Supporters defend CNMI governor at Senate impeachment proceedings
Updated: May 14, 2022
Judges recuse themselves from hearing plea to stop proceedings
By Bryan Manabat
Saipan-- Supporters of CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres on Friday defended the chief executive against corruption charges that were examined during the CNMI Senate impeachment proceedings.
“Gov. Torres did not travel for personal recreation, personal benefit or for political purposes and that, in fact, the trip served a public benefit in more than one instance,“ said Anthony H. Aguon, the governor’s attorney.
The Republican governor’s first-class travels and related expenses as well as free power at his private residence were among the items cited in the articles of impeachment forwarded by the CNMI House of Representatives to the Senate, which is dominated by Torres‘ political allies.
Epi Cabrera, the Clearinghouse administrator, said there were complaints regarding the governor’s travel per diem and car rental but premium travel was not one of the concerns raised by the Travel Regulations Committee or the Attorney General’s Office.
Cabrera, who served the Torres administration since 2015, was the first witness called to testify.
He said Attorney General Edward Manibusan had received a copy of the travel regulations, met with Cabrera, and provided input on changes to be made.
Cabrera testified that the travel regulations committee recommended that both the governor and lt. governor should travel premium class, especially over long distances because of the need for rest before the meetings.
Cabrera said Manibusan himself reviewed the proposed travel regulations and did not advise changing the premium class travel language.
Gary Camacho, chairman of the Commonwealth Utilities Commission, testified on the theft charges related to the utility benefits provided to the governor.
Camacho said there was no theft.
"Theft is when you receive services and you do not pay for such services or when there is a clear attempt to avoid any record of consumption. In the case of Gov, Torres, there was no divert away from a meter nor evidence of meter tampering on or around his property," the Republican Party said in a statement interpreting Camacho's statements.
"According to CUC chief Gary Camacho, Gov. Torres legitimately received a utility benefit at Koblerville and then at As Teo. There is no double billing. Further, it was clarified through questioning by the President of the Senate that the document furnished by the JGO showing a double-billing was not an official document of the CUC," the statement said.
The Senate hearing revealed that former Gov. Juan Babauta had two accounts yet the former governor was not prosecuted.
"It should be noted that JGO Chair Celina Babauta was former Gov. Babauta’s Executive Assistant when he had two accounts being paid concurrently. Governor Torres never had utility benefits for two accounts at the same time. Governor Torres’ attorney proved that Gov. Torres received utility benefits for one residence at a time. It was further established that the JGO’s allegations of theft were not initiated by the Office of the Attorney General," the Republican Party said.
Meanwhile, CNMI Superior Court Presiding Judge Roberto C. Naraja, Associate Judges Teresa Kim-Tenorio, Joseph N. Camacho, Kenneth L. Govendo, and Wesley M. Bogdan on Friday disqualified themselves from hearing Sen. Paul A. Manglona's May 11 motion for a temporary restraining order to stop the Senate impeachment proceedings against Torres.
Saipan residents Carmen Patricia Deleon Guerrero and Bruce Lee Jorgensen joined Manglona in the motion.
In separate recusal orders, the judges cited conflict of interests, relationships and personal dealings with the plaintiffs that might raise questions about their impartiality.
Manglona is a member of the 22nd NMI Senate, Deleon Guerrero is a retiree, and Jorgensen is an attorney.
Named as defendants were Senate President Jude Hofschneider, Sens. Karl King-Nabors, Victor Hocog, Francisco Cruz, Justo Quitugua and Vinnie Sablan.
The pro se plaintiffs have requested the court to schedule an “accelerated date and time for a hearing.”
But as of May 13, the court has not acted on the court filing. The Senate began its proceedings and will continue on Monday.
According to the lawsuit:
• The Senate violated the Open Government Act.
• The Senate Rules of Impeachment are invalid, null and void, of no force and effect, and unenforceable.
• The Senate, through the defendants, unconstitutionally invaded and attempted to dictate matters that lie within the exclusive province of the House of Representatives.
The lawsuit also stated that should a Senate member decline or refuse to participate or vote in the Senate impeachment trial on grounds of a professed conflict of interest, "then that senator’s abstention must be recorded in affirmative for impeachment, so as to promote and protect the spirit and purpose of the NMI Constitution respecting impeachment matters."
Senators Sablan and Quitugua have recused themselves from participating in the impeachment proceedings. Sablan is Torres’ running mate while Quitugua is a close relative of the governor.