Criminal defendant Torres pleads not guilty, invokes speedy trial right

Gov. Ralph Torres, the criminal defendant in CNMI Superior Court Case No. 22-0050-CR, pleaded not guilty this morning to 14 criminal counts. He invoked his right as a criminal defendant to a speedy trial, which is set tentatively to begin July 5.

Mr. Torres refused to speak to the media as he was flanked by three lawyers going into and leaving the court of judge pro tempore Alberto Tolentino. Viola Alepuyo told Kandit she will not be commenting on the case. Mr. Torres’s brother, attorney Victorino Torres, said a news release will be issued. The other attorney, Anthony Aguon, said nothing outside the courtroom.

Attorney General Edward Manibusan on April 7 filed criminal charges against Mr. Torres. Those range from illegal first class travel to theft of public property to contempt of the legislature. All three types of charges are impeachable offenses, and mirror articles of impeachment passed in the House and now lingering in the Senate.

Ms. Alepuyo told the court her client is “innocent.” She also said the governor will be filing motions to disqualify the attorney general, and to dismiss the case in its entirety. The attorney general is ready to go to trial, according to prosecutor Robby Glass, with the AG already releasing discovery materials to the Torres legal team. Mr. Glass did not ask to impose any pre-trial release conditions on the governor. Ms. Alepuyo asked that her client not be required to attend future pre-trial proceedings; the judge granted her request.

Judge Tolentino scheduled the evidentiary hearing for May 31, and also will be setting at least two pre-trial conferences to ensure the trial runs smoothly.

Mr. Torres for months has publicly stated he is waiting for his day in the legislature to address the allegations against him. However, he and his team’s actions have told another story. Among the criminal charges he faces is for contempt of the legislature after he failed to appear before the House to answer to questions about his conduct in office. Later, when the Senate was drafting rules for his impeachment trial, Sen. Paul Manglona exposed a document indicating Torres’s attorney – Viola Alepuyo – had participated in the drafting of the rules. Those rules did pass, and lean extraordinarily in favor of the governor. His cronies nearly mustered the votes necessary to dismiss the articles of impeachment.

The governor instead has been hiding behind his attorneys, and his team has pushed political appointees to the front of the issue to defend him. About 50 of his supporters were at the courthouse waiting for him to exit the courtroom. When he did, they – including former Guam Sen. Wil Castro (now his chief of staff), Sen. Vinnie Sablan, and Department of Public Safety Commissioner Robert Guerrero – greeted the somber-looking governor, and followed him down the stairs.

Mr. Castro refused to make any comment.

Mr. Torres is the first sitting governor of the Commonwealth – and only the second sitting governor of the Mariana Islands – to be criminally charged in office. The late Guam Gov. Ricardo J. Bordallo was indicted on corruption charges by the U.S. Attorney in August 1986, just days before the primary election. Mr. Bordallo lost reelection that year and went on to face the charges in trial, where he was convicted. Some charges were overturned on appeal, but it was too late. The governor had taken his life with a gunshot to the head the day he was supposed to surrender to federal marshals to go to prison in California.

Mr. Torres may very well face federal corruption charges. His office and his home, among other places, were raided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on November 7, 2019. Documents related to that reveal persons of interest included the governor, and that the federal statutes involved included money laundering, wire fraud, fraud, and foreign interference in a United States election.

The U.S. Attorney the past three years has refused to answer questions related to the raid, or whether federal charges are pending.

Mr. Torres is the only American governor at this time facing criminal charges. He also is running for reelection.

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