MORE than three hours after Gov. Benigno R. Fitial resigned, Lt. Gov. Eloy S. Inos and Senate President Jude U. Hofschneider were sworn in yesterday as the CNMI’s new governor and lieutenant governor.
|Inos, 63, and Hofschneider, 42, are the CNMI’s first governor and lt. governor from Rota and Tinian.
The CNMI’s first Carolinian governor and the first third-party candidate to become chief executive, Fitial, 67, is also the islands’ first governor to be impeached and the first to resign from office.
In his letter to Hofschneider and Speaker Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero, the governor said: “I have served in this office since January 2006 and count many accomplishments for the people who elected me. My personal health and the best interests of the commonwealth have led me to this decision.”
He added, “Pursuant to Article 3, Section 7 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and effective at 10 a.m., on this date, Feb. 20, 2013, I hereby resign as Governor of the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, an office to which I was duly elected in November 2009.”
Fitial was impeached by the House of Representatives for multiple counts related to the commission of felonies, to corruption and to neglect of duty, and his trial in the Senate was to begin on March 7. As of yesterday, Variety was told, at least six of the nine senators were inclined to find him guilty of most, if not all, of the charges against him — enough to remove him from office.
In his letter of resignation, Fitial expressed the hope that “the elected leaders can bring the commonwealth back to prosperity and provide a secure future for its citizens.”
Fitial left the administration building immediately after sending Press Secretary Angel A. Demapan to the Legislature on Wednesday morning.
Demapan delivered Fitial’s letter of resignation to Hofschneider and Speaker Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero at around 10 a.m. A few minutes later, Variety broke the news online.
Fitial later delivered a speech in Chamorro on radio station KKMP, denying the allegations against him, which he said did not rise to the level of impeachment.
In his speech after he was sworn in at the Pedro Tenorio Multi-purpose Center in Susupe, Inos said that at 9:40 a.m. on Wednesday, Fitial asked if they could talk.
“As usual, I said, ‘of course governor.’ ” Inos said. “He came to my office and in a very humble manner, he presented me a letter. And I asked him ‘What is that for? What is the letter about?’ ”
Fitial then handed him the letter.
“I opened it,” Inos said. “The first line in the letter, when I saw it, I almost fell off my chair. I did not expect the governor to do what he did. But the letter simply says the time has come for him to step down and it is in the best interest of the commonwealth community that he did so because he wants to bring people together so we can move forward with the businesses at hand.”
Inos is the CNMI’s eighth governor and will serve the remainder of Fitial’s term, which ends in Jan. 2015.
It took a little while before the content of the governor’s letter sank into their minds, according to the members of the House and Senate leaderships.
When Press Secretary Demapan went to the Legislature to deliver Fitial’s letter of resignation, the members of the island-cleanup task force were waiting for the governor in the conference room of the administration building for their weekly meeting. They wondered what was taking the governor so long.
When told about Fitial’s resignation, Department of Public Lands acting Secretary Pete Itibus said: “I am really surprised. All along he said he was going to defend himself.. This meeting is the special tourism group. Every Wednesday he joins us. Today he did not show up.”
Division of Environmental Quality Director Frank Rabauliman said there was no announcement that the governor would resign. He said that while they were waiting for the governor, “we heard about it from one of the cabinet members.”
Former Speaker and now Parks and Recreation Director Eli D. Cabrera said they were not aware that the governor had resigned.
Coastal Resources Management Office Director Rita Chong declined to comment.
While Demapan was on his way from the administration building to the Legislature, carrying Fitial’s resignation letter, Speaker Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero, IR-Saipan; Vice Speaker Francisco S. Deleon Guerrero, IR-Saipan; Rep. Tony P. Sablan, IR-Saipan; and Rep. Ramon A. Tebuteb, IR-Saipan. were in the House chamber preparing their presentation of the impeachment articles for the Senate trial.
In the Senate chamber, Hofschneider and Senate Vice President Ralph DLG Torres, R-Saipan, were waiting for Senate legal counsels Antoinette Villagomez and Joe Bermudez so they could discuss the impeachment trial.
In separate interviews afterwards, Deleon Guerrero and pro-Fitial House Minority Leader George N. Camacho said they were still trying to let it sink in, referring to the governor’s resignation.
“I am surprised but relieved, and I respect him for doing what he did,” the speaker said.
Now, he added, “I think everything comes to a stop. The process is pretty much over.”
He said they believed Fitial would resign during the Senate trial.
“But it’s a relief that it did not get to that point,” he added.
Camacho, for his part, said: “It’s a not a good day for the commonwealth. Whenever somebody who was elected by the people resigns, that is not a good day.”
He added, “We understand that the impeachment trial was about to start. It is a day in history and it is not a good day. It is not good for the CNMI.”
Vice Speaker Dela Cruz said they have been “carefully looking forward to the impeachment trial in the Senate. The members of the impeachment committee never lost sight of what we were doing and we were ready for the trial in the Senate. So we were caught off-guard by the resignation letter.”
Dela Cruz said Fitial resigned to save face in light of the grave nature of the articles of impeachment.
“I truly believe that those articles of impeachment have merit and we would have presented our prosecution based on the evidence for each of the articles,” he added.
But now that Fitial has resigned, Dela Cruz said, “It’s almost like water under the bridge. Also, I would like to say I wish the governor the best in whatever endeavors he will be going into”
Hofschneider said he was ”shocked and at the same time thankful that he saved the CNMI from further instability.”
He said Fitial’s decision “saved the Senate and the whole CNMI from the hardship of going through the impeachment trial.”
He added, “I know that this is an unprecedented and very tough period but we have to follow the law and follow what is mandated of us as Senate members, and that is what we did.”
Hofschneider said he understands the kind of pressure Fitial was under “and it takes a lot for a person to make such a bold decision. I believe that he made a tough but a great decision.”
Rep. Tony Sablan said he had mixed emotions upon learning about Fitial’s decision to resign.
“I said all along that it is nothing personal and I guess the governor knows that,” he said.
The impeachment process, he said, was something the Legislature had to carry out so the CNMI could move forward.
U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan issued the following statement:
“I want to thank Governor Fitial for deciding to save all of us the trouble of what would have been a lengthy trial in the Senate. I know this was not an easy decision for him to make, but he decided that stepping down was the right thing to do. And for that, I am grateful.”
“I wish Governor Inos and Lt. Gov. Hofschneider the best as they take on their new positions. And I give them my personal assurance that I will help where I can.”
In an interview shortly before the swearing-in ceremony at the multi-purpose center, Congressman Sablan said many people in the community had asked Fitial to step down, including the former governor’s friends and supporters.
“Some of them asked him to do the honorable thing by stepping down,” Kilili said.
But the day Fitial resigned “is not a day for us to rejoice.”
“Yes, I am happy with the result. I am happy that we are moving on but this is not exactly a day that we should be happy. I am glad that we are going to move forward with the new administration. But I am not jumping up and down in joy right now. This is very serious. We should all make sure that this does not happen again.”
Anti-corruption activist Glen Hunter said “It is never the wrong time to do the right thing.”
“I am thankful that the former governor decided to do the right thing and resign from office. This is yet another step in a long journey towards rebuilding the CNMI,” he said.
He also congratulated Inos and Hofschneider.
“They have taken the helm during a pivotal time in the CNMI’s short history. There is so much hope for these great islands,” he said.
A fifth grade teacher at San Vicente Elementary School delivered the history-making news in a serious manner to her students just before lunch and was caught off guard as the 23 students burst out in spontaneous applause and whoops of joy.
One of the students described the moment as “surprising and fun.” The student went on to say that they were currently studying government so the news was “interesting.”