• By Jonathan Perez

Political turmoil

CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres facing threat of impeachment

Quite a mirror of national politics, the Northern Mariana Islands is dealing with its own political anxiety. While Republican President Donald Trump is awaiting his impeachment trial, the CNMI’s Republican governor Ralph Torres is facing a similar threat from his own political nemeses.

The six-member Minority Bloc in the CNMI House of Representatives is currently reviewing its plan to introduce articles of impeachment against Torres based on allegations of abuse of power and corruption. Their plan of action emerged nearly two months after the Federal Bureau of Investigation swooped down on Saipan with search warrants.

FBI agents on Nov. 7, searched several government and private offices on Saipan, including the Imperial Pacific Resort and the governor’s office in Capital Hill. The raid was related to a sealed federal investigation into money laundering, bribery, fraud and illegal political contributions, apparently involving the casino operator’s surreptitious deals with Torres, his family and associates.

Subjects of the search warrants included Torres, first lady Diann Torres, his bothers Vincent, Victorino and Joaquin Torres, who own Torres Brothers Law Offices, his sisters-in-law Brenda and Rowina Torres, casino lobbyist Alfred Chi-Yam Yue, realtor Ron Li Anderson. Subjects of the search warrant include Gov. Ralph Torres, first lady Diann Torres, his bothers Vincent, Victorino and Joaquin Torres, who own Torres Brothers Law Offices, his sisters-in-law Brenda and Rowina Torres, casino lobbyist Alfred Chi-Yam Yue, realtor Ron Li Anderson.

Minority Leader Edwin K. Propst (Ind-Saipan) and Rep. Tina Sablan (Ind-Saipan), two of the most vocal critics of the administration, have been suspicious of the government’s justifications for granting every request made by Imperial Pacific International (CNMI). They are weighing their options on impeachment proceedings amid the growing call on social media to investigate any wrongdoings by the CNMI’s young chief executive and his associates.

The minority bloc has asked the CNMI Department of Finance to release all financial records related to Torres’ travel expenses, housing allowances, executive security detail, chauffeuring services and reimbursement claims.

The looming impeachment is threatening to eclipse Torres’ legacy as the CNMI’s economic savior. Under his term, the commonwealth saw an economic revival after decades of being stagnant and stuck in negative growth.

If impeached, Torres would be the second CNMI governor to meet such a political fate. Benigno Fitial was the first governor in any U.S. territory to be impeached, with 18 charges contained in Articles of Impeachment lodged by the CNMI House of Representatives.

The CNMI has a bicameral legislature with 20 members in the House and nine in the Senate. The House has 13 GOP lawmakers and seven independents while the Senate has six Republicans and three independents. Other members of the Minority Bloc in the House are former Minority Leader Edmund S. Villagomez, and first-term lawmakers Rep. Sheila Babauta (Ind-Saipan), Rep. Richard Lizama (Ind-Saipan), and Rep. Donald Manglona (Ind-Rota). Rep. Joseph Flores is the other independent member in the House, but mostly allies himself with the GOP-led Majority.

Propst, in an interview with the Saipan Tribune, said he is working with the other members of the minority before releasing a unified statement to raise their issues and other concerns on the possible impeachment of Torres.

Sablan, meanwhile, believes the CNMI legislature has enough reasons to begin inquiry outside of the FBI’s own investigation. She told the CNMI media that the House did not need to wait for the federal grand jury indictments or an arrest to be made before proceeding with Torres’ impeachment. The local legislature, she added, would only exercise its duty as stated in the Commonwealth Constitution. The legislature holds the power to conduct investigations and other means of oversight. Sablan explained that any impeachment process would be different from FBI’s criminal investigation but the local legislature may use all pieces of evidence presented in the federal probe.

Torres has remained silent on the impeachment call. His chief of staff, Angel Demapan, said it is premature to discuss the impeachment, which he dismissed as “nothing more than political posturing.” The impeachment plan, he added, has no grounds at this point and was merely based on unproven allegations that were “purely politically driven and premised on self-aggrandizing motives.”

Demapan, a former ranking GOP member of the House, maintained that a person is innocent until proven guilty. He said Torres and the administration have been cooperating with the FBI. He is confident the governor will eventually be cleared of all allegations.

House Vice Speaker Lorenzo Deleon Guerrero said it is much better to let the FBI investigation and judicial process take its own course. The local lawmakers, he said, may take a cue from the federal investigation once it is completed.

Deleon Guerrero recalled Fitial’s case, where charges were filed prior to the impeachment proceedings. Rather than facing a trial before the CNMI Senate which was set for March 7, 2013, Fitial resigned from office on Feb. 20, 2013.

Deleon Guerrero was a member of the 18th CNMI Legislature that impeached Fitial on charges of corruption, felony and neglect of duty. Fitial stepped down from office after the House voted to pass 16 of the 18 articles of impeachment.

Villagomez, Deleon Guerrero, Rep. Roman Benavente, Floor Leader John Paul Sablan, Rep. Janet Maratita and Rep. Ralph Yumul, all incumbent members of the 21st Legislature, voted in favor of Fitial’s impeachment back in 2013.

Benavente, Deleon Guerrero, and Yumul were independents back then. They returned to the GOP fold when they ran and won seats in the 21st Legislature. Paul Sablan and Villagomez were members of Fitial’s Covenant Party, but the former joined the Republican Party beginning in the 19th while the latter became independent. Maratita lost her reelection bid in the 19th but ran as part of the GOP ticket in the 20th, winning a seat and eventually became the vice speaker.

The CNMI community seems split on the impeachment issue. Critics of the administration are convinced of Torres’ guilt. The governor’s allies and supporters would rather wait for the investigation to be done, and not surprisingly, are confident Torres would be exonerated.

For now, we wait and see with bated breath.

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