Updated: Jun 13
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Saipan—CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres has survived his detractors’ attempt to oust him after the CNMI Senate voted on May 18 to acquit him of the six articles of impeachment lodged by the House of Representatives.
For political observers— and perhaps for Torres himself— the outcome of the rather uneventful impeachment trial did not exactly come as a surprise. Those called to testify at the proceedings were mostly his supporters and the Republican-led Senate has been his ally. The conclusion was quite predictable.
“I want to thank the Senate for reviewing the factual information presented by my attorneys and the witnesses who provided testimony, for their diligence throughout the impeachment proceeding and entire process, and for making informed decisions,” Torres said in a statement following his acquittal.
The Republican governor dodged charges of corruption, misconduct, theft, neglect of duty and contempt. The allegations involved his first-class off-island travels, boat trips to the Northern Islands and complimentary utilities installed at his private residence.
The ultimate verdict, however, will come from the CNMI voters, who will head to the polls in November.
“I am thankful that we can now move forward, and I can continue to work hard for the people of the commonwealth,” Torres said.
But this is an election year and the political circus is just warming up. Torres is seeking reelection with Sen. Vinnie F. Sablan as his running mate.
While the impeachment trial may be over, Torres has another hurdle to cross: the criminal charges filed by Attorney General Edward Manibusan. The charges involving abuse of public resources, lavish spending and making questionable trips were similar to the allegations itemized in the articles of impeachment.
The Senate’s verdict was rendered after lunch on May 18. But even prior to the vote, House Democrats and Independents started issuing statements, expressing disappointment at the trial, which they alleged was rigged from the beginning.
Rep. Tina Sablan, a Democrat who is challenging Torres in the gubernatorial race, released a statement on the morning of May 18, calling the impeachment proceedings “a mockery of a trial.”
“The verdict is already known. Truth and justice will not come from the Senate. But it may come through other means,” she said.
Independent Sen. Paul Manglona and Saipan residents Carmen Patricia Deleon Guerrero and Bruce Lee Jorgensen earlier sued the Senate, asking the court to invalidate the impeachment rules and stop the Senate impeachment hearing.
Sablan’s “mockery of a trial” claim stemmed from the impeachment rules that the Senate laid out with the help of an outside counsel to follow during the trial.
Manglona and Democratic Sen. Edith E. DeLeon Guerrero had been vocal about how the proceedings tilted in favor of Torres. During the voting process on the impeachment trial rules, Manglona and DeLeon Guerrero offered several amendments to the rules, but their proposals were defeated consistently by 5-3 votes. “The adopted Impeachment Rules do not spell justice,” DeLeon Guerrero said.
After the trial, Sablan addressed the people of the CNMI, saying what they just witnessed is a betrayal of their trust. “Gov. Torres was supposed to be on trial in the Senate,” she said. “There were no prosecutors because the Senate leadership rejected the entire House prosecutors that the speaker appointed. There was no evidence because the Senate leadership rejected the entire House impeachment record—all 8,000 pages and hours of video-recorded witness testimonies.”
Sablan said the Senate heard only the governor’s side. “But what is also true is that the House’s hands were unjustly tied by the Senate rules that were drafted by the governor’s counsel, in collusion with the governor’s allies in the Senate,” she added.
Rep. Leila Staffler (D-Saipan) said the House of Representatives planned to release documentation and evidence— blocked by the Senate—that supported each of the six articles of impeachment against Torres.
Lt. Gov. Arnold Palacios, another gubernatorial candidate in the three-way race, has yet to give a statement on Torres’ acquittal. The two were running mates during the 2018 election. But when the questionable use of public funds was raised against the administration, Palacios turned his back on Torres.
In September of last year, Palacios testified before the House Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee, agreeing with the corruption allegations. “You have the right to look into the matter,” he told the House panel. “And I didn’t throw him under the bus. He ran in front of the bus. I hope he comes before this body. He says he has nothing to hide. The buck stops there.”
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, 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 re-elected as governor in his own right, defeating former governor Juan Babauta.
Although Torres’ impeachment trial has been concluded, the charges are still anticipated to set the tone for the November elections.