REPRESENTATIVE Celina Babauta on Wednesday alleged that Gov. Ralph DLG Torres signed a non-disclosure agreement with the Department of Public Safety to prevent police officers from testifying in the House Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee's investigation of the governor's public expenditures.
The administration, however, denied that the governor signed such an agreement.
Babauta chairs the committee, which conducted a hearing at 2 p.m. Wednesday even without the presence of its invited witnesses: Special Assistant for Administration Mathilda “Keko” Rosario, Finance & Accounting Director Bernadita Palacios and Police Officer Jomalyn Gelacio, the security aide of first lady Diann Torres.
In separate letters, the three asked the committee to give them 30 days to obtain private counsel.
At the beginning of the hearing, Babauta said, “A new development… just came in over the lunch hour while we were in our delegation session this morning.”
She presented a copy of what she described as a “unilateral non-disclosure agreement” between the governor and DPS, “for the purpose of preventing the unauthorized disclosure of confidential information.”
However, a copy of the two-page document provided to Variety was neither signed nor dated. It also did not indicate the names of the “first and second parties.”
Babauta is alleging that the law enforcement officers who serve as governor's security aides were “being forced to sign” the non-disclosure agreement.
“This committee is serious about its obligation to get to the truth of these documents. The fact that the witnesses…, with this non-disclosure agreement, are pressured, paints a picture of [the] guilty conscience of this administration,” Babauta said.
The non-disclosure agreement is “unilateral,” she added, meaning, the first party “shall have sole ownership of the confidential information with the second party being prohibited from disclosing confidential and proprietary information that is to be released by the first party,” Babauta said.
She said under the agreement, confidential information “shall include but not limited to documents, records, information and data (whether verbal, electronic or written) security procedures and protocols, and other information obtained or that shall be obtained while employed as a personal security detail and detailed to the Office of the Governor of the Northern Mariana Islands.”
Further, Babauta quoted the agreement as stating, “confidential information shall include anything I observed, have done, or became aware of in the course of my employment. This includes information regarding my own activities, activities of members of the Office of the Governor, and those of any other person if gained in the course of my employment. Confidential information is considered confidential regardless of whether such confidential information also includes any and all work products and other material prepared by or in the possession or control of the other party, which contain, include, refer to or otherwise reflect or are generated from any confidential information.”
Babauta said the non-disclosure agreement also states that “due to the unique and sensitive nature of the confidential information, any breach of this agreement would cause irreparable harm for which damages and/or equitable relief may be sought. The harmed party in this agreement shall be entitled to all remedies available at law.”
In separate response letters to the committee, Special Assistant for Administrator Mathilda “Keko” Rosario, Finance & Accounting Director Bernadita Palacios and Police Officer I Jomalyn Gelacio asked for a 30-day extension because they need to hire private counsel.
They also asked Rep. Celina Babauta to issue them a subpoena rather than just a letter.
“So that I do not waive and in order to preserve my rights pursuant to all laws, I am hereby requesting that the JGO committee issue a subpoena for my attendance at the JGO hearing," Rosario, Palacios and Gelacio stated in their separate letters.
The subpoena, they added, should provide sufficient notice of their hearing date, time and place.
In addition, they said, the subpoena should provide them with a “general statement of subject matter of the committee's investigation or inquiry” to ensure that they can prepare properly and adequately for their testimony.
Rosario, Palacios and Gelacio invoked their rights to have counsel present with them in the hearing.
They said they have requested the Office of the Attorney General for legal representation, but they were advised that they will need to find private counsel to represent them and advise them of their rights.
“I therefore request 30 days from the date of this letter to ensure the contract with my attorney goes through the required process for approval,” Rosario, Palacios and Gelacio stated in their separate letters.
Reacting to the alleged non-disclosure agreement and the administration officials' letters, Rep. Celina Babauta said: “This is the 'so-what' defense, whereby the governor, the administration and his defenders have cheapened the oath of office attendant to the office of governor. The actions by the three witnesses to submit their letters at the very last minute is a complete betrayal and a total lack of seriousness about our Constitution, laws and the separation of powers and the carefully balanced relationship of checks and balances between the Legislature and the executive branch of our government.”
“But, it really doesn't matter,” she added. “Sa’ ti bai hu o’oson, ti bai hu yayas, ti bai hu para prumutehe yan dumifende I interes todo taotao Marianas. (I will not give up, I will not tire and I will not stop protecting and defending the interests of the people of the Marianas.)”
The JGO committee began its investigation after Speaker Edmund S. Villagomez referred to the panel a House communication conveying the 21st House minority report on the public expenditures of the governor, which its signatories said contains determinations of possible violations of law and areas of abuse.
The JGO committee said it will serve a subpoena on Rosario, Palacios and Gelacio.
It was Rep. Tina Sablan who made the motion to move ahead and issue the subpoena. All the other committee members present voted to approve the motion. Besides Babauta and Sablan, they are Vice Speaker Blas Jonathan Attao, Reps. Edwin Propst, Vicente Camacho, Richard Lizama, and Donald Manglona.
Attao is the lone Republican member of the committee.
Rule of law
Addressing the public and her House colleagues, Babauta said:
“I wish to talk to you about the rule of law. The rule of law is what stands between all of us and the arbitrary exercise of power by the administration. The rule of law is the safeguard of our liberties. The rule of law is what allows us to live our freedom in ways that we may honor the sacrifices of our service members, while strengthening the common good.
“After opening the investigation into Governor Torres, the question before this committee is simple. It is not a question of political tactics as some in the administration of Governor Torres and Lt. Governor Palacios would like you to believe.”
The matter before this committee, Babauta said, “is a matter of the governor’s expenditures of public funds. This is a public matter not a private act.”
She added, “The bedrock of our democracy is being mortally threatened as the rule of law stands in the line of fire today. We can either strengthen our Constitution and laws by giving it content and meaning, or we can weaken it by tolerating and encouraging evasions and breaches of trust on the part of the Torres-Palacios administration. Neither the governor nor his defenders have not denied the facts. They have not challenged, nor have they attempted to discredit the facts brought before the committee. They have admitted, in effect, the governor did, in fact, knowingly commit these acts.”
‘What are you afraid of?’
Rep. Edwin Propst, in his remarks, noted that the governor has said he has nothing to hide.
So if he has nothing to hide, Propst added, “why is the governor so afraid to let his security details speak?”
He said the “last-minute and unilateral non-disclosure agreement is shocking, disgusting and deplorable.”
Propst said he “cannot believe that police officers are being forced to sign without telling them why.”
Propst asked the committee chair to find out where the non-disclosure agreement came from because one police officer told him it came from the Office of the Attorney General.
“I would be shocked if the AG would send this type of document, because this document is obstructing any investigation that this committee hopes to carry out,” Propst said.
Rep. Tina Sablan said she was “troubled, to say the least,” by the information they received, referring to the alleged non-disclosure agreement and the letters of the administration officials.
She alleged that certain employees of the government and police officers “who are part of lawful investigation are now being pressured to sign a non-disclosure agreement with the office of the governor.”
Rep. Vicente Camacho said, “It is a shame that there is disregard of the [House leadership’s] authority.” He said to disregard the “order” of the committee chair indicates a runaway government.” This behavior is unacceptable and should not be tolerated, he added.
Rep. Richard Lizama, for his part, said, “There is no one above the law” as he asked the public to “please be patient to allow us to do our job.”
“I know the CNMI people have been waiting for this, and we would come with a conclusion," Lizama said, as he also asked all the witnesses, “to please cooperate, be vigilant and do give the utmost honest testimony.”
Rep. Donald Manglona said he would like to tell the administration and the governor's allies in the Legislature that the committee hearing “is not a political tactic.”
He said it “is merely an effort to look into the expenditure of public funds. Looking at the records of the governor's spending brings a lot of questions in mind in terms of how are we safeguarding monies coming into the CNMI and how they are being spent.”
He said the governor’s “delaying tactics” only “reinforce the notion that he is hiding something.”
Honest day’s effort
Asked for comment, Press Secretary Kevin Bautista issued the following statement:
“The Governor never spoke to any officer or anyone at the Department of Public Safety regarding a nondisclosure agreement. He did not sign off on anything to that effect. There was also no gag order imposed by the Governor on any DPS officer or any of the three witnesses invited to testify. All three witnesses respectfully asked for an extension after being denied legal representation by the Office of the Attorney General, which advised the witnesses to seek personal counsel. All the employees and officials of this administration want to do is come to work, put in an honest day’s effort, and make the CNMI a better place. Evidently, there is a tangible record of progress by the Torres-Palacios administration, the Senate Leadership, and the House Minority, as compared to the lack of accomplishments by the House Democratic leadership. It is unfortunate that the members of the JGO Committee have decided to perpetuate a false climate of fear in government employees for their political purposes.”
For his part, the governor’s legal counsel Gilbert Birnbrich said:
“The Committee sent out letters confusingly stating that they ‘requested’ the appearance of the Special Assistant for Administration but titled the letters as being authorized under Title 1, Section 1301 of the Code which is the section dealing with subpoenas, a compulsory order. Inexplicably, the letters never stated the topic they were to testify on. Worryingly, the letters spoke of jail and fines. Combined with statements from the members of the Committee in the news media about the investigation looking for corruption and wrongdoing, the members requested to appear became anxious regarding their appearance.
“To protect the rights of the employees and the administration, the administration requested the presence of legal counsel from the Office of the Attorney General. The OAG declined because of potential conflicts but permitted the employees to be represented by outside counsel. Given the extremely short time period for the employees to retain counsel and prepare for the hearing, each employee thought it best to seek an extension and assert their rights in order to protect themselves.
“The employees are not trying to avoid testifying. As clearly stated in their letters to the Committee, they even requested the Committee to subpoena them. The employees and the administration are simply trying to protect themselves from overreach and unfair action by the Committee.
“It is unfortunate that we have to take such measures. The administration would prefer to engage with the JGO Committee in a friendly, open and collaborative manner. However, if the Committee insists on a combative, antagonistic approach to their investigation, then the administration must protect itself and the rights of its employees.”