House JGO

The House Committee on Judiciary and Governmental Operations conducts a meeting in the House chamber on Friday. In photo are, from left, the committee chair, Rep. Celina Babauta, House legal counsel Joe Taijeron, Vice Speaker Blas Jonathan Attao, Reps. Tina Sablan, Ralph Yumul and Donald Manglona.

THE House Committee on Judiciary and Governmental Operations on Friday reopened the investigation on Gov. Ralph DLG Torres' public expenditures.

The “impetus” of the investigation, according to the committee chairwoman, Rep. Celina Babauta, is the decision of Speaker Edmund S. Villagomez to refer to her committee the 21st House minority report on the governor's public expenditure, which Rep. Tina Sablan submitted on May 28, 2021.

The report was “a result of  several months of scrutiny of documents and records pertaining to the governor's expenses and reimbursements, looking into possible violations of law and areas of abuse possibly committed by the governor.”

In his memorandum dated June 3, 2021, Villagomez stated, "In accordance to [House] Rule 11, Section 2(i), I hereby refer the House Communication submitted by Rep. Christina E. Sablan [on] the 1st Day [of the] Second Special Session (28 May 2021) to the House Standing Committee on Judiciary and Governmental Operations to review and conduct any and all investigation relating to the report on the public expenditures of Gov. Ralph DLG Torres: violations of law, areas of abuse and recommendation for oversight and reform.”

Present during the committee meeting on Friday were Babauta, Sablan, Villagomez, Vice Speaker Blas Jonathan Attao, Reps. Ralph Yumul, Donald Manglona, Vicente Camacho, Denita Yangetmai, Richard Lizama, Vicente Camacho and Leila Staffler.

Manglona made the motion to reopen the investigation, Sablan seconded, and the motion was unanimously adopted.

Citing 1 CMC Sections 1301 to 1309, Sablan then made a motion to authorize the committee chair to issue letters pertaining to the legislative investigation. If the recipients of letters fail to comply in five days, the committee chair is authorized to issue subpoenas, Sablan said.

Her motion was also carried.

Babauta said witnesses who are subpoenaed will be given seven days to appear to the committee hearings.

According to the law, “A person shall be in contempt if the person…fails or refuses to appear in compliance with a subpoena….”

A person guilty of contempt “shall upon conviction be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.”

The issuance of the Sections 1301 to 1309 letters “will commence immediately upon the conclusion of the Friday meeting,” Babauta said.

Impeachment

In an interview prior to the committee meeting, Babauta said the series of meetings and hearings that his committee will conduct in the following days will examine the documents and testimonies, which will be the basis for impeaching the governor.

“There is no doubt that… impeachment is contentious,” Babauta said in a written statement.

“The removal of any sitting officer in the executive or judicial branch is a very serious matter for any government. But the Constitution is clear: Impeachment is a process meant to hold our leaders accountable for serious infractions against the laws of our land,” she added.

Regarding the reopening of the investigation, Babauta said, “Citizens have a right to truthful information in a democracy. Without credible information about what our elected officials are doing, we cannot effectively exercise our right to vote. That is my belief.”

She added, “When an elected official and those he appoints are untruthful, and hide behind a veneer of legality to the public, our access to information is jeopardized and trust in our entire government systems is eroded. How could it not be?”

She said when citizens lose “faith in their elected officials, the foundation of democracy weakens and the value of honest and fair elections is diminished.”

Babauta said the governor swore that he would “faithfully execute the office of the governor.” The governor, Babauta added, has a solemn duty to ensure that his conduct at all times complies with the law of the land.

“Instead, on Nov. 7, 2019...the U.S…Attorney's Office through the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other federal agencies executed multiple search and seizure warrants upon the personal residence of the governor and his spouse, Mrs. Diann Tudela Torres, his vehicle, his tax records, the personal residences of his family and law firm of his brothers in what is alleged to be his association with the exclusive casino licensee, Imperial Pacific International. These investigations also allege illegal campaign contributions,” Babauta said.

Babauta also mentioned the FBI’s execution of a search warrant on the premises of R&R Associates Corp., a tax accounting firm in Garapan on March 16, 2021.

R&R Associates co-owner and certified public accountant Rufo T. Mafnas told Variety that the FBI seized documents belonging to one of the firm’s clients.

Citing confidentiality, Mafnas declined to name the individual or company that was the target of the FBI investigation. He said the raid had nothing to do with R&R Associates.

There has been no update from federal authorities regarding any of the searches mentioned by Babauta.

She said the CNMI House investigation “is the right step, and that no one need be afraid. The pendulum of justice is on full swing. There are no exceptions to the rule of law.”

According to Section 8, Article II of the CNMI Constitution:

“The House of Representatives may initiate impeachment proceedings by the affirmative vote of two-thirds of its members and the Senate may convict after hearing by the affirmative vote of two-thirds of its members.”

The 20-seat House has nine Republicans, eight Democrats and three independents, two of whom are aligned with the Democrats and one allied with the Republicans.

The nine-seat Senate has five Republicans, one Democrat and three independents, two of whom vote with the Republicans and one aligned with the lone Democrat.

Politics as usual

Asked for comment, Press Secretary Kevin Bautista said:

“The impetus of this investigation is not a parliamentary procedure, but rather a political tactic that Rep. Celina Babauta and the Democrats will constantly use to fulfill a blatant political agenda, bringing up an old report that was not a formal committee correspondence, but rather a Minority report from the 21st Legislature as the title says.

"In the last Legislature, the composition of the special committee was balanced, having representatives from both parties, and the findings from last year's special committee report showed no finding of consequence. This has been addressed and covered multiple times, yet it continues to be brought up by the same representatives who ran on a smear campaign and covered by the same reporters that cover choreographed public hearings and scripted speeches. Last Friday's committee hearing was convened by seven Democrats and two Republicans. It is plain to see where this is going to go: a one-sided legislative witch hunt on an issue that has been brought up multiple times to take down a Governor that has been doing his job for the people, which is to rebuild the economy and keep the CNMI as one of the safest places in the world.

“We've said in the past that the administration welcomes all legitimate inquiries, but considering the composition of the members of last Friday's public hearing, the choreographed speeches and public comments by even a sitting Senator who should be focused on senatorial issues, and the malicious intent to use legislative resources for political purposes, it is clear that the Democrats prioritize politics over the people.

“Under the Democratic-led House, revenue-generating bills proposed by Republicans and community partners remain in committee. It's been six months into the legislative term, and so far only one public law has been enacted. And that bill was authored by a Republican in coordination with vital private sector leaders to develop our economy, fix our permitting process, and create more jobs for the people. The Democratic-led House continues to push for their political agenda, which consists of a political witch hunt on people they do not like, a focus on mainland political issues like a D.C. statehood initiative that has no benefit to the CNMI, and regional conferences to promote their personal platforms. In the process, the Democrats leave people behind by not having constructive conversations about our economy and the people that depend on policy solutions.

“On the flip side, Governor Torres, Lt. Governor Palacios, the House Minority, the Senate Leadership, the Mayors, and many vital community partners have collaborated on the following these last few months:

“• Beautification initiatives in all villages on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota;

“• Held two successful groundbreaking ceremonies for major highways with a third one later this week;

“• Secured $21.2 million in federal funding for a brand new sport and cultural center in Oleai for athletes, artists, and entrepreneurs;

“• Submitted a well-justified spending plan for the ARPA funding approved by the U.S. Treasury;

“• Released the first batch of tax refunds and rebates less than a month after the tax deadline of May 17th;

“• Led one of the highest vaccination rates in the country through the Covid-19 Task Force in collaboration with CHCC;

“• Enact meaningful legislation that promotes economic development and job creation; and

“• Continuing to meet with organizations and groups to support their causes and funding requests for public services.

“The Governor and Lt. Governor will continue to lead on much more work in the weeks and months ahead, and they will continue to work with the Legislative leadership in both houses to come up with solutions that actually benefit our islands. It is unfortunate that the Democratic-led House continues to show their true colors: prioritizing politics over the people.”

Reporter

A bachelor of arts in journalism graduate, he started his career as a police beat reporter. Loves to cook. Eats death threats for breakfast.

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