of the community also attended the session, and a few of them addressed the House to express their support for the impeachment resolution and to thank the House majority “for upholding the people’s mandate.
Former Board Of Education member Lee Taitano said that the 16 House members who impeached the governor represented 80 percent of the people who wanted the 18th House to continue what was started in the 17th Legislature.
She thanked all the members of the House leadership for their hard work and dedication to the process. “My heart goes out to them for their bravery,” she said.
Now the people are looking to the Senate, and expect its members to also do the right thing, she added.
Bernard Cruz, former safety officer of the Department of Public Works. thanked and congratulated the 16 House members who voted for the impeachment of Fitial. He said he hopes the House will ensure a clean government.
Concerned citizen Glen Hunter also thanked the pro-impeachment House members for following the mandate of the people.
“I can only imagine how much pressure you’re under. This is a historic moment and I just want to personally thank you today,” he said.
Among those in the gallery who defended Fitial was former Gov. Froilan C. Tenorio. He was not able to finish his testimony because of the five-minute time limit given to each member of the public.
Tenorio echoed the argument of Rep. Felicidad Ogumoro saying that the massage given to the governor by a federal detainee was for the benefit of the commonwealth. He said the massage was for Fitial “in his position as governor and not for his personal benefit.”
“The governor’s pain was preventing him from being as effective in carrying out his duties as he might normally be,” Tenorio added.
“Do we want a government where our elected governor is removed as soon as the opposition forms a majority?” Tenorio asked. “That’s what they do in some other countries, but not in any United States jurisdiction. What does that do to the separation of powers guaranteed to us in Section 203(a) of the Covenant? It is a bad precedent to set, and the new House majority should realize that this could happen to a governor of their party when they no longer have a majority.”
He also said H.R. 18-2 makes a lot of accusations but has not offered any proof.
“The rest of the world will look at us as no better than countries where political power ranks higher than the rule of law. Let’s face it. The federal government has a debt crisis and a spending crisis. It is looking for any place it can cut funds without antagonizing an important constituency. If it sees us as engaging in petty political feuds and impeaching governors for political purposes, we could find our federal grants and programs drying up, so that the federal government can save its money or use it elsewhere,” Tenorio said.
He also noted that the governor has never been indicted in a court of law, yet the House majority is accusing him of committing felonies.
Many of the allegations against the governor “relate simply to the normal functioning of the government,” Tenorio said.
The allegations of corruption for awarding a contract to former Commerce Secretary Mike Ada “are words of possibility, not the sort of certainty that should not be required for impeachment.”
Tenorio said there is no allegation that Fitial benefitted from the $190 million power purchase that he, the governor, signed with Saipan Development LLC.
Former Rep. Joseph M. Palacios, a Fitial ally who wasn’t reelected in November, said there are bigger issues that the Legislature needs to address instead of impeaching the governor. He said the House leadership should work with the administration in resolving the problems with the hospital, the retirement system, the utility rates and the economy.
“What I’m trying to say is nobody’s perfect. We all make mistakes,” he said.
Florence C. Sablan, who spoke as a concerned citizen, said: “We should teach our kids to obey the law.” And if some people think that the governor is their “earthly father” they should expect him to set an example and not break the law.
“Let us show the people what this earthly father should have done,” she said. “When I die, I will face God and not that kind of an earthly father.”
Attorney Ray Quichocho reminded House members that they were conducting an impeachment process and not a criminal proceeding. He urged them to do the right thing.
Former Youth Congress Speaker Luis John Castro told the House members that the issue in front of them right now affects everybody, young and old.
“You have heard the voices of the public. [Soon], you will make a decision which is history in the making, so do the right thing for the sake of the youth and the elderly in the CNMI.”
After the House session started at 9:33 a.m., the members adopted a commemorative resolution in honor of former Saipan Mayor Juan B. Tudela. House Floor Leader Ralph S. Demapan then moved for the inclusion of the impeachment resolution on the session calendar.
After the motion was unanimously adopted, Demapan moved to approve Article 1 of the impeachment resolution accusing Fitial of a felony for the unauthorized release of a federal detainee in Jan. 2010.
Reading from the minority bloc’s position paper — which is believed to have been prepared by the governor’s lawyers — Ogumoro asked the impeachment panel to explain how the unauthorized release became an escape when there were corrections officers who accompanied the federal detainee to the house of the governor in Gualo Rai.
She cited the affidavit of former Corrections Commissioner Dolores Aldan who said that the “short visit” at the governor’s house was done appropriately since the federal detainee was “under supervision of corrections officers at all times.”
Ogumoro said that there was nothing that proved that the governor was directly involved in the release of the federal detainee to give him a massage.
Rep. Richard B. Seman said he has not seen anything in the committee report indicating that Fitial was directly involved in violating the law in releasing the federal detainee. He said the governor even asked Aldan to “check” first with the attorney general — an appointee of the governor.
“Now the governor is being impeached for doing the right thing?” he asked. “Let’s be real. Let us not play around. I only see speculation.”
House Minority Leader George N. Camacho said the governor committed a misdemeanor and not a felony in allowing the release of federal detainee, so it fails to meet the constitutional provision on impeachment.
“This article has no ground to stand on,” he said.
Impeachment panel chairman Tony Sablan explained that the federal detainee was under the custody of Corrections and was removed from the facility without authorization from the federal government as provided for in the memorandum of agreement between the CNMI and federal governments.
He said the governor ordered the release and Aldan knew that she had no authorization from the federal government when she removed the detainee from Corrections.
For his part, Vice Speaker Francisco S. Dela Cruz said it was the governor who initiated the release of the federal detainee.
“He instructed Aldan because he was having ‘critical’ back pains. Many of us in the CNMI may also have ‘critical’ back pains but we cannot call the Corrections commissioner to release a federal detainee to give us a massage,” he said.
He does not believe that it was Aldan who decided to release the federal detainee and take her to the governor.
Rep. Christopher Leon Guerrero, a former detective, noted that the masseuse was a federal detainee and there is strong circumstantial evidence to charge the governor for the unauthorized release.
Rep. Roman Benavente said he could not believe that Seman could say the governor was doing the right thing.
“I don’t know if you know the difference between right and wrong,” he told Seman.
Speaker Deleon Guerrero noted that the governor’s affidavit stated that he, Fitial, gave Aldan instructions pertaining to the release of the federal detainee.
He also noted that Corrections had no authority to free the detainee, and neither did the AGO, which the governor “consulted.”
The federal court’s motion for an evidentiary hearing for the federal detainee, Qingmei Cheng, stated that “early in the morning of Jan. 8, 2010, the governor instructed CNMI Department of Corrections Commissioner Dolores M. Aldan to deliver the defendant to his private residence for the purpose of providing him treatment.”
After voting on Article 1, the debate continued on Articles 2, 3, 5, 7 which pertained to the same issue. The minority bloc repeated their arguments.
In discussing Article 4 which relates to the departure of Buckingham from the CNMI on Aug. 3-4, the minority bloc insisted the there was nothing that linked the governor to the incident.
Seman said he also does not see any evidence that the governor instructed then-DPS Deputy Commissioner Ambrosio Ogumoro and the governor’s security aide, Capt. Jermaine Nekaifes, to escort Buckingham and his wife Pam through the airport.
But Dela Cruz presented the list of phone calls made between Ambrosio Ogumoro and the governor, between Nekaifes and the governor and ports police officials around the time Buckingham was being escorted to the airport.
“Did they just say good morning to each other?” he asked.
At the time, the Office of the Public Auditor was to serve Buckingham with a penal summons for two counts of misconduct in public office and violations of CNMI ethics law.
Dela Cruz noted that it took the Federal Bureau of Investigation to serve the summons because the ports police and the DPS officials were ordered by the governor to prevent OPA from serving the penal summons.
He said one of the ports police officials was even heard saying he would throw the penal summons in the trash can.
Rep. Felicidad Ogumoro asked, “Did any one of you hear what was said on the telephone?’
Camacho questioned the source of the information that supported the allegations against Fitial. He also claimed that the panel cannot use evidence gathered during the first impeachment move in the 17th Legislature.
But Speaker Deleon Guerrero said the evidence that was gathered during the first impeachment probe in the 17th Legislature was in the committee report that was adopted into the calendar.
Sablan said there is nothing in the House rules that prevents them from using the information they obtained during the 17th Legislature.