House set to vote on impeachment resolution this month
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan and Joyce McClure
Throughout his six years in office, Northern Mariana Islands Gov. Ralph Torres allegedly used the commonwealth’s coffers as his personal ATM. He allegedly purchased items for personal use, took more than a hundred off-island trips, embarked on profligate shopping sprees and dined on lavish dishes along with first lady Diann— all on the taxpayers’ dime.
These are among the many charges of corruption cited in the articles of impeachment introduced by the 22nd CNMI House of Representatives on Dec. 17.
The House’s judiciary and government organization committee noted that the taxpayers have footed the governor’s exorbitant bills at a time when the CNMI was trying to recover from a series of disasters.
The House is scheduled to vote on the impeachment resolution this month, portending an intense political drama during the election year.
The beleaguered governor dismissed the legislators’ impeachment threat as a “political attack.”
“Over the course of the past year, we have seen a politically-driven House committee conduct a witch hunt on innocent government employees in order to fulfill their political goals,” Torres said in a statement. “We saw certain elected officials censor people for not answering questions in a way that they want, and even hold people in contempt for not cooperating with their agenda.”
If impeached, Torres would not be the first governor to confront such a political fate. The first CNMI governor to be impeached by the House was Benigno R. Fitial in February 2013 by a vote of 16 to 4. He resigned before the Senate could conduct a trial.
Torres, a Republican, has announced his intention to run for reelection in this year’s gubernatorial election with Sen. Vinnie Sablan as his running-mate. If the impeachment move fails, he would be in the race against his current lt. governor Arnold I. Palacios, now running as an independent, and Democratic Rep. Tina Sablan.
Torres, the ninth governor of the CNMI, first assumed the gubernatorial seat on Dec. 29, 2015 following the death of Gov. Eloy Inos. In 2018, he was reelected as governor in his own right, defeating former governor Juan Babauta. At 42, Torres became the youngest incumbent governor in the United States.
Torres received a bachelor in political science from Boise State University in 2001. He worked with his brother at Torres Brothers Law Offices in 2004. Torres was elected to the CNMI House of Representatives in 2008. He won a Senate seat in 2010 and became the Senate president in 2013. He was elected lt. governor in the 2014 elections.
For CNMI residents who had grown weary of old traditional politicians, Torres was a breath of fresh air. The youngest politician to be elected to the highest political post, Torres represented youth idealism and a semblance of political revolution.
The CNMI was in a transition period following the demise of the notorious garment industry that put the commonwealth under the federal microscope due to labor violations, which eventually resulted in the U.S. takeover of labor and immigration. The garment industry was later replaced by the casino landscape.
Under Torres’ administration, the Imperial Pacific Inc. casino resort flourished and catered to the desperation of the cash-strapped CNMI government. Torres’ moments of glory began to decline.
On Nov. 7, 2019, the FBI raided Torres' office and home as well as his brothers' law firm for evidence of wire fraud, money laundering and illegal campaign contributions. The FBI investigation spawned “talks” of impeachment against Torres, but nothing came of them.
Now, Torres is facing another impeachment threat. His junkets were among the items enumerated in the articles of impeachment.
The resolution noted that between December 2015 and July 2021, the governor took more than 120 air travels — 54 of which were taken on first-class flights — and 85 boat trips using the Department of Public Safety’s fleet.
In one of these trips, the governor allegedly spent $1,823 on one dinner he hosted for a D.C. lobbyist. The CNMI taxpayers ended up picking up the tab,
Torres has refused to respond to a subpoena by the House’s Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee.
Stating that the proceedings were unlawful and invalid, Torres filed a motion to quash the subpoena.
The House’s Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee introduced Resolution 22-14 in June, receiving a vote of 11 to 8, and has been conducting the investigation into Torres’ public expenditures for personal use. Subpoenas have been served to the governor, other administration officials and officers of the Department of Public Safety to ask questions about the governor's travel authorizations, reimbursements and purchases.
In opposition with the JGO Committee, House Speaker Edmund S. Villagomez created a special committee on impeachment during the week of Dec. 20 with Vice Speaker Blas Jonathan Attao as chairman. Committee members are Reps. Angel Demapan, Joseph Flores, Joseph Leepan Guerrero, Corina Magofna, Donald Manglona, Tina Sablan, Patrick San Nicolas and Leila Staffler.
Rep. Celina R. Babuata opposes the formation of the special committee on impeachment. Saying she has “every confidence and full faith” in the panel “under JGO Committee Chairman Blas Jonathan Attao’s leadership,” Babuata added, “We stand ready to deliver the people’s mandate.”
Babauta said she has received numerous inquiries about the speaker’s decision to create a special committee.
“We are focused and our conviction is unwavering,” she said. “I want to assure you that your House leadership is working hard to represent you with our vote for impeachment. I have faith that we will.
"We hear you, we are not giving up. I ask all of you for your prayers and understanding for the special committee," she added.
Eleven of the 20 members of the House are aligned with the Democrat-independent leadership bloc and four are supporters of Lt. Gov. Arnold I. Palacios’s independent gubernatorial candidacy.
Citing political motives, Torres said, “Tina Sablan is running for governor…so she has a motive to ensure that she will try everything she can to remove me [from office] because that will mean one less opponent.”
If at least 14 House members vote to adopt the resolution, the governor will be impeached followed by a trial conducted by the nine-seat Senate. Removal from office requires that six senators vote for his conviction.
Currently pending in the CNMI Superior Court is a lawsuit filed by Torres, who sought injunctive relief on the House JGO committee’s action and declaration of the executive immunity.
“Filing a lawsuit was not the route I wanted to take but it is a necessary one. As can be seen from today’s committee meeting, the members of the committee offer nothing but disrespect to the constitution and toxic politics," the governor said in a statement after filing the lawsuit on Dec. 15.
Other highlights of HR 22-14
Torres allegedly obtained $177,000 worth of “utility benefits” from the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. for privately-owned residences” from February 2015 to Aug. 18, 2021. These expenses included the cost associated with the commercial piggery that was operating on his residential property.
Other travel expenses show reimbursements of $919.10 for fuel used by the Department of Public Safety vessel on Sept. 17, 2017, and lodging expenses for himself, his wife and bodyguard during a trip to Rota amounting to $690 “despite having received per diem.”
Between May 27, 2017, and July 2021, Torres had 85 boating trips to the Northern Islands, Tinian, Rota and Guam using DPS resources. Many of these trips were recreational outings with his family at the time when the CNMI had just been hit by super typhoon Yutu.
Torres obtained reimbursements for personal expenses that included items for hunting or camping, hardware supplies, electronics that include cameras, headphones, and computers that were never used for public purposes.